Shutter Speed Simplified

When it comes to photography there are two main things that you need to get your head around. Today we’re looking at Shutter Speed.

(The other one’s aperture by the way). By balancing shutter speed and aperture together correctly you can create the effect you want, whilst gaining the correct exposure for your images. In this guide, though we are going to focus on shutter speed to begin with.

Shutter Speed can be simply explained using these two statements;

The lower the number the slower the shutter speed, the slower the shutter speed the more blur the camera will capture.
The higher the number the faster the shutter speed. The faster the shutter speed the less blur the camera will capture.

Shutter speed is used to control the amount of light entering the camera and also the amount of movement you see within an image. It can be a little tricky to fully appreciate the effects of the shutter speed. You want to venture out to a place with plenty of people or traffic to have a look for yourself at how it works. The best way to understand how a different shutter speed affects your photos is to pick up your camera and give it a go.

However, if you are a little uncomfortable doing this in a public place with lots of people, then you can do the same practice at home, you will just need a willing assistant to walk, run, or ride past you a few times – whilst you play around with your shutter speed.

shutter speed red trail light trailing through a countryside road at night

Playing with Shutter Speed

There is a little exercise you can do to really help you grasp shutter speed and the effect it has on your images, (this is the same exercise you will find in the module 4 assignment).

Note: if you don’t have a digital SLR camera you may not have as many shutter speed settings available for you to use.

Before you start, you want to ensure that the flash is off, and you have set your camera to shutter priority mode. This allows the camera to choose the aperture for you so that you can focus (for the moment) on the shutter speed.

To best understand how shutter speed works, you want to choose a subject that is moving – and as mentioned earlier, this could be a busy street or road. However, if you don’t feel confident enough to do this right away, you could just get a friend or family member to be your moving subject.

Once you have your subject chosen and your camera set to shutter priority, you will want to set your camera on a tripod or sturdy surface, to keep it nice and steady.

The reason for this additional support is due to the fact that camera shake is likely to occur with slower shutter speeds. However, if neither are available to you, you can hand hold the camera – but the slower shutter speeds are likely to have additional blur caused by camera shake.

shutter speed ferris wheel in motion at night

Follow These Steps

1. Position yourself so you have a clear view of your chosen moving object, and set the shutter speed to the fastest speed available to you.

2. Focus on the area your subject will be in and then take a picture as it passes through the frame.

3. Then, staying where you are and keeping the exact same framing, set the shutter speed to the slowest speed available.

4. Then using the same area of focus, focus the image and take another picture as the subject passes through the frame again.

When comparing the two shots on the camera you should be able to see a clear difference between the two images. To really show you how the shutter speed gradually affects an image, you can set the image up again – but this time take 5-10 photos, each time halving the shutter.

For example, if the first photograph was taken at 1/4000th, take the second one at 1/2000th, then 1/1000th, 1/500th, 1/250th, 1/125th, 1/60th, 1/30th and so on. Repeat this until overexposure occurs.

Here is an example of the image progression you are likely to see that we took using a toy car;

car shutter speed diagram blur settings
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Effects on Water

Every camera is slightly different however so you may need to have a look at the different shutter speed you have available to you. Some compact and bridge cameras will be limited in the number of shutter speeds available.

You may have noticed that because you are working in shutter priority mode the camera selects the aperture for you and changes as you change the shutter speed. As you vary the amount of light entering your camera, different apertures are needed to create the correct exposure.

The less light you let in (using a fast shutter speed) the wider the aperture needs to be and vice-versa.

Carrying out this sort of exercise will show you how you can capture motion blur whilst having a fixed point of focus, the background. This is just one of the techniques you can use shutter speed for though so don’t limit yourself to just this effect.

Slow shutter speeds are typically used in low light conditions as it helps more light hit the sensor and capture the image, but there are also so many fun techniques you can utilise the slow shutter speed for.

With this use of a long shutter speed, you can easily and simply create images that have pin sharp background with areas of motion within the image. You will have seen many pictures of running water made to look like milk or rough seas made to look smooth as silk. This is simply done by using a slow shutter speed.

ND Filters

When it comes to doing this for rivers and waterfalls during the day you may struggle to get the exposure right.

This is simple because you need a long shutter speed to get the blurred motion, when photographing in the day it is then easy to over expose the image. To counter this you can use a Neutral Density filter, or ND filter.

An ND filter is designed to reduce the amount of light that can get to the sensor and will help enable you to use slower shutter speeds during the middle of the day.

pier beach blue yellow water calm shutter speed slow
waterfall water green rocks moss calm slow shutter speed
lake water tree branch cloud smooth water slow shutter speed
lighthouse green white blue sky clouds blur slow shutter speed

Effects on Clouds

Another element you can play with then using a long shutter speed is clouds, just like water they are often moving and with a long shutter speed, you can capture a blur of clouds.

This straightforward use of shutter speed can add atmosphere to an image, making it a little different and unique.

This is also a good style of image to demonstrate how an adjustment in shutter speed can increase the motion within an image and also how it also affects the exposure of the image.

This first image shows a small amount of blur in the clouds with the fixed point of the image being the Lighthouse. 

This second image is the same subject again (the lighthouse).

However, this time you will notice the lighthouse is a lot lighter and much more white and vibrant along with all the other colours in the image.

Also with this, the longer shutter speed has captured a larger blur of the clouds moving.


