In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to use shutter speed creatively to blur photos or freeze motion intentionally. You will learn about shutter speed, camera settings, motion, and how to use it for more creative photos.
What is the Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter inside your camera stays open during the exposure. It may also be called exposure time.
If you use a DSLR camera, the shutter is located behind the mirror you see when you take off your lens.
When you press the button to take a picture, the mirror flips out of the way and the shutter opens. If you shoot with a mirrorless camera you may not see the shutter when you remove the lens, but it’s there!
As I mentioned earlier, in Shutter Priority mode you can choose the shutter speed you want for a shot.
The shutter speed usually ranges from about 1/8000th of a second on the fast end to 30 seconds on the long/slow end (will likely be displayed as 30″ on your camera), and finally, to Bulb (infinite).
In Bulb mode, the shutter stays open as long as the shutter button is held down (or locked with a remote) so you can do exposures of several minutes or longer. The examples below were exposed for well past the longest shutter speed the camera was able to time, so Bulb Mode was used.
The shots above are fairly advanced techniques.
Do NOT worry if you aren’t there yet, this is just to show you what’s possible using a long exposure or slow shutter speed.
How to Set Your Shutter SpeedWhich end of the shutter speed range you shoot at will determine if you can freeze a moving subject or if it will blur.Click To Tweet
Which end of the shutter speed range you shoot at will determine if you can freeze a moving subject or if it will blur.
Towards the fastest end (1/8000th) you can freeze motion on just about anything including a speeding car, or even a bullet (flash is needed for that)!
Usually, the shutter speed is easily adjusted by turning a dial or wheel on the camera. Again, consult your camera’s user manual. But ideally, you want to know how to adjust it without taking the camera away from your eye.
HINT: To become one with your camera – use it every day!
Camera Mode Setting
Using a Digital SLR or mirrorless camera gives you the ability to control how your scene is captured based on your interpretation, but you also need to know how to use the settings on the camera to your advantage. Most cameras have several different shooting modes, including:
- Aperture Priority Mode – Av on Canon, A on Nikon, may vary for other brands.
- Shutter Priority Mode – Tv on Canon cameras (which stands for “time value”) and S on Nikons.
- Manual Mode – M on most cameras.
- Program – P on most cameras.
Read more: To learn more about each of these modes read Real Photographers Only Shoot in Manual Mode – NOT! (there’s also a handy cheat sheet that will help you understand them all and pick the best one for each scene you’re shooting)
In Shutter Priority Mode you select shutter speed you want to use and the camera will select an appropriate aperture to make the correct exposure. You also select the ISO (the camera’s sensitivity level to light), including choosing Auto ISO, when using this shooting mode.
If you use a Canon you will see something similar to one of these dials on the top of your camera.
If you use a Nikon you will see something similar to one of these:
Notice in the image of the dials above there are four settings separated from the rest inside a box or outline.
The ones mentioned above, P, S/Tv, A/Av, and M are the most creative modes and give you the most control over your camera and your final image.
The other modes that are represented by the little icons are pre-programmed automatic modes where the camera picks all the settings for you. It’s hit and miss whether you get a good photo or have it come out as you intended. As you move from using mostly Auto you will want more control, so gradually work on using the settings outlined above more often.
What mode to choose?
Many people prefer shooting in fully manual mode (M) but I usually choose one of the other two options, Aperture Priority (Av or A) or Shutter Priority (T or Tv).
That is because it allows me to shoot faster and not have to worry as much about whether or not the exposure will be correct.
However, I still review my images periodically and check the histogram to ensure I’m getting a good exposure.
If you are comfortable shooting in Manual Mode then go for it! All that means is that you are choosing all three aspects of the Exposure Triangle: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
In the other two modes you choose the ISO, pick either your shutter speed or your aperture and the camera picks the other one. So for the topic of this article, controlling motion, you will want to choose Shutter Priority.
What is Camera Shake?
As you move toward slower shutter speeds moving objects will start to blur. Past a certain point, you will also need to use a tripod because you can’t handhold the camera steady for longer exposures. That is called camera shake, and it just means you can’t keep your hands steady enough during the exposure to maintain sharpness.
How to eliminate camera shake
There is something called the Reciprocal Rule that will help you determine the minimum shutter speed you can shoot at without a tripod. It goes like this.
The general rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed faster than ONE over the focal length of your lens to avoid blurriness from camera shake.
So if you are using a 35mm lens go ahead and shoot at 1/30th, you’ll probably be fine. But as you zoom in or put on a longer lens, everything is magnified including the slightest shake of your hands or any movement. So 1/200th or faster is best for a 200mm lens.
NOTE: If you are using a crop sensor camera, you also have to factor in the amount of the crop factor. So if you have a camera with a 1.5x factor, multiply the focal length by that number to get your minimum shutter speed. Now with that 200mm lens, you need to shoot at 1/300th or faster (200 x 1.5).
