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Shutter speed is one of the three elements (others being aperture and ISO) that helps in correctly exposing a photo. Shutter speed also controls the sharpness in the photograph. You can use shutter speed in a creative way to make your photos visually appealing.

What is Shutter Speed?

In the camera, in front of the sensor, there is a small flap called the shutter. When you press the shutter button, this opens and closes to let light reach the sensor thus creating the image. Shutter speed describes how quickly or slowly the shutter opens and closes.

A fast shutter speed means that the shutter is only open for a short period of time; a slow shutter speed means the shutter is open for longer span of time.

How is Shutter Speed Measured?

Shutter speeds are measured in seconds, or fractions of a second. For example, a shutter speed of 1/100 means 1/100th of a second, or 0.01 seconds. This is also known as the “exposure time”, because it’s the amount of time the sensor is exposed to light.

Modern cameras offer a wide range of shutter speeds. SLRs also have a “Bulb” mode where you can hold the shutter open for as long as you want.
Choosing the Best Shutter Speed

In automatic mode, your camera will try to guess the best shutter speed to capture your scene. Unfortunately it doesn’t always get it right, and your photo can end up poorly exposed or blurred.
A better option is to switch to manual mode and take control of shutter speed yourself. When doing so, you need to consider the following:

Camera Shake

Camera shake occurs when hand-holding your camera. No matter how steady you think you are, you can never stand perfectly still, and this slight movement shows up in your photos as a blurriness or lack of sharpness. In the below shown photo camera shake and motion blur is both evident as the shutter speed was too low.

Motion Blur

Motion blurring happens when you’re photographing a moving subject, let’s say a giant wheel. If you use a slow shutter speed, blurry streaks will appear the image. Analyze the photos shown below and you will notice how motion blur has taken place in the last few photos.

Shutter speed 1/640

Shutter speed 1/320

Shutter speed 1/160

Shutter speed 1/80

Shutter speed 1/10

Use a fast shutter speed to eliminate motion blur, or use it creatively to convey movement and speed.

You can avoid motion blur by using a faster shutter speed. Doing so means that the subject will move less while the shutter is open, reducing the blurring effect. With a fast enough shutter speed, this blurring becomes unnoticeable, and the action appears “frozen”. See the image below.

But before you go cranking your shutter speed as high as you can, you should consider whether you actually want to eliminate motion blur. It’s an excellent way to convey speed or movement in a scene. You can also pan your camera to keep the subject sharp and blur the background.

Creative Effects

By using very short or very long shutter speeds, you can introduce some interesting creative effects into your shots.

Long exposure photography is where you open the shutter for much longer than normal – anything from a few seconds to several minutes. This is perfect for giving moving water a fog-like appearance, and capturing trails of light from things like cars and stars.

Long exposure photo of water

A very slow shutter speed can be used for interesting abstract effects such as making water appear misty and smooth.

Alternatively, by using a very fast shutter speed you can capture some stunning “frozen” motion, such as birds in flight, sportsmen in action, or water splashing.

Use a very fast shutter speed to freeze motion

Experiment with the settings to understand the effects of slow and fast shutter speed. The best way to learn about shutter speed is to flick your camera into manual or shutter priority mode and play around. Pay attention to the effect on exposure and blurring, and see how you can use that knowledge to bring a new level of creativity in your images.