DSLR Photography 101: What is Shutter Speed?

Megan O'Neill


Last week we launched a new blog series on DSLR photography and introduced you to ISO, which determines how sensitive the sensor in your camera is to light. Today, we’re introducing you to the second manual setting on your DSLR camera that can help take your photography game to the next level – shutter speed.

When your camera fires, the shutter opens so that light can get to the sensor. The amount of time that the shutter remains open before closing again is the shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds freeze or stop action while slower shutter speeds will create motion blur. To understand what we mean, check out the images below, captured by our Consumer Customer Owner, Beth Forester. The shutter speed gets slower in each image as we move from left to right.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is generally measured in fractions of seconds (i.e. 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250). On DSLR cameras, typically only the fraction’s denominator is marked. For example, in the image below, the “60” in the upper left corner indicates a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second. The larger the denominator, the faster the shutter.

Shutter Speed 1/60

Most DSLR cameras have options for shutter speeds of one second or more as well. They are indicated on the camera as such: 1″, or 1 second (illustrated below). Shutter speeds of 1 second or more are generally used for low light situations such as night shots, for special effects such as light painting, for photographing fireworks, and for creating motion blur.

Shutter Speed 1"

Most of the time you will be using shutter speeds of 1/60 of a second or higher (or faster). If, however, you are using a shutter speed lower (or slower) than 1/60 of a second, you’ll want to use a tripod to stabilize the camera due to the fact that your hands will shake a bit when firing. Shaky hands at lower shutter speeds can make your images look blurry, or what some photographers refer to as “soft.”

Deciding what shutter speed to use

So how do you decide which shutter speed to use? The first things to ask yourself when deciding what shutter speed to use are:

  • Is the subject moving?
  • How fast is the subject moving?
  • Do I want to stop action or show movement?

You’ll want to use a faster shutter speed in situations where you want to freeze action in your photograph — for example, photographing sporting events, concerts, or wildlife. The jet ski image below was shot at 1/1000th of a second, freezing splashes of water droplets in mid-air.

Jet Ski Fast Shutter Speed

You’ll want to use a slower shutter speed when you want your image to capture motion or movement – for example, water streams and waterfalls look beautiful when shot at a slow shutter speed. Motion blur can be effective in communicating speed, as in the running image we looked at above above. It can also be effective in showing motion.

Using a tripod and a shutter speed of 1/2 second, the image below shows the movement of water through the rocks that are stable. Because the shutter was open while the water was moving, this motion was captured and comes through in the final image.

Water Moving Slow Shutter Speed

Recommended shutter speeds

Here are our recommendations for shutter speed in some situations you might encounter:

  • Moving water (blurred) – 1/2 second
  • People walking (blurred) – 1/4 second
  • Everyday snapshots of still subjects – 1/125 second
  • Freezing people walking – 1/250 second
  • Freezing slow moving animals – 1/250 second
  • Sporting events – 1/500 – 1/1000 second
  • Fast moving cars or motorcycles – 1/1000 seconds
  • Birds in flight – 1/2000 seconds

Shutter speed and ISO

Since we took a look at ISO last week, we wanted to explain a little bit about how shutter speed and ISO can be used in tandem. Sometimes you may want to freeze action in darker places and, as a result, your image may be underexposed. In order to achieve the look you want, you can increase your ISO to increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light in order to achieve the correct exposure while maintaining a fast shutter speed.

As we mentioned last week, what’s great about a DSLR camera is that you don’t have to wait to develop your film in order to see how your shot turned out. You can check your shot right away and, if it looks underexposed, overexposed, or simply didn’t turn out as you expected you can try again. Join us next week where we will discuss the third portion of the exposure triangle, aperture.

Using a DSLR camera? We’d love to see your shots. Share them with us in the comments below.

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