Moving Water and Shutter Speed
Moving water is a great subject because you have the choice of freezing it or allowing it to blur intentionally.
Let’s look at how different the resulting images are when you change the shutter speed and nothing else. Below are some samples I took of a flowing river.
The image above was taken at 1/100th of a second which makes the water appear mostly frozen. You can see individual splashes and water drops close up.
The next one below was shot at 2.5 seconds. See how the water now appears flowier and creamier? Two totally different looks and images from the same scene.
Neither image is right or wrong, they are just different. It depends on how you want the final image to appear and the feeling you want it to have.
For sports photography, you usually want to freeze the action so you catch the peak moments sharply. But sometimes you want to allow the subject to blur. That helps make the subject look like it’s going fast so the viewer gets a sense of speed.
Water takes on an almost mystical quality when using longer shutter speeds. Try using a tripod and an even longer exposure like 2-10 seconds and see what happens.
In another example, the ISO remained the same for all four images below. But look at the exposure information carefully. As I adjusted the shutter speed, what else do you notice that also changed?
As I adjusted the shutter speed from 1/640th to 1/20th I was letting more light into the camera because the shutter was opened for longer. So to compensate and maintain the correct exposure, the camera has closed down the aperture each time (f/4 > f/8 > f/22).
The aperture has changed from f/4 to f/22 to compensate. The larger aperture (f/4) allows more light in through the lens. So as the exposure got longer (more light entering the camera) the camera balanced this change by closing down the aperture (to f/22) to let in less light.
In order to get the last image, I had to attach a Neutral Density filter to the front of the lens. The ISO was already as low as it can go, and the aperture didn’t have any smaller settings. So if I had just changed the shutter speed without the filter the image would have been overexposed.
A Neutral Density Filter is used to cut down the amount of light entering the lens. It’s simply a dark grey filter that is like putting sunglasses on your camera, it cuts the amount of light coming through the lens.
Here’s another example with a different kind of water.
This was a big fountain in a public park and I was playing around with different settings. The difference here is really obvious.
I could have closed the aperture to a smaller one but I wanted only the front water droplets to be sharp. Notice the bokeh (out of focus blobs) that appear in the background now!
However, if I did want more of the image in focus and had changed the aperture to say f/8 what else would I have had to change? Hint: what’s the other part of the exposure triangle beside the shutter speed and the aperture? If you aren’t sure, see the diagram below.
The Exposure Triangle
Do you see the relationship between the three things: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture? It’s like a three-way teeter-totter. If you increase one, the other must go down to keep balance and maintain the proper exposure.
Moving Subjects and Shutter Speed
Let’s look at some shots I did of other kinds of moving subjects.
Option #1 – the camera stays steady
The first option you have when photographing moving subjects is to keep the camera steady, ideally using a tripod. This will cause any moving subjects to blur, and any stationary objects to be sharp, as in the examples below.
I was not using a tripod here (it’s not allowed) and I stayed at this subway station for several minutes trying to get a good shot.
So what I did was I braced myself against one of the posts, tucked my elbows into my ribs, and shot several frames in a row in burst (continuous) mode. Some of them are blurry, but I managed to get a few sharp.
TIP: That’s a little trick you can use if you don’t have a tripod! Take several in a row and usually at least one will be sharp.
Notice in the shot above that a man in a yellow shirt has moved into the frame. I like how his shirt and the yellow line on the ground sort of match and add balance to the image. This one is a winner!
Keep in mind, I shot 42 images over a span of 10 minutes and several trains coming and going to get ONE shot!
So do not beat yourself up if you don’t get what you want on the first try! Photography is a process, you don’t get there overnight and you rarely get it on the first shot.
Here are some other examples where using a long exposure has captured some kind of moving subject.
That is me being lit by some of my workshop attendees that outlined me with a sparkler, lit me using a flash, and lit the ground with a flashlight. That was a group effort!
NOTICE: like the cars in the image above you do not see any other people, even though there were in and out of the scene. Because they were in motion the entire time AND did not light themselves, they did NOT appear in the shot. Which leads me to this…
You can also use a long exposure to eliminate unwanted people in your shots.
Option #2 – Move the Camera
Yes, I said move the camera. This is called intentional camera movement and has a few applications. You can do any of the following:
- Zoom the lens during the exposure.
- Panning the camera.
- Tilt, rotate or move the camera in one direction.
You can read more about these techniques by clicking on the links above. Panning is the one I use most often. It works really well with moving cars or traffic of any kind.
Application and Practice
The biggest thing about learning something new in photography is getting out and actually applying your knowledge and trying it out for yourself in the field.
You will learn far more by doing than by reading. So print this article out if you need to but get out and find a moving target and try this out for yourself.
Share three images, showing your subject frozen, blurred and panned in the comment area below. Tell me about what worked and what didn’t. What challenges or issues did you have?
If you have any questions about applying this information please post a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer it for you.
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