What is shutter speed?

September 17 , 2010 by: Daniela Bowker Feature Articles, Photography Theory

Lava lamp

When we’re thinking about exposing our pictures correctly, there are three variables to consider – aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. All of these have an effect on how light or dark your picture is, as well as affecting other aspects of your photo. We have looked at the effects of aperture and ISO in previous articles, so it’s time to consider shutter speeds, and what lowering your shutter speed can do to your pictures.

What do you mean by shutter speed?

To get to grips with what shutter speed is, we need to know what a shutter is. And to do this, it helps to understand the very basics of how a camera works. Light enters a camera lens, travels into the camera body and is recorded as an image when it hits the sensor (or film) in the back of the camera. The amount of time the light is allowed to hit the sensor for is controlled by the shutter; a piece of metal or fabric that opens and closes when the picture is taken. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the shutter is open for. Get it? Okay.

Bunny was photographed using a 4 second exposure

What does this mean for your pictures?

Well, two things. First, the longer your shutter speed is, the longer that you’re letting light hit the sensor – which means that your picture will be brighter. This is great news for taking pictures at night, as you can correctly expose dark scenes without having to use flash. As long as you’re photographing still objects, that is – the second effect of slow shutter speeds is that whilst a shutter is open, all movement during this period is recorded. This means that photos of people in dark rooms can be out of focus if slow shutter speeds are used without flash.

It’s the streaks of light that show movement in this long exposure. ‘Long Exposure’, by Danny Wartnaby

How can I control it?

Try changing your camera from Auto mode to either Shutter Priority mode (‘TV’ on a Canon camera; ‘S’ on a Nikon) or Program mode (P), and experiment! For most long shutter speed work, a tripod is necessary, as it allows you to ensure that your camera isn’t moving whilst you’re taking your pictures. This makes sure that any static objects in your photo remain in focus.

Be Creative

Using slow shutter speeds, you can get some amazing effects – I’ve always loved photos featuring light trails and more recently have become amazed by shots of star trails, which use exactly the same premise as capturing the trails left by car headlights. You can also use slow shutter speeds to create fantastic panning effects.

A Haunted Trail, by Joshua Debner

I’ve chosen just a few examples, but there are plenty more ideas out there. So what are you waiting for?

All photos used in this article are used as ‘fair dealing‘. If you have strong reservations against your photos appearing on Small Aperture, please contact us, and we’ll get them taken down. Please support the artists creating these photos by clicking on the photos to take a closer look at their work!

About Daniela

This post was written by Daniela Bowker, who has written 1382 articles for Photocritic

Daniela has written three books on photography, contributed to several others, and acted as the editorial consultant on many more.

Her newest book, Social Photography, is currently available as a digital download as well as in bookshops in the UK and US.

You might also want to check out her exploration of other-worldly photographic creations, Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible, and Photo School Fundamentals, for which she contributed the section on composition.

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