What Is Shutter Speed In Photography?


Let’s rewind back in history a bit: the concept of shutter speed emerged with the invention of traditional cameras. Back then, shutters, which are essentially mechanical doors, controlled the time for which film was exposed to light – giving birth to the term ‘shutter speed’. Fast-forward to today’s world of digital photography, and shutter speed maintains its pivotal role. Before we dive into the specifics, let’s briefly define it for clarity. Shutter speed simply refers to the length of time for which the sensor of a digital camera is exposed to light. From freezing fast-paced action to creating a sense of motion in an image, shutter speed plays a fundamental role in giving life to your photographic vision.

Shifting from film to sensors didn’t diminish the significance of shutter speed. On the contrary, in modern digital photography, understanding and manipulating shutter speed is more crucial than ever. It’s not merely a technical necessity; it’s the difference between capturing a blurred haze or an athlete’s split-second victory moment — an immensely powerful creative tool.

It’s worth emphasizing that shutter speed is more than just a tool for adjusting the light in your pictures. While it might seem like a microchip’s play in the complex machinery of a modern camera, its impact is macro. Ask any seasoned photographer, and they’ll tell you that an adept handle on shutter speed can dramatically transform your photographs – and your photography career. Shutter speed, in short, is the invisible thread weaving the fabric of an image; although you can’t see it, its effects are present in every shot.

Effective photography isn’t just about pointing and shooting; it’s about comprehending and employing elements like shutter speed to elevate your work. So, buckle up — even if our tour won’t be a “thrilling journey through the cosmos,” I promise, it will be an insightful exploration of your camera’s capabilities.

Understanding Shutter Speed

Deeply ingrained in the art of photography, shutter speed is akin to the beating heart of your camera, pulsing with each unforgettable capture. Don’t be overwhelmed by this seemingly technical term; shutter speed is easily understood when unpacked into digestible chunks.

Shutter speed, simply put, is the duration for which the camera shutter is open to expose light into the camera sensor. Measured in seconds or fractions of seconds, shutter speed plays a crucial role in defining the appearance and mood of your photographs. If you’ve ever seen a beautifully crisp image of a hummingbird mid-flight or the iconic milky motion of a waterfall, then you’ve admired the handiwork of shutter speed control.

Consider photography at a sports event. To freeze the swift motion of athletes in action, a fast shutter speed is required. This rapid opening and closing of the shutter allows a split second of light to enter, resulting in a sharp, motionless image of a moment that was anything but still.

In contrast, ponder on scenes of night-time photography, perhaps a bustling cityscape. Here, photographers commonly employ long exposures, opening the shutter for several seconds (or more). This extended exposure enables the camera to soak up all available light, capturing the vibrant colors and movement of the city life. However, this method can result in blurred images if the camera shakes, so a stable setup is needed.

Venturing into dynamic scenarios? Remember the definitive rule: fast shutter speed for freezing motion, slower shutter speed for demonstrating motion. It’s similar to deciding whether you want to earmark the whirlwind of action or display the melodic ballet of slow movement in your images.

Getting shutter speed down pat is like finding your favorite coffee blend – it involves a rhythm of trial and error until you locate your individual sweet spot. Once you do, it’s a rich, fulfilling journey to create striking images, balanced with just the right timing. After all, they say timing is everything, and in photography, shutter speed certainly attests to that.

Shutter Speed and Exposure

Shutter speed’s role in influencing a photo’s exposure is pivotal. To fully comprehend this, let’s introduce a couple of its comrades in arms: aperture and ISO. These three elements form what’s known as the exposure triangle, a trinity that work together to control the brightness of your image.

Let’s consider an analogy: think of your camera as a water bucket and light as the water flowing into it. Shutter speed is the amount of time you leave the tap running to fill the bucket. Aperture (which controls the depth of field) is the size of your tap; a wider tap, or higher aperture, lets more water flow in at once. ISO is like adding a water booster to your tap. By increasing the ISO, you’re heightening the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor, enabling you to capture more light in a shorter period, but at the potential cost of introducing grain into your image.

Balancing these three elements gives you creative control to achieve a desired brightness for your image without sacrificing quality. The longer your shutter stays open (a slower shutter speed), the more light will enter the camera, brightening the exposure. However, if you’re shooting a hyperactive puppy and want a sharp image, you’ll likely need a quick shutter speed to freeze the action. This is where aperture and ISO step in to help compensate for the restricted light that a fast shutter speed allows for entrance.

