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Exposure Tutorial Part Two: What is Shutter Speed?

February 23, 2012

I hope you all were able to take some time to play around with aperture priority mode since the previous blog post!

We know that aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together to create exposure.  In this blog post we are going to talk a bit about shutter speed and how your choice of shutter speed affects your photos.

What is shutter speed? It’s quite simple. Shutter speed is just the length of time that the shutter is open, allowing light to reach the sensor of the camera. The longer the shutter is open, the more light enters your camera, and the shorter the shutter is open, the less light enters your camera. Shutter speeds are mostly expressed in fractions of a second. For example, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, etc. The bigger the denominator, the smaller the value is. So 1/500 is a faster shutter speed than 1/60.

Why would you want to control shutter speed? While it might be nice to have more light enter your camera, like with a shutter speed of 1/60, it also means that it is a slower shutter speed. When your shutter speed is slower, you are more likely to have motion blur in your photos. All of those blurry indoor photos you might have been capturing may very well be because your camera has been choosing a shutter speed that is too slow. If the camera senses that there isn’t enough light, it often chooses a slower shutter speed to compensate, and your adorable toddler running around the room turns into an indiscernible blur.  Additionally, if your shutter speed is too slow, you can introduce camera shake.  Camera shake can be avoided by using a tripod, but let’s be honest…with kids around, when is THAT going to happen?!?

The following examples are extremes, but they show the difference between a slow shutter speed and a fast.  One shows the motion (in an unattractive way, I might add!) and one freezes the motion:

When you are deciding what shutter speed to choose, you need to think about what you are hoping to capture in your picture. Do you want to freeze movement or show movement with blur? Keep in mind that if you want to show movement with blur, it should look intentional, and the only blurry part of the photo should be that moving item (A common time to use a slow shutter speed to capture movement might be if you want to photograph a waterfall and have the water look silky-smooth).

Most of the time when I’m photographing my children I am trying to freeze the motion. For example, they might be running around the living room with a toy, splashing water in the water table outside, and swinging and sliding at the playground. In order to freeze the motion with kids, I really try to stay at shutter speeds of 1/125 or faster (1/125, 1/250, 1/500 etc).

Swing photo settings: 50 mm focal length, ISO 200, F/4, Shutter Speed of 1/800

~Lighting conditions: bright cloudy day, therefore I chose ISO 200~

~F/4 is a fairly wide open aperture to blur the background~

 ~I wanted to freeze the action, so I used a very fast shutter speed of 1/800 second~

If you want to play around with shutter speed, change your camera’s mode dial to Shutter Priority mode (S on Nikon or Tv on Canon) Find someone/something who is moving around quickly, and try a variety of shutter speeds. When I was learning, I practiced simply by photographing my hand waving quickly in front of the camera.

Water photo: 50 mm, ISO 100, F/5, Shutter Speed of 1/800

~Lighting conditions: bright sunny day, therefore I chose ISO 100~

~F/5 is a moderately wide open aperture, so it somewhat blurs the background~

~I wanted to freeze the action and show the water droplets, so I used a very fast shutter speed of 1/800 second~

Here’s a little cheat sheet to keep on hand while you’re practicing.  We encourage you to keep this in the front part of your notebook for reference.  If you attend our local club, we’ll have printed copies ready for you on March 1st.  Live far away?  Here’s the 4×6 card in PDF form, Shutter Speed PDF


Next up, ISO.  (In my opinion, ISO is the easiest aspect of the exposure triangle to understand!)

~Posted by Sonja (MWAC host)

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