Travel Photo Tips: What is shutter speed, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is shutter speed

Now that you’ve got a grip on ISO, it’s time to talk about shutter speed as it relates to light. What is it, and how can it be tweaked to better the photographs that you’ll take on the run? A great question, and we’re glad you asked. Simply put, shutter speed refers to the length of time that the shutter stays open while snapping a photograph. In general, the longer a shutter remains open, the more light is allowed in. And the more light that is allowed in, the brighter a picture becomes.

There’s a fine line that is walked with shutter speed. If you don’t leave the shutter open long enough, your images will turn out too dark to be useful. Having a shot that’s too dark can spoil an otherwise great vacation memory, and it’s nearly impossible to brighten an overly dark photograph using Photoshop (or a similar editing application) without adding a lot of noise and grain. On the flip side, leaving the shutter open too long can result in a couple of negative outcomes.

We’ll discuss these and walk you through an example after the break, so grab your advanced point-and-shoot, interchangeable lens camera or DSLR and read on get a better feel of how changing the shutter speed can change the outcome of your snapshots.As usual, we’ll try not to dive too deep into aspects that you don’t really need to understand. But there are a few basic things you’ll need to know about shutter speed in order to make quick adjustments as you’re shooting different scenes — assuming you’re not shooting on automatic mode, of course. Your travels won’t always put you in an optimal place for taking shots, leaving you with limited options to control the amount of light that floods into each shot. Adjusting shutter speed is one of the quicker ways to do just that.

Shutter speed is referred to in terms of seconds, or fractions thereof. For example, you may see a “400” on the data monitor of your camera. This means that you’re set to shoot at 1/400 of a second. This is just a small fraction of a second, which means that the shutter will open and close extremely quickly. If you see an “8,” that means you’re set to shoot at 1/8 of a second. In the image below, the “30” signifies that this camera is currently set to shoot at 1/30 of a second.

what is shutter speed

Here are a few general rules to keep in mind while adjusting shutter speed. These won’t apply in every single scenario, but these are good guidelines to keep ingrained in your mind when you’re trying to figure out shutter speed extremes on the fly.

  • If you’re shooting a still subject handheld (without a tripod), it’s generally tough to hold the camera still enough to eliminate blur from a shot at a shutter speed slower than around 1/80 of a second. Sometimes you can get as slow as 1/25 of a second while holding it still, but that’s more the exception than the rule.
  • If your subject is moving at all, and you’re forced to hand-hold the camera, I’d recommend shooting at 1/160 of a second or faster to ensure little-to-no blur is introduced. If you find that 1/160 of a second still isn’t quick enough, a bump to 1/200 or 1/250 of a second should suffice.

Of course, both of these points are assuming you do not want blur in your shots. There are certain scenarios where some amount of blur is desired, such as capturing the beauty in flowing water in a babbling brook. But in those cases, you can start at around 1/100 of a second and move slower. Here’s an important point, though: when you desire a certain amount of blur in a shot, you’ll almost certainly need a tripod. Why? Because you only want a certain portion of the photograph to be blurred (the water, in the previous example), but you wouldn’t want the rocks and surrounding plants to also be blurred.

Let’s look at one simple example to give you a better grasp on how adjusting shutter speed makes a difference in your photographs. You’ll need a camera with a manual mode; most point-and-shoot cameras do not allow users to adjust shutter speed, but a few of the more advanced models will. Essentially all interchangeable lens, Micro Four Thirds and DSLR cameras will, however.

what is shutter speed

Similar to our ISO example, we’ll have you head to a room inside your home. Find a subject — a phone, a coffee mug, any kind of still object — and place it on a table or on a bed. We’ll be shooting this with various shutter speeds. There are a lot of other variables to consider, of course, but this simple example will show you how shutter speed itself directly impacts the outcome. Let’s start with a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second, and disable your flash for the duration of the example. Fix your ISO on 1600 (since you’re indoors in a low-light scenario) and your f/stop number as low as it will go (f/2.8 or f/3.5 if possible). Focus on the subject and shoot. What’s the outcome? Probably a dark shot, but if you can make out any of the subject, you’ll notice that it’s impeccably sharp.

Now, adjust that to 1/250 and shoot again. What’s the outcome? Probably a slightly brighter photograph, and one that’s still sharp. You should get the impression that you’re moving in the right direction. Now, adjust to 1/160 of a second and shoot again. Your image should be even brighter, and if you have a steady hand, still sharp and blur-free. Now, the fun part. Adjust to 1/50 of a second and re-shoot. You probably noticed just how slow the click was. But how about the outcome? It’s probably a very bright image, maybe even too bright, but it will almost definitely have some level of blur to it. Let’s try one last stop: lower the shutter speed to 1/5 of a second and re-shoot. It’s practically impossible to hand-hold this shot and not introduce blur. You’ll probably be happy with how bright the image is, but the amount of blur will likely make the image less than ideal. Below is a brief gallery guide of how changing the shutter speed alone can allow more light in, but also make it easier for handheld shake to introduce blur.

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In a nutshell, you’ve just learned how shutter speed alone can adjust your shot. If you need to let more light in, slowing the shutter solves your problem, to an extent. If you slow it too much, you’ll lose the ability to compose a blur-free image. If you speed it up too much, the image will become too dark. Like we said at the start, it’s a fine line you’ll have to walk. If you try a similar experiment outside, in broad daylight, you’ll notice that you need a much, much faster shutter speed to compose a usable image. If you keep that 1/8 of a second while shooting outdoors, you’ll probably get the polar opposite of a completely dark photograph: a completely white photograph. The solution? Speed that shutter up dramatically –1/500 of a second or faster — and see how it changes things for the better.

what is shutter speed

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of shutter speed to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in shutter speed for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, using the shutter speed to help you best capture a flowing waterfall, compose an exploding firework shot, controlling blur, etc. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous article on ISO, you’ll be two steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • Adjusting shutter speed is one of the quickest ways to add more light or restrict light to a photograph
  • Indoors, or in low-light situations, you’ll need to slow the shutter speed dramatically if you don’t have a flash to use, or would rather not use the flash
  • In general, it’s difficult to not introduce blur into a shot while shooting handheld with shutter speeds 1/80 of a second or slower (or 1/160 of a second if your subject is moving)
  • Outdoors, you’ll need very quick shutter speeds (1/500 of a second or faster) in order to avoid having a completely white image, or an image that’s overly bright
  • Having a tripod or a lens with vibration resistance can enable you to have a slower-than-average shutter speed, yet still avoid blur

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, f/stop, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO can be seen here.