technical: shutter speed

Shutter speed and movement

The speed that the shutter inside the camera opens and shuts when making an exposure can effect the way the photo looks, not just how much light is admitted to the film.

The controls

These are the shutter speeds, expressed in fractions of seconds, that you will most commonly find on any semi automatic or manually operated camera.

2000  1000  500  250  125  60  30  15  8  4  2  1   B
fast-------------------------------» slow ----------» shutter held open

The fastest shutter speed here is 2000th of a second, the slowest is 1 full second. The difference between each shutter speed is known as a stop, and either halves or doubles the amount of light allowed to reach the film. The B setting is used to keep the shutter open for a timed exposure of longer than 1 second.

Freezing movement

cartoon: a sharp pixcture of a mini car jumping through the air, showing the effect of a fast shutter speed

Fast shutter speeds can be used to produce the effect that movement has been frozen. The subject must be moving, and the camera still. The position of the subject in mid movement at the time the shutter opens is captured and isolated. This can be a useful technique for sports or dance photography, for photographing moving vehicles, or for creating effects such as the photographing of individual drops of water as they splash. As a general rule, if you want to photograph moving subject and obtain fine detail, a fast shutter speed is essential.


Using flash is another way to freeze movement. The light from the flash is emitted in a fraction of a second and the position of the subject at that moment will be isolated in the image.

Don't use a fast shutter speed with flash. The recommended speed for most cameras is usually 60th of a second, or slower. The shutter needs to be wide open at the moment the flash goes off; at fast shutter speeds this does not happen, so if you use flash with a fast shutter speed, your picture will be sadly cropped.

Tip: You could try experimenting with slow shutter speeds, a moving subject, and flash. Flash will light your subject in one fixed position, but ambient light during the rest of the exposure can create interesting trails of light on a moving subject. This is known as flash-blur.

Blurring movement

cartoon: a moving mini car blurred with slow shutter speed

Slow shutter speeds add blur to moving subjects, which enhances the impression of motion and can be very dramatic in some compositions. This should be done carefully as a subject that moves too fast during a very long exposure will disappear altogether.


cartoon: a mini car jumping through the air with the background blurred

This is a technique using a slow shutter speed where the camera moves to follow a moving subject, so freezing the movement of the main subject but blurring the background to enhance the impression of movement. A tripod and plenty of practice may be necessary in order to perfect this technique.

When to use a tripod

If you are using longer exposures, a tripod is essential to prevent camera shake. When you really require a tripod depends on your camera and lens, how heavy it is, and how steady your hand is. As a general rule most photographers need to put a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens on a tripod when using any shutter speeds below 60th of a second. If you are using telephoto or zoom lenses which can be heavy, be aware that a tripod may be necessary for any shots using shutter speeds below 125th or 250th of a second. A cable release is also useful so that you can trigger the shutter without touching the camera. It is worth choosing a sturdy tripod, as opposed to a lightweight one which will defy its purpose.

cartoon: a camera on a tripod blurring as it falls over