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.

Through the Gadling Lens: apertures and shutters and ISOs, oh my!

So, so far, we’ve discussed two things: how to pick a camera and what kind of lenses you might want to take with you on your trip. Today, I thought we’d talk about the exciting world of apertures, and shutter speeds and ISO.

Wait, where are you going?

Okay, I know that for a majority of you, you couldn’t care less about these sorts of things — you’d rather just pick up your camera, set it on automatic, and go. And I promise, going forward, we’re going to talk about less dry subjects, like shooting techniques and using Photoshop and the like. But the truth is, understanding ISOs and apertures and shutter speeds can help give you a lot of power over your resulting shots. So trust me on this: it’ll be worth it, even though the sketches that follow are a travesty to art.
So, basically, your camera, regardless of brand, whether it’s a point-and-shoot or SLR, or how simple or complicated it is, works like this: light comes into your lens, and passes through an aperture, then through a shutter before it finally hits the film (or digital sensor and storage media), and then it magically turns into a photograph. Obviously, there’s a lot more physics to it than that, but dude, I’m not a physics major, and believing that it’s “magic” is a lot more interesting, so go with me on this.

Graphically speaking, and viewing your camera from the side, it looks somewhat like this:

Now, I could try to draw exactly what each of those items actually looks like, but as you’ve probably guessed by now, sketching isn’t my strong suit. Nonetheless, it turns out that you really don’t need to know what they look like, but it’s sort of important to understand what they do. And to help illustrate what they do, take a look at this image:

I know this looks kind of crazy, but stay with me:

Your aperture acts sort of like a curtain: it decides how much light in total you want going into your camera.

Your shutter acts like a door that quickly opens and shuts, limiting the amount of actual light that gets to the film/digital sensor, regardless of the total amount the aperture actually let into the camera in the first place. Think of it this way: remember, back in the day when you had a film camera, the biggest catastrophe that could occur on your vacation was that the back of your camera would open up, and all that light would get in and ruin the film, rendering all those great images of you doing tequila shots in Tijuana completely useless? That’s because too much light overexposes the image. The shutter opens and shuts really quickly, so that only the right amount of light gets in, and the image is correctly exposed.

And finally, the film (or digital sensor/memory card) captures the remaining light and uses magic to turn it into a photograph.

Now, the very cool thing about your camera (and what you may not have realized if you’ve just been shooting on automatic this entire time) is that in many cases, it allows you to control each of the aperture, shutter speed, and film/digital sensor capacity. It’s almost like there are tiny little people living in your camera, just waiting for your command:

At the risk of your believing that I’ve finally lost it, I’ll press on.

APERTURE

As I mentioned above, the aperture helps control how much total light goes into the camera. Now, if you’ve ever heard the term “f-stop” or seen weird numbers like “f/1.4” or “f/16” on your camera or next to an image online, those terms are referring to how open or closed the aperture (or in our case, the “curtain”) is, and therefore how much light is going into the camera. There are, of course, mathematical reasons for the number designations, but really, knowing that isn’t necessary. Here’s the only thing you need to remember:

If the aperture number (f-stop number) is large, then when you take a picture, you’ll have more detail in the background of your image (i.e., your background will be more detailed, a “large depth of field“).

If the aperture number (f-stop number) is small, then when you take a picture, you’ll have less detail in the depth of your image (i.e., your background will be less detailed, a “small depth of field“).

Some practical examples might help.

Say you’re taking a vacation in the American heartland, for the express purpose of capturing an image of those “amber waves of grain.” Or, perhaps instead, you’re in Houston, in my overgrown front garden. Here are a couple of images that you might get, when playing with the aperture on your camera:

I shot the image above at f/16, which is sort of a large aperture number. Notice how you can make out the detail of each of the little slats in the black shutters in the background, and the foliage in front is just a jumble of branches. Everything, pretty much, is in focus, or you would say that this image has a “large depth of field.”

Now contrast the above with the following image:

This image was shot at f/4.2, which is, in comparison to the above, a small aperture number — the lens is the same, I’m standing in the same spot, and I took the image at the same time of day. In this image, you can no longer really make out the detail of the black shutters, and in fact, the only thing in focus is the branch at the very front. Everything else is out of focus, and therefore this image has a “small depth of field.”

Does this sort of make sense? Therefore and ergo, going back to your vacation in the American heartland, back to those amber fields of grain, before you take the photograph, you can think to yourself, “Self, do I want to show how vast the amount of grain is in this field, and therefore use a high aperture setting, so that all of the grain is in focus? Or, Self, would I rather just focus on this one golden reed of grain, and blur all the others in the background, so I should use a small aperture setting?” Then you’d set your aperture, you’d aim, and you’d shoot. No Photoshop required.

