For any beginning student of photography, one of the most important aspects to comprehend is that of a camera’s shutter speed. Along with aperture and ISO, shutter speed is one of the three manual variables within a camera that controls the look and feel of a photograph. You have probably seen the shutter of a camera working in action before; it’s the small curtain made of metal or plastic that lies directly behind the glass of a lens and in front of a camera’s sensor.

Behind the glass of this lens, the mechanism of the camera’s shutter is visible.

What is shutter speed

Shutter speed simply refers to the amount of time a piece of film or a digital sensor is exposed to incoming light. The amount of light that reaches the film or sensor is directly correlated to the amount of time the shutter of a camera is left open. Because of this fact, the longer the shutter speed, the lighter an image will be; likewise, shorter shutter speeds result in darker images overall. For this reason, the setting of a camera’s shutter speed has a great impact on the outcome of a photograph

There are standard shutter speeds that are included on virtually every camera available for purchase. With each shutter setting, the amount of exposure time is roughly doubled or halved, depending on whether the photographer chooses increase or decrease the speed. Though shutter speed is generally measured in mere fractions of a second, the difference in a photograph between what seems to be a negligible amount of time can be dramatic.

Short shutter speeds can completely freeze action in place.

Shutter speed, more than a functionality?

Shutter speed has more uses to it than pure functionality. The length of a shutter speed directly correlates with the amount of motion captured within a still photograph. A short shutter speed can be used to completely freeze objects in motion in place. For this reason, short shutter speeds are often used in photojournalism and sports photography. Subjects such as a basketball player jumping in mid air can be suspended in place in poses that are impossible to hold.

Quick shutter speeds can even be used for scientific purposes to study movements that cannot be seen with the human eye. One of the earliest and most famous uses of high-speed photography can be seen in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiment meant to examine the individual movements of a galloping horse. Today, the technique is used to produce slow motion sequences for both artistic and educational purposes.

Long exposures can be used to capture nightscapes and create incredible effects, such as star trails.

Long shutter speed

Long shutter speeds, on the other hand, inherently capture motion blur. Sometimes, this can be detrimental; getting a clear shot from a handheld camera with a shutter speed under 1/60 of a second is almost impossible. Therefore, photographers must be careful to either utilize a tripod or be wary of the shutter speed they’re using. However, there are some photographers that purposely utilize motion blur. Unlike fast shutter speeds, which perfectly hold a person in place, slow shutter speeds can be used to suggest the presence of movement. For instance, cars driving along a highway captured by a camera set to a slow shutter speed will appear as dramatic streaks as the camera captures the movement of the vehicles headlights. Though long shutter speeds may be technically troublesome, they are often used in the production of fine art imagery. Motion blur can even be further accentuated by panning the camera in the direction of the moving object, throwing the background into a blur rather than the object in motion.

Automatic settings

When taking photographs on an automatic setting, the camera makes a decision on what your shutter speed should be depending on the light in your surroundings. However, what the camera decides may not always be in line with what you have in mind for an image. This can be solved by simply going into the camera’s manual setting and adjusting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO with the help of the DSLR’s internal exposure bracket. For photographers on the move, however, this option isn’t always wise; instead, you can switch to a setting known as shutter priority mode. This way, you can set your desired shutter speed and the camera will automatically adjust its aperture and ISO to create a well-exposed image.

Slow shutter speeds capture motion blur and can be used for artistic purposes to imply motion.

For customized long exposures, there are two settings that are important to take into consideration. The BULB (B) option keeps the camera’s shutter open for as long as you choose to hold down the shutter release button. TIME (T), on the other hand, keeps the shutter curtains open completely unattended, only closing once the shutter release is pressed down a second time. Using the BULB and TIME settings, it is possible to take exposure that last minutes or even hours. Even dark nighttime environments can be brought into view with the help of long exposure photography.

Mastering shutter speed is a process that takes quite a bit of time and practice to master completely. But with the above information in conjunction with camera manuals and resources available at the touch of a button, understanding shutter speed is easier than it ever has been.