Shutter speed, why you care

FourLittleAngelsOK, those spinning light pictures are kinda cute, but why do you really care about shutter speed if you aren’t trying to capture fire dancers? In short, the shutter speed gives you artistic control of the way your camera captures motion.

One day at work, I heard jets flying very low over my San Francisco office. I happened to have the camera on my desk, so I grabbed it and ran up to the roof to see what was causing the ruckus. I’d completely forgotten that it was Fleet Week in San Francisco, and the Blue Angels were putting on a show for us. I grabbed my longest telephoto lens and started snapping. Since the planes were going by at several hundred miles per hour, I needed a very fast shutter speed to avoid blurriness. This photo was taken at 1/1600 sec, which is pretty speedy.

What if you want to take a picture of your son’s little league game. He’s the pitcher, so of course you want to capture him for posterity. What shutter speed should you use? Well, it depends. Do you want to freeze him in motion just as the ball flies away from him? If so, you should probably use a shutter speed of around 1/500 in order to freeze the motion. Do you want to capture blur from the motion of his arm and see the ball traveling through the air? To achive this result, use something slower, maybe 1/80 or 1/60.

JohnInMotionHere’s a neat picture of my drummer friend John. The shutter speed on this was 1/80 sec, which froze almost everything the picture but captured the motion of his drumsticks and his hands. This produces a much more interesting and dynamic shot than if the drumsticks had been completely unblurred– you can almost hear the crash of the cymbal as the fast-moving drumstick comes down on it.

There’s also an interesting remedial component to shutter speed that you should be aware of. Have you ever taken what you thought was a wonderful photo, only to find out later that it was shaky and blurry? It turns out that humans aren’t all that great at holding perfectly still. When we try to take a picture with a slow shutter speed, it doesn’t really matter what our subject is doing. The photographer (that’s us!) wiggles and jiggles around so much that even a picture of a rock will be blurry.

If you’re holding the camera in your hand rather than supporting it on a tripod or some other solid surface, you need to use a fast enough shutter speed that your own motion won’t blur the photo. Some photographers are better at holding still than others, but everybody gets camera shake if their shutter speed is too slow. A general rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be no slower than the focal length of your lens. For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens, use 1/50 or faster. If you’re using a 200mm lens, use 1/200 or faster. Unless you have nerves of steel, that’s the absolute slowest that you should try to hand-hold a shot. Even you might not be quite that steady; it pays to experiment and figure out how steady your own hands are.

IMG_8485Newer image stabilizing lenses will let you exceed that guideline, but they’re relatively expensive, and they aren’t the cure-all that some people make them out to be.

Thus far, we’ve pretty much just focused on reasons that you might want a fast shutter speed. What about a really slow one? Fireworks are one example. You need a tripod or some other way to stabilize the camera, but fireworks are surprisingly easy to shoot. For this shot, I set the shutter speed to 4 seconds and then did my best to time the shutter so that it opened just before an explosion.

Here’s another great example. Noted nature photographer Joe Decker uses a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of water in this stunning image. Incidentally, Joe has graciously allowed me to use some of his photographs as illustrations on this site. You should check out his work.

Next lesson: How your camera works– the meter


Filed under Lesson, shutter speed

9 responses to “Shutter speed, why you care

  1. Judi Jones

    Your explanations are so clear. I love the idea that the size of the lens should correspond to that of the shutter speed to avoid shake. Wonderful stuff!

  2. Wonderful info; I’m loving this.

  3. Kevin

    I think the only thing this post is lacking is gnomes? Where are the gnomes? :)

    I’ve always been curious about what kind of elements you’d want to show speed/blur and what elements you’d want to keep sharp. Like if you slowed down the shutter speed on the Blue Angels, would that give the element of speed or would the whole thing just be a mess? And do you really NEED to show speed in that picture? They’re jets. Its pretty much a given, right?

    Just some thoughts. :)

  4. stopshootingauto

    Kevin, that’s a great question!

    Unfortunately, the answer isn’t easy. This is where we start getting into the art of photography rather than the technical aspects, and that’s a whole other can o’ worms.

    Having said that, I don’t know. My guess is that you might be able to get an interesting photo if you slowed down the shutter speed, or you might just end up with an ugly blur. If you slowed it down just a little bit you’d almost certainly get something that just looked wrong– there wouldn’t be enough motion to be interesting, so it would just look like a mistake. I could be wrong.

    If the planes were against an interesting background rather than sky, there’s another technique that could work– panning. In panning, you move the camera to follow the object in motion. If you do it well you get a fairly crisp image of the object and motion blur in the background. Here are a couple of examples I got with a quick Flickr search:

    Plane panning

    The best thing I can recommend is to go out and experiment.

  5. Dude you rock. this is so easy to understand. I’m loving it. I’m def an amatuer but looking to be pro. This will def help me out.

  6. OmAbdellah

    ur simple explanation to everything is awesome..thanks a lot for is really helping me out!

  7. Puneet

    Wonderful explanation.

  8. I just saw your article about exposures and I immediately checked your other articles. I really must say that the only articles that I find very easy to understand and doesn’t go too much into a very complex explanation (read : English). I have been reading Photography tips/articles in the past 3 years and I’ve never encountered such an easy way to follow/understand the tips they’re giving unless you really are trying what they’re telling while reading it. when I read your explanation, I totally have a clear picture (if not clear, at least an idea) in my mind other than not having anything at all. thanks a lot and keep up the good work! I started doing Photography since mid 2008 up until now and I know to myself that I am still not a very good Hobbyist Photographer, I plan to be a Pro and I want Photography to be my profession and my passion :)

    • stopshootingauto

      Thanks! That’s exactly my goal– I want to make this stuff easy to understand. Exposure is really not rocket science, but photographers do love jargon. I’m guilty of it myself sometimes, but I try not to do it here. Jargon is scary.

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