Understanding camera shutter speed and how it affects the final outcome of a photograph is one of the first steps to understanding manual mode on your DSLR. Should you use a fast shutter speed or a slow one? How do shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work off of one another to create a proper exposure? When should you use a tripod? What may seem complicated at first is actually quite easy to understand. Grab your digital camera, set it to manual mode, and let’s learn!
If you want more in-depth tutorials about proper exposure with your DSLR, Udemy’s course on manual mode will teach you everything you need to know!
What is the Camera’s ‘Shutter’?
To put it simply, the shutter of a camera is a thin piece of plastic that rests in front of the sensor of the camera. It remains closed until you click the shutter button. The speed of the shutter determines how long the shutter remains open. The longer it remains open, the more light hits the sensor of the camera. The shorter it remains open, the less light hits the sensor.
How Do Fast and Slow Shutter Speeds Affect Photographs?
- A fast shutter speed is typically used on a bright, sunny day, when keeping the sensor open any longer would result in an overexposed (too bright) image. It is also typically used to freeze motion, such as capturing a basketball player mid-jump or a lion attacking its prey.
- A slow shutter speed is used when not as much light is available, such as during sunset or dusk. When using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 (it will show up on your camera as simply ’60’), a tripod is needed. A slow shutter speed can be artistically used to create motion blur or capture the movement of stars at night. Have you ever seen a photograph of a waterfall in which the movement of the water is beautifully blurred? This is the result of using a slow shutter speed and a tripod.
- The bulb setting on many cameras means that the shutter will remain open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. This is incredibly helpful when taking longer exposures during nighttime. You can purchase an inexpensive bulb-release button which will allow you to trip the shutter without ever touching the camera itself – reducing the amount of camera shake in the final image.
How Do You Properly Expose a Photograph?
All DSLRs have in-camera metering, which means there will be a light meter that you can see when you look through your viewfinder. Take a look through your viewfinder, and press down your shutter button halfway. While this typically focuses your subject (unless your lens is set to manual focus), it will also make your light meter appear. Do you see how on the bottom of your viewfinder, you see a meter that goes from -2 to +2, with a bunch of little dashes in-between? One of those dashes should be blinking. In order for your photograph to be properly exposed, you’ll want the blinking dash to be right on the 0.
When you’re just starting out, try shooting in AV (aperture value) or TV (time value) mode to see how shutter speed and aperture relate to each other. Aperture value allows you to adjust the aperture while the camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly, while time value allows you to choose the shutter speed while the camera chooses the correct aperture. Once you play around with both of these modes and understand how the two relate to each other, move up to shooting in Manual mode, which will allow you to have full control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
If you want sharp, crisp photographs, you’ll want to shoot at the fastest shutter speed possible. Since using a fast shutter speed doesn’t let in much light, you’ll need to compensate by increasing the ISO (which could lead to grainy photographs), or opening up the aperture wider. Using a prime (fixed) lens is helpful in this situation, since they typically open up wider than standard zoom lenses. An inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 lens is a good prime lens to start out with.
- Motion blur can be created through panning; when you follow along with a moving subject as you open the shutter. In order to do this correctly, you should first determine a point where your subject will be passing through, since you’ll need to pre-focus on that spot. If your camera has an AI Servo function, you should use it. This helps the camera continuously track and focus on moving subjects. If you don’t have this function, you’ll need to pre-focus on your chosen spot and then set your lens to manual focus to avoid having it re-focus during the shot. Your shutter speed will change depending on how fast your subject is moving and how blurred you want the final image to be, but choosing a speed around 1/125 is a good place to start. You’ll want to start moving along with your subject (panning in one direction) before you click the shutter, and then “follow through” (continuing to pan in the same direction) as you click the shutter and for a second afterwards. This will ensure that you have consistent motion blur, and may take a bit of practice before you perfect it.
- Nightscapes can be created with a longer shutter speed, from 30 seconds up to an hour or more. This will require the use of your bulb function, as I have mentioned before. Make sure your camera is set on a tripod, and then choose your subject. How long you should keep your shutter open requires a bit of practice. Try keeping your shutter open for 30 seconds, and then check the result. Too dark? Too light? You should keep your ISO as low as possible, since a higher ISO will produce more grain in the final photograph. If you’re trying to capture an entire landscape, your aperture should be set to at least f/8, since you’ll want the entire scene to be in focus. Set your mode to bulb, keep the shutter open, and don’t be afraid to play around with your flash! You can set your flash to go off at the beginning of a photograph – such as to take a portrait – and then leave the shutter open to capture all of the ambient light.
Understanding how short and long shutter speeds affect your final photograph is an important part of being a successful photographer. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Grab your camera and go shooting! If you need some more help understanding the basic functions of your camera, Udemy has a great course for beginners filled with easy to understand tips and tricks.