When you have an ideal aperture setting for the depth of field you’re aiming for, you may then need to adjust your ISO to ensure further an accurate light balance. Keep in mind though, excessively high ISO may add noise to your photo, reminiscent of a poor television signal.

The interaction between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is an elegant dance that requires practice to perfect. By understanding this relationship, you can produce well-lit images that capture your artistic vision accurately. Remember, photography isn’t called the art of capturing light for nothing! Now, grab your dance shoes — camera rather, and let’s get moving to the beat of the exposure triangle.

How to Adjust Shutter Speed

Understanding the theory behind shutter speed is one thing. But getting your hands dirty, or rather, getting your fingertips on those camera buttons is a completely different adventure. Let’s break it down into an easy-to-follow process.

Step 1: Locate the Shutter Speed Settings On most DSLR and mirrorless cameras, the shutter speed is often adjusted by using one of the dial buttons on the top or back of the camera. Look for a marking similar to ‘S’ or ‘Tv’ in Canon models. If you’re wondering why your high-end camera doesn’t have this, it probably has dual command dials. Where one typically controls aperture, the other handles shutter speed.

Step 2: Adjusting the Shutter Speed This is where the magic happens. Turning the dial left usually drops your shutter speed, making the sensor expose to light for a longer period, while turning right speeds it up. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if we could dial up on the weather and brighten our days quite like that?

Step 3: Check Your Shot in Real-Time When you adjust the shutter speed, the image in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen will become either brighter, at slower speeds, or darker, at faster speeds. Consider these real-time changes as valuable feedback in a conversation between you and your camera. You adjust, it responds, and like in an ideal conversation, both meet halfway.

Step 4: Confirm Your Settings Once you’ve adjusted the shutter speed accordingly, take a moment to confirm the settings. If you’re satisfied, press the shutter release button and voila, you should have an image that’s a testament to your newfound knowledge on shutter speed.

Going the Extra Mile: Experiment! Practice, as they say, makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different shutter speed settings. Sometimes the results might seem too bright or too dark, but don’t let this discourage you. Remember, even Da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa in a day.

To put it simply, adjusting the shutter speed requires finding the correct dial, deciding on your desired speed, observing the changes in real-time, and finally, capturing the shot. A game of dialing numbers and observing changes – sounds like an old-school telephone call, right? Now, the shutter speed won’t seem like such an intangible concept. So go out and start experimenting! Your camera is waiting for your command.


To bring our exploration of shutter speed to a concise close, let’s revisit the key insights we’ve gathered along the way. After all, as the saying goes, the devil’s in the detail. And in photography, mastering the details can be the difference between a good shot and a truly great one.

Shutter speed, as we’ve learned, is a pivotal concept in photography. Fundamentally, it’s about dictating how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. But it’s not just about light; it’s also about capturing motion in a way that elevates your final image. Shutter speed is one of the Three Musketeers of the exposure triangle, working in tandem with aperture and ISO to achieve a perfectly balanced exposure.

Just as you wouldn’t pedal a stationary bike for a scenic ride, using a single shutter speed setting won’t get you far in photography. Experimentation is essential to understanding how different shutter speeds affect your images. An action-packed football game, a breathtaking sunrise, and a vibrant city nightlife each demand a different setting. So, don’t be afraid to adjust the dial a bit—your images are as dynamic as your subjects.

Adjusting shutter speed can be likened to cooking. You start with basic instructions, but as you grow, you begin to trust your instincts, making real-time adjustments until you achieve the perfect balance. Soon, you won’t just be following a recipe—you’ll be creating your own.

As we wrap up, remember that photography, like any art, requires practice. It’s one thing to understand shutter speed in theory, but another to wield its transformative power in real life. So, step outside, aim your lens, and let your camera’s shutter dance to the rhythm of your creativity. With shutter speed as your talented comrade, you’re well on your way to capturing moments in a whole new light.

In conclusion, shutter speed isn’t just a technical tool—it’s your artistic ally. Grasp it, master it, and it can significantly elevate your photography skills. Go forth, and let this newfound knowledge illuminate your path as you click, capture, and create.

The Creativv
American digital marketer and founder of TheCreativv.com with over a decade of experience in event, travel, portrait, product, and cityscape photography.