SHUTTER

Remember, this is the part of the camera that acts like a door, opening and closing quickly, to moderate the amount of light that actually gets to the film/digi
tal sensor at the back of the camera
, and thus creating the best exposure. I will be honest with you — I rarely, if ever, try to control the shutter speed of my camera. I’m far more likely to mess with my aperture settings (the “curtain guy”) to control my depth of field (how blurry I want my background to be, described above), or my ISO setting (the “light catchers,” which will be discussed below), and let the camera figure out which shutter speed would be most appropriate. That said, there’s one application where you might want to play with your shutter speed setting, and that’s to control movement.

Here’s what I mean: you’ll find shutter controls described in seconds, or fractions of a second, otherwise known as “exposure time.” With a long exposure time, the shutter will be open longer, and movement will look more blurry. With a shorter exposure time, the shutter will be open for a shorter time, and movement will look frozen in time.

For example, this shot …

… was taken at a shutter speed of 1/160th of a second — notice how the water looks like it’s rushing over the rocks. There’s movement, it conveys what it felt and sounded like to be there on that beach in Cozumel, Mexico.

But in this picture …

… the shutter speed was at 1/250th of a second — much faster, making the water coming out of my backyard hose look frozen, and therefore more refreshing on a hot summer day.

ISO

Remember back in the day when you were buying film, the box of film would have numbers on it like “100” or “400” or “1000”? That was the film’s ISO number. ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization ” (I know that mixes up the initials, but I didn’t come up with acronym, so don’t blame me), and basically the ISO number has to do with the sensitivity of the film to light. Nowadays, with digital cameras, there are still ISO settings, and understanding how they work can help improve your images. To help me remember what the numbers mean, I like to think as the ISO number as the “number of light catchers” the camera needs to use:

In other words, remember this:

The lower the ISO number, the fewer light catchers you’ll be using to catch the light. Low ISOs work better in bright sunlight — no flash necessary.

The higher the ISO number, the more light catchers you’ll be using the catch the light. High ISOs work in overcast or low light — and again, no flash will be necessary.

For example — see that photograph of my garden hose, above? That was taking at an ISO setting of 200 — because it was taken in the middle of a hot summer day, there was TONS of available light. So I knew I only needed 200 light catchers to catch the light when the shutter (“door”) was open to let the light in. Contrast this with the following shot I took of my husband this past weekend:

This was taken just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. The light was low, so I knew I needed to employ as many light catchers as I could to grab any and all available light: this was shot at an ISO setting of 3200.

And finally, compare the above shot with this one:

This shot was taking at the same time, but this time the setting was at ISO 500. See how completely blurry and out of focus Marcus is? That’s because when I decided to shoot at 500, the Door-Opening Guy (the automatic shutter control) went, “SERIOUSLY? FIVE HUNDRED? In *this* nonexistent light? That’s so not enough Light Catchers. I’m going to have to keep the door open longer to let more light in, and expose the photograph properly.” So he did — the shutter was open for 2.5 seconds. The problem is that when the shutter is open for that long, the slightest movement — my hand holding the camera dipping ever slow slightly — causes blur in the resulting image.

Given all of this, it sounds like you’d never need a flash again, right? Just crank up that ISO setting, and bam! No flash needed! Well, not quite: the problem with using high ISOs is that while you might get the image you want, the image tends to be grainier then at low ISO settings (contrast the quality of the first image of Marcus with the image of the hose, above). So if you’re looking for a nice sharp image in low light, you might want to either (a) use a flash or (b) use a tripod with a low ISO setting — that way the camera (“Door-Opening Guy”) can keep the shutter open as long as necessary, without worrying about camera shake.

So that’s it — you’re now an expert (sort of) on apertures, shutters, and ISOs! Better still, that’s pretty much as technical as we’re going to get about the workings of your camera here at Through the Gadling Lens, so never fear. As it happens, I’m leaving at the end of this week for a two-week holiday to England, so for upcoming posts I’ll talk about planning for a trip, and executing photo shoot days. In the meantime, keep clicking those cameras!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Photo of the Day (03-04-08)


This photo of the Volcán Arenal in Costa Rica from ohad conjures a certain feeling of an invigorating hike on a warm, bright, summer’s day. So what if I told you it was taken in the middle of the night? Pretty unbelievable, huh? But that’s exactly when it was taken, and on the evening of the eclipse to boot. How did he do it? With some fancy camera work, a tripod and a 117-second exposure. It’s pretty amazing, really. I’m surprised at how well the colours came out. Read more about the photo here.

Want to show off some fancy camera work of your own? Join our Gadling Flickr Pool.