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Understanding Shutter Speed

Interested in learning more about how to Move to Manual? Check out A Day With Amy: Photography Workshop | ONLINE where I cover all of this and more in a series of live classes (8 hours of instruction!) teaching you everything you need to shoot in manual and start taking amazing images!

One attendee wrote: “The online workshop with Amy Earle is phenomenal! I successfully moved over to manual mode the second meeting of our online workshop (this was after 5 months of my own reading and researching). I highly recommend Amy’s workshop! My images have improved so much in such a short time frame. Amy is very patient and down-to-earth. Best money I have spent in a while!!”

I sure look forward to writing these posts and I know Courtney does too! I hope they are helpful to you on your journey to learn photography, create beautiful images, and capture memories. Make sure you check out the post Courtney wrote last week about understanding aperture and depth of field as all these posts build on each other.

Do you remember the last post I wrote about finding great light? I mentioned that photography comes from the Greek word for light. Finding great light is an important step for creating a beautiful image, but you also have to understand how that light gets to your camera’s sensor and how it affects your pictures.

The amount of light that enters your camera will determine your exposure. If too much light enters, your image will be over-exposed. If too little light enters, your image will be under-exposed. There are two ways that you can control how much (or how little) light enters your camera: aperture and shutter speed. Courtney talked about aperture last week and this week I’m going to discuss shutter speed.

A quick preview of shutter speed:

  • When you press the shutter button on your camera, it opens and closes your shutter for a predetermined about of time.
  • How long your shutter is open is called your shutter speed.
  • Shutter speed is measured in time. Typically in seconds or fractions of a second.
  •  The longer your shutter is open, the more light is let into your camera. (The faster your shutter speed, the less light.)
  • Shutter speed is responsible for recording motion in your image.

Take a moment and go get your camera. I want you to play with your shutter speed settings for a minute. Change your settings, see what shutter speeds your camera is capable of.

You probably have numbers that look like 1/200 (which is read: one two hundredth of a second) or 1/1200 (one twelve hundredth of a second) or 1/4 (one fourth of a second). (NOTE: some cameras will leave off the “1/” and just write the denominator. But remember you are still dealing with fractions.) What do those numbers mean? These numbers are the amount of time that the shutter is going to stay open. 1/200 means that the shutter will be open for one two hundredth of a second. That’s pretty fast.

Fast shutter speeds are used to freeze time. To capture the water suspended in time in this image (straight out of camera) of Courtney’s Little Man and my Miss B, I used a shutter speed of 1/1250. In that split second, my camera recorded each water droplet exactly where it was in that moment of time.

You also have numbers that look like 1″ (one second), 5″ (five seconds), 30″ (30 seconds). Rather than fractions of a second, the ” sign denotes full seconds.

Slow shutter speeds are used to show motion in an image. The sensor in your camera captures everything that happens when the shutter is open. If it is open for a short amount of time, it freezes time like in the image above. When a shutter is open for a longer amount of time, it captures all the motion that occurs while it is open. I took the image below 18 months ago when I first started teaching others about photography to show how a slow shutter speed captures motion and movement in a photo. My camera was on a tripod and my husband was holding a glow stick. My shutter speed was set at 4″ (four seconds). After I pushed the shutter button,  he drew a heart in the air with the stick. My camera’s sensor captured all the movement that occurred in that 4″.

There are a ton of gorgeous images out there that demonstrate slow shutter speed photography if you google it. Beautiful soft waterfalls where the water appears to be moving, freeways at night time where white headlights and red taillights are a blur along the road, star trails in the night sky. All these are captured using a shutter speed set slow enough to record the movement of the scene.

(You probably also have a setting called “bulb”. In bulb your shutter will stay open from the time you press the shutter button until you push it a second time to close it. It’s best to use a tripod and remote for this setting.)

When I first got my DSLR, my images often looked like this one of Miss B. Here she was 3 months old and very wiggly. The day took this picture, I had shot a whole series of pictures. At the end of the session I was particularly frustrated. None of the images had turned out. Many of the images would have been perfect if not for the blur of her hands and/or feet. I didn’t understand what was wrong.

After some googling and lots of study, I realized that my images were turning out like this because my shutter speed was too slow. I was new on my photography journey and always had my camera in program mode. (The only difference between program mode and AUTO for me was that I had programed my camera not to use my flash.) By setting my camera to program mode, I was allowing it to make all the decisions. It had set my shutter speed to 1/40th of a second which was slow enough to capture the blur of Miss B’s wiggly hands. My camera didn’t know what I was taking a picture of. For all it knew, I could have wanted to capture the movement of her hands. This is why it is so important to start learning how to use your camera in manual mode. It’s the best way to consistently get the pictures you want.

NOTE: When I’m taking pictures of wiggly children (like my own Miss B), I keep my shutter speed set at 1/200 or faster to avoid blur in my images.

