Digital Photography 101: Shutter Speed

This is part four of a series of articles I’m writing about digital photography, as I learn more about it. You can find links to the other articles at the bottom of this one.

Any camera has a shutter, and that shutter is the “curtain” that covers your film, and either a) keeps light from hitting the film, or b) opens to let light hit your film.

In the digital world, your film isn’t really film, but it acts the same, and your shutter operates just like it would on a non-digital film camera. What’s important about the shutter is it’s speed.

Shutter Speeds are usually denoted on your camera as fractions or real numbers: 1/800, 1/600, 1/400, 1/250, 1/200, 1/125, 1/60, 1/15, 1/10, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 20, 30.

A faster shutter speed lets less light hit your film than a slower shutter speed. For example, if your shutter speed is “1/125″ that means the shutter will be open for one one-hundred and twenty fifth of a second. A shutter speed of “1/60″ is one sixtieth of a second, and “1” is one full second, and “30” is 30 seconds.

Shutter speed, combined with film speed and aperture, will give you an exposure.

To get a perfect exposure, your aperture and shutter speed must be aligned.

That means the bigger your aperture, the faster your shutter speed, and the smaller your aperture, the slower your shutter speed. (Remember: smaller aperture = less light hitting the film, thus a slower shutter = more light hitting the film.)

Aperture and shutter speed must balance to get a well exposed photo.

Also, a faster shutter speed typically means a “frozen” scene or photograph, whereas a slower shutter speed will allow the photo or subjects in the photo to blur. For example, this photo of my son, is a little blurry, but well lit, because I had a relatively slow shutter speed programmed (1/10th of a second). And this photo of a bug on a flower is very sharp, because I had a fast shutter speed (1/1000th of a second). And lastly, the photo below is sharp, only because I mounted the camera on a tripod, but the shutter speed is very long (30 seconds) due to the low light levels outside at night:

Goodnight St. George

With most DSLR cameras these days, you can shoot in “Shutter Priority” mode, meaning that you want the camera to always shoot at 1/60th of a second, and let the camera’s AI figure out if the aperture should be big or small, so you get the proper exposure. I find if I’m shooting inside with or without a flash and ISO 400 or ISO 800 film, and shooting in Shutter Priority mode, 1/60 is the right setting for sharp photos that are exposed enough to fix later with Photoshop, as long as I’m shooting RAW.

Just remember: shutter speed control gives you two things: sharp or blurry images, and lots of light, or less light, depending on the settings.

And combined with the aperture setting, shutter speed is the second piece to getting a good exposure. We’ll go over exposure in the next article.

Here are a few links to some other articles you might want to read on shutter speeds:

Other articles in this series:

And you can browse the rest of the Photography + Video category on this site for more links to relevant content.

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