In this installment of Shutterbug 2.0, let’s talk about shutter speed.

When it comes right down to it, shutter speed simply is the amount of time that light is allowed in to reach a camera’s sensor.

Really, you can think of it as a timer.

It is, of course, more complicated than that, seeing as there are two shutters (or curtains) and a mirror involved, but you get the gist.

The science of shutter speed

Shutter speed is how you prevent or create motion blur in your photos. These speeds are measured in seconds — or really, fractions of seconds.

When it comes to understanding the fractions a camera uses, it’s not too hard to comprehend. Most cameras use a “doubling” method for the options from which you have to choose — it’s not exact, but fairly close.

For instance, let’s say your fastest shutter speed is 1/1000 of a second. Your next speed would be double that amount of time, i.e. 1/500 of a second, then 1/250 and so on.

When it comes to slower shutter speeds, they are less exact with the doubling, but it’s normally 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, etc.

If you are trying to freeze the moment, you would use a fast speed (e.g. 1/1000 of a second). If you are looking for blur, you would use slower speeds (such as half a second or even a second, which on most DSLRs shows up as 1”).

The art of changing speeds

faster shutter speed
Courtesy photo

Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/2000 of a second, freeze the motion of what is around the subject. A fast shutter speed captured this wave breaking on a rocky cliff.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why would I want blur my image?” Well, it completely depends on the subject of your photograph and what you are trying to convey.

Do you want to add drama or tension? A fast shutter speed freezes the action, which can cause dramatic scenes.

Slower shutter speeds cause blurring that creates a feeling of serenity and peace.

The exact shutter speed you need depends on each given situation, and learning how to meter light would help you to figure out which settings your camera needs to be on — but that is a topic for a different column.

slower shutter speed
Courtesy photo

Slower shutter speeds, such as 1/2 of a second or longer, create motion blur. This can add a feeling of serenity to your photographs. Look at the waves in this beach scene, for instance.

Slower shutter speeds generally require a tripod. Even if you want blur in your photos, you generally want a specific type of blur — such as the waves in the picture on the left.

What you don’t want is blur caused by your hand not being completely steady.

In all honesty, most people’s hands shake a little.

We don’t notice this for the most part because it is quite minor, but the camera will pick it up and it will be noticeable. When you are talking about a second in real time, it’s nothing, but for a camera, it is significant because they do all of their work in those fractions of seconds.

Summing up

Slow shutter speeds are necessary for a lot of artistic shots and depending on what you want to do, a remote shutter release also might be a good investment (and they are fairly inexpensive).

If you want night shots in which the car lights streak, super smooth ocean waves on beaches, to give passing cars a sense of motion or to show stars swirling around the sky, longer exposures — part of which includes slower shutter speeds — are required.

If you want to freeze birds flying in mid-air, then fast speeds are the way to go — this also applies to small children who seemingly move faster than the speed of light!

However, it probably is not a great idea to think of shutter speed on its own when planning a photo shoot because everything you do with shutter speed affects and is affected by aperture and ISO settings.

I will address ISO in my next installment of Shutterbug 2.0 and then I will talk about how all three factors work together. Until next time, happy shooting!

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