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Shutter speed is one of the fundamental camera settings—and every aspiring photographer should it understand through and through. Not only does it affect your final exposure, it can be used for movement photography in creative ways. 

Heading out on a photoshoot? Read on for an overview of everything you need to know to get started with shutter speed.

What is Shutter Speed?

Before we get into how to use shutter speed creatively as a photographer, let’s get a few basics out of the way:

  • Shutter definition: The mechanism that opens and closes to expose film in a camera. It’s actually made of two parts—the shutter release, which is the button you click, and the shutter curtain, the device that opens to let light into your camera.
  • Shutter speed definition: The amount of time your shutter is open and allowing light to reach your film or digital sensor.

Shutter speed is typically measured in seconds—or even fractions of a second! For example, 1/500 means the shutter will be open for a 500th of a second, letting very little light in, whereas 5” or 5s means the shutter will be open for five seconds, letting a lot more seep through. The smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed is. 

But it’s not just about light—shutter speed also affects how movement is captured in your shots. A faster shutter speed is capturing a very short moment in time, meaning movement will typically be frozen, whereas a slow shutter speed may create a blurred look since the shutter remains open while your subject is moving.

A shutter speed chart showing how different speeds affect light and motion.
A shutter speed chart showing how different speeds affect light and motion.

The shutter speed works together with the aperture (or how wide your lens is open) and the ISO (or how sensitive your film or digital sensor is to light) to create the final exposure of your photograph. 

How Do You Use Shutter Speed?

We’ll talk more about how to choose the right shutter speed for your situation in a minute, but here’s a general rule of thumb: For frozen motion, use the fastest shutter speed you can given your lighting situation. For blurred motion or capturing a low-light situation, you’ll want to use a slow shutter speed.

Another photography tip: If you’re going slower than 1/125, you’ll need to use a tripod (unless you want your entire image to be shaky!). If you’re shooting handheld, stay faster than that. 

In terms of how to change shutter speed, there are a few options depending on your camera and preferences. 

Most DSLR cameras display the shutter speed on the digital display as well as in your viewfinder. You can typically adjust it using the common dial, or the little ridged dial: Turn it left for a slower shutter speed and right for a higher one. Whether you’re wondering how to change shutter speed on Canon or how to change shutter speed on Nikon or anything in between, start here.

If you’re shooting in manual mode, select the shutter speed you want and then adjust your ISO and aperture until the light meter shows you’re in a good exposure range.

Another way is to use shutter priority mode on your camera. Shutter priority mode allows you to choose a specific shutter speed you want—the camera will then automatically adjust the aperture and ISO to create a good exposure. On most DSLR cameras, shutter priority mode is labeled as “Tv” or “S” on your settings dial.

A DSLR camera set to shutter priority mode.
A DSLR camera set to shutter priority mode.

Learn More Photography Basics!

Fundamentals of DSLR Photography

What Results Do You Get With Different Shutter Speeds?

Movement Photography

Carefully selected shutter speed is great for capturing movement in different ways. If you want to freeze motion—such as in sports photography or when capturing action on the streets—use a fast shutter speed. You can also capture the feeling of movement by intentionally using a slower shutter speed for a blurred effect. 

Shutter speed chart showing experiments in freezing fast-paced action using a fast shutter speed.
Shutter speed chart showing experiments in freezing fast-paced action using a fast shutter speed.
A blurred motion picture taken with a slower shutter speed.
A blurred motion picture taken with a slower shutter speed.

Light Painting

Use a long shutter speed to capture the movement of light, creating long trails of light and color. Use a tripod if you want the rest of your image in focus—or go handheld to create abstract art.

Light painting using a long shutter speed and a tripod.
Light painting using a long shutter speed and a tripod.
Light painting using a long shutter speed and no tripod.
Light painting using a long shutter speed and no tripod.

Low-Light Photos

In low-light situations—such as shooting the night sky or capturing lightning—you’ll want to use very long shutter speeds and make sure to use a tripod to keep the rest of your shot steady.

Lightning photograph captured using a long shutter speed.
Lightning photograph captured using a long shutter speed.
Star photograph captured using a long shutter speed.
Star photograph captured using a long shutter speed.

Is there a best shutter speed?

There is no best shutter speed, only the best shutter speed for the look you’re trying to achieve. Here are some general ranges to keep in mind for different situations:

  • Freeze a slow-moving subject: 1/250 – 1/500 sec
  • Freeze fast motion: 1/1000 – 1/5000 sec
  • Slight motion blur: 1/15 – 1/60 sec
  • Night photography: 15-30 sec

Start with these, then experiment until you capture the exact photograph you have in your mind!

Play Around With Shutter Speed!

Shutter Speed: Photographing Lightning, Stars, and Water