Understanding Shutter Speed | How It Works And Affects Your Images

Understanding Shutter Speed | How It Works And Affects Your Images

Since I was very young, the concept of time travel has always excited and enthralled me. H.G Wells’ Time Machine served as a ready catalyst and really fired up my imagination. Oh…if only I could share my wonderful dreams with you!

I never got to experience time travel (duh!) but I did get the next best thing…..photography. A beautiful mix of science and art that is all about time and light. I gather that you are now a beginner and have probably got the new camera just to document your daily life or to click a photo of your family every now and then but trust me when I say this, that camera you are holding right now is capable of so much that maybe you will probably never get to see the end of it. That is…. if you use it right. It is such a wonderful machine.

But I digress, let me return to the discussion.

Shutter speed, that is what we are here to discuss. Let’s get on with it then.

What is a camera shutter?

As you already know, the digital cameras that we use today are actually the successors of the film format cameras. We had shutters then just as we have them now. The shutter is a curtain-like arrangement located between the aperture ring and the camera sensor that determines the duration of time the sensor actually “sees” the scene you want to capture.

Where is it located?

The shutter is located between the aperture ring and the camera sensor.

image sensor shutter and aperture ring diagram

How does the shutter work?

In very simple words, the shutter determines the duration of time the image sensor is exposed to light. The shutter speed is nothing but this duration of time. We select a particular shutter speed so that we have a nicely exposed image at the end. Not too dark or not to bright.

Explain shutter speed

Shutter speed determines the time period during which the shutter opens up to let in light to the camera image sensor and then closes to stop the exposure. In other words, it is the duration of time the shutter opens up to let in light into the camera sensor. Let me put it in perspective. In our day-to-day life, one second may be an extremely small period of time but in the context of photography, one second is really long. Actually, most of the shutter speeds in photography are calculated in a fraction of a second.

They look something like this 1/50 sec, 1/250 sec, 1/1000 sec etc. 1/250 sec means the shutter would be open for only 1/250th part of a second. I don’t think I have to tell you how small that duration really is. However, on a camera, the fraction part is generally not mentioned and only the denominator is used. So what you will see is 50, 250, or 1000 mentioned as the shutter speed.

On the back LCD monitor, however, most cameras display the shutter speed in fractions.

DSLR camera settings LCD screen

How is the shutter speed determined?

Depending on what you are shooting, the light available and the camera mode that you are on, the shutter speed is chosen so as to arrive at a value that gives the final image a good and proper exposure. Choosing the perfect shutter speed is a long discussion, so more on this in future articles.

How does it look like?

When you press the camera shutter button, this happens inside your DSLR camera:


What you see opening and closing is the mechanical shutter of the DSLR camera. The shiny reflective inside is the camera image sensor.

Why do we need so many shutter speeds?

It is a very legitimate question. Apart from making sure that we get the perfect exposure, shutter speed has another very important influence on photographs. From a creative point of view, shutter speed is primarily used for either of the two purposes:

  • Show motion
  • Freeze motion

Show motion: Unless you are shooting absolutely stationary subjects like a landscape or a building, shutter speed can be used to show motion of the moving subject. Take a look at these images:

fast car slow shutter speed


slow shutter speed train


soccer long shutter speed

Looks beautiful right?

The reason the images above look so dynamic and ‘in the moment’ is because the photographer deliberately chose a shutter speed that was slow enough to capture the subject but shows the available motion too. Now one thing that you should know from the onset is that there is NO ONE shutter speed that could be used to take all these different images. All the images above have subjects which move at different speeds and hence we need different shutter speeds too.

Freeze motion: Shutter speed can be used to freeze motion as well. There are many scenarios like sports where we want to have a crisp and sharp image which freezes the motion. A faster shutter speed could be used in these situations to NOT show motion and capture split-second action. Take a look at these images :

American football fast shutter


Fast shutter

Fast shutter speed motorbike

You see, a faster shutter speed does the exact opposite of what we saw earlier, it freezes motion. The image is captured in a split second and the subject looks frozen in time. This is particularly useful for taking images of subjects which are very fast and look wonderful when just a split second of time is seen as a photograph.

The same principle applies here as well that there is NO ONE shutter speed that can be used to capture all these images. It all depends on the relative speed of the subject whose image you want to take. A general rule of thumb:

Faster the subject -> Faster the shutter speed required to freeze action.

Which shutter speed should you be using?

Since you are just starting off now, I would suggest that you use a shutter speed of 1/60 sec or more (1/120 sec, 1/250 sec, etc). This reduces the chances of having blur in your images and gives you sharp and crisp pictures. As I said earlier, you need a shutter speed that is optimal to be used with the subjects that you are photographing. If you somehow use a slower shutter speed than that is required for your subjects, the images are going to get blurred out.

Like this:

Slow shutter speed blur

The photographer here kept the shutter open for far too long than that was required resulting in a blurry image. The image now has too much blur and the women in them are barely distinguishable. Not a good photograph at all.

There is a simple “rule” that you may follow too. Use the shutter speed that is equal to the focal length that you are using. So if you are taking a picture at 100 mm focal length, use 1/100 sec shutter speed to ensure that your images are not blurred out. This is just a basic guide, you DO NOT need to follow this at all once you get the hang of the concept of shutter speed.

If you had any complaints of blurry images previously, now you know how to fix it.

How do you control shutter speed?

Primarily shutter speed can be controlled using your camera menu system. In some camera models, the shutter speed can also be controlled using some buttons or dials in conjunction. The basic way of changing shutter speed is more or less the same in all cameras. To know the exact way, consult your camera manual.

Here are a few video guides for Nikon and Canon just to give you a sense of how to do it:




When you know more about the exposure triangle and the various other elements in photography you would understand that shutter speed is just one of the components of the exposure triangle. The other two being Aperture and ISO. Whenever you change the shutter speed, the exposure of the image is affected. For now, just know that given the Aperture and ISO as constant;

  • Faster Shutter Speed -> Makes the image darker.
  • Slower Shutter Speed -> Makes the image brighter.

The reason is quite obvious. When the shutter speed is slow, the shutter is open for a longer duration, allowing more light to come in and hence making the image brighter. Exactly the opposite happens when the shutter is opened for a smaller duration; less light comes in making the image darker.

I hope now you have a pretty good understanding of the inner mechanics of the camera shutter and how it affects your images. Try out many scenarios now where you photograph fast- and slow-moving subjects and you will understand it even better.

When you have mastered everything I talked about in this article, come back and read up the next part which will make the idea of shutter speed even more clear.

Go out then and keep shooting amazing.

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