Control your Shutter Speed for more Impact in your Photography

Let’s have a look at the sec­ond part of the “expo­sure tri­an­gle” to get some more pho­tog­ra­phy foun­da­tion laid: Shut­ter Speed. We already learned about Aper­ture in Part I of the series:

What is Aper­ture in Photography

Part III will be an upcom­ing arti­cle about ISO, and then we have all parts together.

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So, let’s talk about shut­ter speed. It is easy to learn, as we don’t have any unex­pect­ed side effects when con­trol­ling the shut­ter speed. As you may remem­ber, the aper­ture had the Depth of Field (DoF) side effect, and ISO has image noise as a side effect. And shut­ter speed has the freez­ing-motion effect, or lack of the same, but that seems to be more of an intu­itive side effect.

But we should start with explain­ing what the shut­ter is. The shut­ter is build from met­al blades which open and close the open­ing in front of the sen­sor for a set dura­tion, to let a spe­cif­ic amount of light pass on to the sen­sor. The met­al blades form two “cur­tains”, so the shut­ter is actu­al­ly made of two sep­a­rate shut­ters. That is impor­tant to know as soon as you look at includ­ing flash as a light source into your photography.

Some ancient or very expen­sive cam­eras have a leaf shut­ter, but that is a rare excep­tion. The man­u­fac­tur­er care­ful­ly hand­craft the shut­ter into the lens and it works more like an aper­ture in a cir­cu­lar motion, rather than from left to right or top to bot­tom, as the cur­tains of a tra­di­tion­al shut­ter work. I’ll dis­re­gard the leaf shut­ters for the remain­ing part of the arti­cle as they are not common.

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How does a shutter look like?

I think at this stage a video is very help­ful; I found one which bril­liant­ly shows how these two cur­tains of a tra­di­tion­al shut­ter interact:

If you want to see (and hear!) shut­ters in action, search for slow motion videos of cam­era shut­ters, interesting!

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What does the shutter control?

When you con­trol the shut­ter speed, you con­trol how much light is pass­ing through the lens on to the sen­sor before the shut­ter clos­es and blocks the light path. You direct­ly con­trol the bright­ness of the image. Most mod­ern cam­eras can con­trol this time up to a very tiny frac­tion of a sec­ond, e.g. 18000 of a sec­ond, and beyond (with an elec­tron­ic shut­ter, more on that fur­ther down).

The short­er the time the shut­ter is open, the less light is expos­ing the sen­sor, mak­ing the result­ing image dark­er. The longer the shut­ter speed, the more light pass­es through and the image gets brighter.

Measurements of Shutter Speed

The inter­vals of shut­ter speeds are marked as a frac­tion of a sec­ond, e.g. 1250, which means a 250th of a sec­ond. As soon as we go past the sec­ond, we see the quo­ta­tion mark behind the num­ber: 1” means 1 sec­onds, 2” would be a shut­ter speed of 2 sec­onds. When you are in shut­ter pri­or­i­ty mode (S or Tv on your cam­era), the longest time you can usu­al­ly set is some­thing around 30 sec­onds. If you want to expose even longer, you can do that by using the man­u­al mode. In this mode, you can set a ‘BULB’ shut­ter ‘speed’, which means the shut­ter stays open for as long as you hold down the shut­ter but­ton. Think­ing of that, use a cable release to avoid cam­era shake. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed with any longer shut­ter speed! Some cam­eras have modes where you press the shut­ter but­ton to start the expo­sure (cur­tain open), and with the next shut­ter but­ton click the cur­tains close. Still very prone to cam­era shake, use a cable release or an elec­tron­ic release (e.g. a mobile phone app for remote con­trol of your camera).

What shutter speed should I select?

It depends on the type of sub­ject and what effect you want to achieve. And how much light you have at your dis­pos­al. Let us explore what images would look like with a slow or a fast shut­ter speed.

fast shut­ter speed freezes motion:

Pho­to by dan gar­ri on Unsplash
Waves at Birdlings Flat, Image by Frithjof Moritzen

With slow shut­ter speed, it will blur any fast motion:

Pho­to by Fab­rizio Ver­rec­chia on Unsplash

Select an even slow­er shut­ter speed, and any motion will be invis­i­ble or blend. This is use­ful for some spe­cial use cas­es, e.g. ‘silky’ water, and ‘invis­i­ble’ tourists.

When you have long shut­ter speeds of maybe 30 sec­onds, sev­er­al waves of water would pass before the shut­ter clos­es, and the whole motion of each wave would be in the one frame. The result is a silky tex­ture; it looks more like a very calm sea:

Pho­to by Kevin Bessat on Unsplash

The next exam­ple shows how you can use a slow shut­ter speed to get rid of pesty tourists. It is very dif­fi­cult to let them dis­ap­pear, as that would require a very long expo­sure time. You might need a spe­cial fil­ter to reduce the avail­able light (a strong neu­tral den­si­ty (ND) fil­ter), and the tourists might not move as want­ed. So that is a game you most like­ly lose, but it can still be fun for inter­est­ing ghost effects:

Pho­to by Chris­t­ian Freg­nan on Unsplash

You nat­u­ral­ly have to use slow shut­ter speeds for dark envi­ron­ments or night pho­tog­ra­phy, e.g. the pop­u­lar Milky Way shots. Astro-Pho­tog­ra­phy is a rich top­ic which deserves its own article.

What else is there to tell you about shutter speed?

Maybe the sound of the shut­ter. When you click the shut­ter but­ton, what fol­lows is a sym­pho­ny of mechan­i­cal action inside the cam­era: the shut­ter but­ton itself, the mir­ror (if you still use an SLR cam­era 🙂 ) flip­ping out of the way, the aper­ture blades clos­ing, and the shut­ter cur­tains open­ing and clos­ing again. Some cam­eras have a very sat­is­fy­ing ‘click’ (pho­tog­ra­phers call the entire process ‘actu­a­tion’) , but some can be very annoy­ing. I was recent­ly in the audi­ence of a musi­cal per­for­mance, and the (ama­teur) pho­tog­ra­ph­er didn’t care about the noise pol­lu­tion she caused by the con­stant click-click-click thun­der­storm, which ruined parts of the per­for­mance for the audi­ence. For cas­es like these, many mod­ern dig­i­tal cam­eras have an elec­tron­ic shut­ter at their dis­pos­al. It is a silent shut­ter, no ‘click’ at all. It works by turn­ing the sen­sor on and off for the expo­sure dura­tion, instead of open­ing and clos­ing the shut­ter cur­tains. Rec­om­mend­ed for any sit­u­a­tion where the ‘click’ sound is an annoyance.

We should also talk about using a tri­pod or some­thing else to sta­bi­lize the cam­era when using longer shut­ter speeds. The longer the expo­sure time, the more like­ly it is that any cam­era shake is vis­i­ble in the image as a blur. Short shut­ter speeds freeze not only the motion of the sub­ject but also ‘freeze’ the motion of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, mak­ing sure the image is sharp. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant when using lens­es with a high mag­ni­fi­ca­tion (tele­pho­to lens, macro lens), as any cam­era move­ment is also more pro­nounced and requires a short­er shut­ter speed for accept­able sharp­ness. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a short shut­ter speed means you need a lot of light to get the image prop­er­ly exposed. There is always a trade-off. That makes it chal­leng­ing to select the best com­bi­na­tion of Shut­ter speed, Aper­ture and ISO to get a good expo­sure and also con­trol all the dif­fer­ent effects they car­ry with them.

Have fun tak­ing pic­tures, maybe try some silky-wave-long-expo­sure next time?

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