A Quick Introduction to Shutter Speed
Some product links are affiliate links but all are where I make my gear purchases. You can also find all of my photography gear recommendations here.
Early on, I found shutter speed to be the easiest of the photography components to understand intuitively. Shutter speed literally refers to how fast your shutter closes when you’re taking a photo. The faster the shutter speed, the more you can freeze a moment in time. When you’re ready to jump into shooting manually or with shutter priority mode, there are a lot of fun effects you can create once you learn the basics.
First things first, you got to make sure that you can get a crisp image. The rule of thumb for making sure that you don’t get shaky images is to multiply your focal length by 2. So for a 50mm prime lens, you wouldn’t want to shoot below 1/100 sec. For a 80mm prime lens, you wouldn’t want to shoot below 1/160 sec and so forth. This is a rough estimate but it’s a good starting point if you’re in a low light situation and trying to figure out the minimum shutter speed you can shoot at. The nice part of shooting digital is that you can visually check to see if your image is shaky. If you’re shooting on film, you’ll need a light meter. Every now and again if I’m really trying to capture something and it’s getting dark, I’ll look for things to prop my camera up against or on for a little additional stability, which allows me to push my shutter speed lower than this rule of thumb would allow for.
When Eli and I went to visit the Monkey Forest in Ubud, I was so excited when we saw our first few monkeys that I completely spaced on my settings. It also didn't help that the monkeys were extraordinarily rambunctious and one baby monkey kept trying to sneak into my bag to steal things. Sometimes I think the only difference between a professional and amateur photographer is the ability to think in stressful situations. I've screwed up enough on my own time that I now know I'll be able to shoot under almost any client situation. Anyway, the shot below was taken at 1/60th of a second and it's quite soft and a tad blurry.
Once I was able to take a breath, get my bearings and shoo away the baby that kept trying to run off with my iPhone, I sped up my shutter speed to 1/160th of a second and was able to take much sharper shots, like the one below.
Once you have a good sense of shutter speed in regular day to day situations, long exposures photographs are a really fun way to delve further into shutter speed. They require a bit of additional gear or situational ingenuity so they’re not quite the realm of beginner photographers but don’t shy away. First, a tripod will make your life a lot easier. If you’re just starting out and have a light camera, scoop up a gorilla pod. They're really cheap and very versatile.
For the photo below, I didn't have a tripod so I found a large cement block that worked as a tripod and set my shutter speed to 3.2 seconds.
While I liked the long streaks from the 3.2 second exposure, I wanted the light to be a bit more dramatic and the streaks to look sharper so I lowered the shutter speed to a 1.6 second exposure. Additionally, I used my wallet to prop up the front of the lens to get more space at the top of the statue.
The rule of thumb for getting clear images falls apart a bit when you're trying to capture something that's zooming by, think fast moving cars or hyped up puppies. If I'm out in full daylight, I'll take my shutter speed up to 1/500 sec. or 1/1000 sec. and that's almost always fast enough. If it's a bit cloudy and you're trying to freeze motion, you'll need to experiment a bit to find the right balance between aperature, ISO and shutter speed.
I love pan photos. They combine long exposure with a bit of fun and are extra nice because they don’t really require a tripod, though if you have a tripod handy it’ll make things go a little smoother. For a pan shot, you set your shutter speed to about 1/30 sec. or so and then wait for a car or bike to go by. As it goes past you, follow the movement quickly as you press the shutter down. Don’t worry, not every shot works out and it takes a few misses before you get the hang of it.