Understanding Shutter Speed // Photography Tips

Hey guys! I’ve been wanting to do some photography posts for a while now. Originally, I wanted to do a video of my approach to editing photos, but I no longer have my free trial of Camtasia so that will have to wait until I figure something out (because Camtasia is expensive).

In the meantime, I thought I would start with something pretty basic that can also be tricky to get right: shutter speed.

It might just look like a bunch of numbers without meaning. You might not know what it does or why it’s there. FEAR NOT. Shutter speed is exactly what it sounds like–the time it takes your camera’s shutter to capture an image. It can be really fast or really slow or anywhere in the middle.

(Also, keep in mind that I am not an expert or a professional. Most of what I know has been self-taught.)

So why is this setting important?

1/250 sec – taken June 2011
1/1600 sec – taken July 2014

When you think of shutter speed, you want to think of movement. If you are trying to capture something that is moving very fast, you want a fast shutter speed so that the image is clear. A lower shutter speed will give you a more blurry effect.

Why not have a high shutter speed all the time?

This was a question I had starting out. There are two main reasons.

1) Sometimes you want a blurry effect.
Ever see photos where flowing water looks all airy and light, like a cloud? Or a city street where all the cars have turned into streaks of light? If not, here are some examples, via Pinterest (these are not my photos):

500px / Photo "night traffic" by Maxim Solodov - via http://bit.ly/epinner
In Feng Shui water is the symbol of abundance and prosperity. Placing an image of a waterfall in your purse can help you connect with the never ending flow of universal abundance. Print this image ...
To get this kind of effect, you need long exposure, which is accomplished through a low shutter speed.


1/20 sec – taken May 2015

Ah, now we come to the problem. If you are outside, there is usually enough natural light to support higher shutter speeds. But if you are somewhere without a lot of light, you may not be able to use a high shutter speed because you will not be able to get enough exposure.

The shutter speed determines how much light your camera lets in (exposure). If you are at a high shutter speed, you only let in a small amount of light. If you are at a low shutter speed, you let in much more light.

The trick for using shutter speed is to find the right balance between lighting and clarity. The best way to figure this out is to go to your “TV” setting. On this setting, the shutter speed option is isolated from the others, meaning you can adjust it while everything else is set to automatic (but make sure your ISO is also set to Auto). It’s a great way to get the hang of it without having to worry about all the other settings you find in Manual mode.

Okay, so now we get to the numbers.

This part might seem confusing, because as you increase your shutter speed, the number actually becomes smaller. A high speed means that your shutter stays open very briefly. A low speed means your shutter is open for longer. The strange fractions indicate the length of time your shutter is open.

Let’s demonstrate this with some shots of my ceiling fan, shall we?

With each shot, I increased the shutter speed. You can see how the blades of the fan become sharper and more focused with every shot, but this also means that each frame gets a little darker.

Okay, so here’s a recap:
1) A long (or low) shutter speed is blurrier, but lets in more light.
2) A short (or high) shutter speed is clearer, but lets in less light.
3) Use a high shutter speed to freeze a frame or when you have a lot of light.
4) Use a low shutter speed when you want to convey movement or when you are in a low light setting.
5) Use the TV setting on your camera to practice shutter speed.

If any of that was confusing or needs clarified, please let me know! Feel free to ask questions! Also, be sure to leave any ideas for future posts for photography tips. Is there anything else you’d like to know? (My next post will probably be over aperture or ISO speed.)



  1. Beth
    July 11, 2015

    This is a really useful post, Emily! I went on a photograph course last year where the instructor spent two hours trying to teach us this… you've provided the same information in the space of two minutes. YAY YOU! (Also, that photo of the bird is beautiful. And I'm scared of birds, so that means a lot!)
    Beth x

  2. Micah Lambert
    July 11, 2015

    Literally just screen shotted this entire post for future reference, haha! Thanks for sharing šŸ™‚

  3. Emily Seals
    July 14, 2015

    That's wonderful! Thanks for reading and I'm glad it was helpful. =)

  4. Emily Seals
    July 14, 2015

    Thanks, Beth! I would have loved to take a few photography courses in college but could never fit them into my schedule. Maybe someday.

  5. Cait @ Paper Fury
    July 15, 2015

    Omg, this is so so helpful. I LITERALLY KNOW NOTHING ABOUT CAMERAS. Which makes me cry. But I find tutorials so confusing and I never know where to go on my camera to even change the settings. *glares at self because always lives in auto* Still this totally makes sense. I need go experiment.

  6. Emily Seals
    July 17, 2015

    I started out with shutter speed when learning by using TV mode (I have a Canon camera, by the way. I'm not sure if this is the same for Nikon), then worked myself up to Manual but it took me years. Your photos are already AMAZING, so I wouldn't put yourself down for using Auto. Only you know which settings you use, everyone else just sees pretty pictures. =)


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