Introduction To Shutter Speed

How To Use Shutter Speed To Control Your Digital Camera

The three components of exposure are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Choosing Shutter Priority
On a Canon, shutter speed priority is “Tv” (time value). Other cameras may show it as “S”.

The second component, shutter speed, works in conjunction with aperture and ISO to get the correct exposure for a picture. When you set your camera to Shutter Priority (A or Tv on the mode dial), you select the shutter speed, and your camera will adjust the aperture accordingly. You can also set the ISO independently, and the camera will make adjustments as well. Sounds kind of complicated, but with a bit of practice, it will all make sense.

Shutter Speed in simple terms:

Shutter speedis almost self explanatory. It is how fast the shutter opens and closes or simply stated, how long the shutter is open. When the shutter is open, light is allowed to enter and strike the image sensor. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is allowed in. So if your subject is in a brightly lit area, the shutter does not have to open for as long as if the subject is in a darker area.

Using Fast Shutter Speed
Bright light will let you choose a very fast shutter speed to freeze action. In this photo, the shutter speed was 1/1000 second.

You can set your camera on the Shutter Speed priority mode by selecting “S” or “Tv” on the mode dial. When you do this, you get to choose a shutter speed, and your camera will set the aperture to get the correct exposure.

Shutter speed is one of the keys to getting a sharp photograph. The shorter shutter speeds will produce sharper images than long shutter speeds simply because you have less camera movement in shorter times.

Imagine it like this. You try to stand on one leg without moving at all. Chances are you can hold steady for a second or so, but the longer you try to stay steady, the greater are the chances that you will start to waver.

With shutter speed, you can hold your camera steady for only short periods without movement. Most of us are not as “rock solid” as we might imagine. The amount of time a normal person can hold their camera steady is far shorter than the one second time just mentioned. In fact, shutter speeds are usually measured in fractions of a second. You will see numbers like 1/2000 of a second or 1/60 of a second. The smaller fractions (1/2000 second is much smaller than 1/60 second) will give you much more of a chance to get a blur-less photo.

Believe it or not, it is quite difficult to hold the camera steady for 1/4 second. You may want to choose 1/60 second or faster in order to avoid a blurred photo.

If you are choosing a shutter speed when hand-holding your camera, try to get as fast a shutter speed as possible to insure a sharper image. When situations require longer shutter speeds (like when the subject is not well lit) you should think of a way to steady your camera. Using a tripod or bracing your camera against a tree are two good strategies.

Using shutter speed to stop the action.

You can use fast shutter speeds to freeze the action. Of course, it depends on how fast the subject is moving, but in general (and this is not a hard and fast rule), shutter speeds of 1/200 second and faster will do a pretty good job of freezing your subject and getting a sharp image. This works in action photos like soccer and other sports.

Using shutter speed to blur the action.

Use fast shutter speed to freeze action
Using a fast shutter speed will freeze the action.

This is a photography trick used by many nature photographers. You have probably seen photos of water where the water is rushing around rocks in a river or creek and the water seems silky smooth. This is done with a slow shutter speed. The water is actually blurred because of the slow shutter speed.

using a slow shutter speed blurs fast moving water
Using a slow shutter speed will blur the fast moving water, giving the image a silky looking appearance.

Another way to see this blurred photo action is to find a subject you can control such as a bicycle wheel. Turn the bike upside down and spin the wheel while your camera is in a steady position (like on a tripod). Use a slow shutter speed while the wheel is spinning. You will not be able to distinguish the spokes of the wheel. Try it again with a fast shutter speed and note the differences.

Using controlled situations like this can help you understand what will happen when you increase or decrease your camera’s shutter speed.

Panning with slow shutter speeds.

Using shutter speed with a moving camera
image by Dr Joseph Valks courtesy of

Another photography trick is to take the picture while you camera is moving along with the subject. You have seen this in sports photos with runners or fast cars. The background is blurred but the subject is sharp.

This is done with slow shutter speed and a moving camera. The idea is to focus on a moving object and move your camera horizontally with the same speed and direction as the subject. Try this with a tripod, loosening the horizontal movement setting on the tripod. With this method, use a smooth side motion as your subject passes in front of the lens. Press the shutter button part-way to lock focus on the moving subject, then take the photo by pressing the shutter button completely down, but make sure you do not jam the button (this creates camera shake and will mess up your efforts for a sideways motion blur).

Using Shutter Speed Priority can be fun. But more importantly, it can help you to get the picture you envisioned before you pressed the shutter button.

Have you tried Shutter Priority yet? Please take the time to leave a comment that might add some insight or encouragement to others below.


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  • Sonia

    Thank you Wayne, these tips have been so helpful since I just received my rebel t3i for Christmas and I just recently have begun to experiment with it. It took me this long because I was so over whelmed I had no idea what I was doing. Please continue to educate us inspiring photographers!

    • wrasku

      Sonia, I wish you the best with your new camera. It does take awhile to get really comfortable with a new camera, but the end results are so worth the effort. Glad you stopped by.