Panning is the technique of following a subject as it moves, so whereas the other technique kept the background froze with the subject blurred, Panning tries to do the opposite, keeping the subject sharp whilst creating a blurred background.

You might like to know that even experts in photography still struggle with this technique, it takes a great deal of practice to get right. So don’t worry if it takes you a lot of images to get just one that is only vaguely right, I had a lot of trouble getting it right as it requires a lot of trial and error!

In order to pan with a camera you simply select a slightly slower shutter speed and follow the subject as it moves past you by swivelling the camera – keeping the subject in focus at all times and pressing the shutter button as you pan.

panning camera photography diagram car red

A lot of the time it is down to the speed at which you move the camera that can make or break the shot. Too fast and it will all be blurred, too slow and it will also be blurred. It takes practice and patience but can produce some brilliant images. You could have someone riding a bike or even walking through the frame, just give it a go and you’ll soon start to get the hang of it!

To the left is a diagram that shows how the panning technique works.

To get the right results, you really want your camera on a tripod to start with, this will help to keep it level removing the risk of getting addition motion blur.

Then as your subject moves through the frame, you turn your camera and follow it whilst the shutter is open.

Now where panning gets a little tricky is that there are no perfect settings that will guarantee the technique will work.

Here are 3 images all taken with the same shutter speed but all offer different results:

car shutter speed orange blur toy example photography


ghosting people grand central station black and white
london ghosting st pauls cathedral millenium bridge people blur motion

Ghosting is a slightly more advanced technique, which can be used to remove people from an image entirely if you wanted to. Photographers of architecture, who want to eliminate the people from the building they are photographing, often use this technique so that they don’t have to get a build or street closed off to get the image they want.

But you can do more than remove people from an image, you can use a slow shutter speed to cause the subject of your image to appear like ghosts, leaving a mere imprint of themselves within the frame. You can also use this technique to create a sense of hustle and bustle somewhere busy; you can have a few people standing still, who are sharp, with blurred people moving all around.

To create this effect successfully you will need to use a long shutter speed, but you need to bear in mind that with shutter speeds slower than 1/30th camera shake is highly likely. This could then produce blurring throughout the whole image causing the image to look messy instead of professional and impressive. At this point you will want to consider using a tripod or some kind of solid surface to support your camera.

Using Flash

You may also consider combining the use of a slow shutter speed and your camera built-in flash.

For example if you use the flash with a 3 second exposure you will find that the flash only goes off once during the 3 seconds that the shutter is open. This helps to capture the person in their entirety, whilst not capturing a full solid version of them, therefore creating another kind of ghostly image. For this technique however, you will need it to be relatively dark otherwise there may be too much light causing the image to be over exposed.

runner blur park flash

Light Trails

Light trails is another style of images you will see a lot of, it is a fun technique and there are so many cool affects that you can create. There is the simple and very common image or car lights which can be captured in some really creative ways if you consider your angle and composition carefully. But this is just of the many tricks you can do with light painting. A long shutter speed enables you to capture so many types of light in so many ways, here are just a few ideas;

light trails red white road cars long exposure
man dance light trails hoodie hat black grey blue

Fast Shutter Speed

You don’t have to just use the shutter speed on a slow setting though, there are also great images you can capture using a fast shutter speed. Freezing motion can produce images just as amazing as those that contain blurred motion. Faster shutter speeds are typically used in sport and nature photography to ensure that the action being caught is pin sharp and without blur.

When you are photographing a subject that may be moving but you want it to be very sharp and appear still then a fast shutter speed is essential to freeze its movement.

flag blue freeze sky wave
kids children football sunset action sports silhouette dusk sky clouds blue golden hour

This use of a fast shutter speed will however reduce the amount of light entering the camera so you will need to counter it with a lower aperture, if you are using manual settings that is.

With fast shutter speeds the cameras shutter can be open for a tiny fraction of a second meaning you can capture some things that not even the naked eye can see. An example of such things is a water drop as it drops and splashes on water.

Along with being able to freeze water as it falls, the ability to control your shutter speed can also help to freeze the action of people moving, running, jumping and so on.

As we have said, the use of a faster shutter speed means the shutter of the camera is open for a fraction of a second so requires a large amount of light to hit the sensor in that split second, which is why you will often see shots like these capture on bright days. This increase in light means you are able to use very fast shutter speed to capture the image you want.

However do not be fooled into thinking this means you cannot freeze action in low light conditions, it is possible, it just requires a bit of tweaking of your other camera settings.

Trial and Error

Increasing the ISO will help the sensor to be more sensitive to the light.
Decreasing the aperture will increase the amount of light let it.

You may consider using external flashes to help add a little more light to the picture. Using a wider angle lens or focal length will help add more light as well. All of these factors can be manipulated to help produce the image and results you want. But there is really no limit to what you can do.

Once you learn the balance between shutter speed and aperture it will become second nature to you. Whilst learning these two aspects of photography, I would always suggest to focus on one and how it works, then the other as individual aspects. Then once you are getting to grips with them try combining the two.

The best way to learn all these aspects of photography though is to get out there and practise. Trial and error is the best way to gain experience and understanding of how the shutter speed affects the camera and the resulting image.

So the key things to remember with shutter speed;

Motion Blur

The lower the number the slower the shutter speed, the slower the shutter speed the more blur the camera will capture.

Freeze Frame

The higher the number the faster the shutter speed. The faster the shutter speed the less blur the camera will capture.

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