It’s important to remember that not only does your shutter speed record motion, it also lets light into your camera. If you let too much light in (with a slow shutter speed), your image will be over exposed. If you let too little light in (with a fast shutter speed), your image will be under exposed. This is part of the dance of using your camera in manual.

For now, practice using your camera in “S” mode (for Nikon users) or “Tv” mode (for Canon users). This will allow you to set your shutter speed while your camera makes the other decisions for you.

This week use your “S” or “Tv” mode to capture a few different types of images.

Try a slower shutter speed to capture movement. My kids like when I get images of them darting across the room while I’m using a slow shutter speed. They look like they are running at supersonic speeds. When you are using speeds slower than 1/50, you may get some blur in your images due to camera shake (this comes from even the slightest movements you make which will then move the camera if it is handheld). It’s best to use a tripod for slower speeds. If you don’t have a tripod, you can place your camera on a counter or a stack of books.

Try a faster shutter speed to freeze time. Have your kiddos splash water or jump up high and catch them suspended in air. Shutter speed is a blast to experiment with!

Have fun this week! Courtney will be back next week to discuss ISO!

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February 27, 2012 - 3:15 am

Amy - So, I am pretty sure I’m adjusting the shutter speed right but I am getting black pictures if I use anything over 40. I’m thinking it’s because I’m playing around with the shutter speed in awful light. If I try later in the day when I can get good sunlight in the windows, do you think I’ll have better luck? Thanks for the explanation of shutter speed! It’s really easy to understand!

February 27, 2012 - 9:09 am

Courtney - Are you using your camera in Shutter Speed mode like we did last week with Aperture? Try that first! That lets the camera make the choices on your ISO and Aperture. We’re going to merge it all together in a couple of weeks!

February 27, 2012 - 11:30 am

Rach (DonutsMama) - Thanks for this explanation. It really made sense. I’m SO new to the game that I need explanations to be as simple as possible. I’m going to start practicing this week!

February 27, 2012 - 12:00 pm

Amy Earle | Simply b Photos - Courtney is right. while you are playing with Shutter Speed, it is best to put your camera into “S’ or “Tv” mode which allows you to set the shutter speed but gives your camera the rest of the control. You also have to make sure that you the right light. If you are trying to use a fast shutter speed (which lets in less light) in a low light environment, your images will be dark. Conversely, if you are trying to use a slow shutter speed (which lets in more light) in a bright light environment, your images will be too bright.

February 27, 2012 - 12:06 pm

Courtney - Excited to have you participating, girl! :) Don’t forget to upload your shots to Flickr Pool! :)

February 27, 2012 - 1:13 pm

Amy Earle | Simply b Photos - I’m glad it helped! I’m the same way. Simple is best for me too!

February 28, 2012 - 12:05 pm

Amy - OK. So, I tried playing with the shutter speed using my camera in Tv mode this afternoon with the sunlight coming in. . . and I guess the light was still too low to get it right, because all I got were dark, dark images. I’ll try again tomorrow! (the sun is going to start setting here soon. . . so ready for summer, when sunset isn’t at 4:30pm!) Your explanations make so much sense. . . I just can’t get the right practice in yet, I guess! I’ll keep trying! :)

February 28, 2012 - 1:58 pm

Amy Earle | Simply b Photos - What was your shutter speed when you were taking pictures in the sun? Are you able to get good images in Av mode?

February 28, 2012 - 6:22 pm

Carolyn - I’m getting a bit confused with Aperture and Shutter Speed because they both let in light, right? Which one should I be concerned with setting first?

February 28, 2012 - 6:33 pm

Amy Earle | Simply b Photos - They do both let in light. Which one you choose first depends on the type of image you are taking. When you are using the priority modes, “Av” “Tv” (Canon) or “A” “S” (Nikon) you only set one of them. If you are using aperture priority (aperture affects your depth of field) then you set your aperture for the type of picture you want. The smaller the number, the more shallow your depth of field. Your camera will tgen choose an appropriate shutter speed for you If you are using shutter speed priority (shutter speed captures motion) then you would set your shutter speed and let your camera make the rest of the decisions. We’ll be discussing putting it all together in an upcoming post.

February 29, 2012 - 3:48 am

Amy @mommetime - these tips are great and easy to understan… so glad I came across this on facebook. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I’m excited to practice.

February 29, 2012 - 8:05 am

Carolyn - Thanks.
This is all very helpful (posts + your answers).
I thought about it again and again last night. I think I need to tinker with my camera and it will become clearer. Of course, in order to do that I need a spare moment :)
Nap time today, I will play :)
Thanks again!

February 29, 2012 - 8:28 am

Jesse - I love to see your progression as a photographer, showing your photos pre-skills (new to photography) and photos you create now helps the newbie photographers of the world realize what we can acheive with practice, and the right skill set. Thanks for being an inspiration!

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