Ways to Make the Most of Your Camera’s Shutter Speed

A camera may be full of features and settings that it might be a challenge to remember what they are all for and how to maximize their benefits. But one control that you should be completely familiar with is shutter speed. It is one of the three factors that directly affect exposure, or the amount of light that enters the lens. It is also a creative tool you can use to achieve a certain look or effect in your photos.

Here are just a few of the many ways you can make the most of your camera’s shutter speed setting:

Decrease the shutter speed to let in more light – shutter speed is measured in seconds or fraction of seconds. The faster the speed, the less light is captured and vice versa. A slow shutter speed, especially in low-light scenes, will brighten up more of the scene or subject compared to a fast speed, which might just be enough to capture the brighter spots while leaving the dim areas very dark in the photo.

Central station
Photo by Stig Nygaard

In the above example, a shutter speed of 1/8s (one-eighth of a second) was used, which successfully shows not just the brighter areas by the escalator, but also the details in the darker areas in the background.

Take note that your shutter speed setting will directly affect your aperture and ISO settings, the other two functions that control exposure. There is no formula for a “correct” exposure, so don’t be afraid to experiment with these settings to get the shot you want.

Tip: If you want to get a crisp, clear shot, use a tripod or set your camera on a flat, steady surface to avoid blurriness caused by camera shake. This is important, especially with speeds lower than 1/30s. Some cameras are equipped with image stabilization features but it’s still best to keep your camera as steady as possible.

Try the Bulb Mode

Some cameras have a bulb mode, and with this you can leave your shutter open for longer than 30 seconds. This very lengthy timeframe will let in large quantities of light so it’s often used only at night or in very dark locations.

The breathtaking photo below of the aurora borealis was taken with a bulb mode of 37 seconds.

Fish Lake Aurora
Photo by Anthony DeLorenzo

A fast shutter speed can freeze motion – the shutter speed can also be creatively used to capture a subject’s motion, or lack of it. For example, you can freeze movement using a very fast shutter speed. In the photo below, a shutter speed of 1/4000s was used, effectively making it appear as if these tossed candies have been suspended in mid-air.  With such as fast speed, not much light can be captured by the camera so you will need a very bright light source and might have to compensate by decreasing your ISO and/or aperture number.  Other examples of frozen motion shots can usually be found in action photography.

There's Daim in the Air
Photo by David Joyce

Capture motion blur – on the other hand, if you want to portray a sense of motion, choose a slower shutter speed to show those blurry streaks that imply motion. Shutter speeds below 1/30s can often produce photos showing movement blur. The slower the shutter speed, the more blurry and undefined a moving object becomes. Play around with the shutter speed setting and the degree of blurriness you want to achieve.  Light trails and zoom blur are other styles of motion blur.

blur-a-licious
Photo by Scott Swigart

Tip: You can combine stillness and motion in the composition to present contrast and energy. Examples would be a gushing stream of water on a bed of rocks, or cars zooming on a street with buildings and light posts in the background.


About Kristine Hojilla

Kristine is an avid amateur photographer from the tropical Philippine islands. She always tries to capture the extraordinary in mundane objects and scenes. Feel free to visit her profile here to see more of her works

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