Photography Basics: Shutter Speed

Like I mentioned last week, exposure is the foundation of photography; it can be difficult to master, but having a basic understanding of how it works will help you improve your photo game by leaps and bounds. Learning how to operate your camera in manual mode will help you to take advantage of everything it has to offer, but you’re going to have to figure some of that out on your own since every camera is different. It’s unlikely that you’re using the same model that I am, so I probably can’t advise you on the technical aspects of your digital camera.

My camera, a Canon EOS Digital Rebel T3. It’s definitely not the new hotness, but it still gets the job done.

What I can do is show you how controlling the elements that make up exposure will affect your photography. We’re starting with shutter speed.

First, the technical details. The sensor in a digital camera acts a bit like film in an analog camera. It captures the light that comes through your camera’s lens and creates the image that you see. I’m not going to get that technical, so here is a helpful article if you want to know exactly how a sensor works. The shutter is like a little curtain inside your camera that opens and closes to expose the sensor to light. Your shutter speed determines how long the curtain stays open. It’s usually measured in fractions of a second.

Shutter speed is circled; it’s currently 1/200 of a second.

All three elements of exposure have two features. Shutter speed determines how long your sensor is exposed to light, which will make your photo brighter or darker depending on your surroundings. The longer the shutter is open (i.e., the slower your shutter speed), the brighter your picture will be. It also determines how motion is captured in an image. For example, a high shutter speed will freeze birds in flight while a low shutter speed can give an artistic blur to flowing water.

When I’m getting ready to set my shutter speed, the first thing I try to consider is whether something is moving in my shot and how I want to capture that motion. My next concern is the amount of light that is available to me.

If nothing is moving, I use shutter speed and ISO to control the amount of light in the image, and aperture to determine what parts of the picture will be in focus. We’ll discuss using aperture this way in more detail next week, so for now let’s concentrate on motion. You’re going to want to practice this ahead of time if you have any big shoots planned. Don’t expect perfection on your first try; it can be a fiddly process to get everything just right.

To freeze motion, you want a high shutter speed. This means that your aperture will need to be a lower f-stop than you might normally use, and your ISO might need to be higher as well. The three elements play off of each other at all times; how you adjust one will affect the other two. There is some math behind this, but I’m saving that for the end of our exposure series; I think it will be easier to explain and understand once we’ve gone over all three elements in detail. For now, here’s a practice scenario for you.

(Note: This is just the way I do things. I’m a kinetic learner–I can read or hear about something until the cows come home, but the lesson isn’t going to stick until I actually start trying to do it. I end up experimenting a lot.)

Let’s say I want to take photos of bees. I don’t, really, I’m terrified of bees, but they’re easy to find and they make a pretty good example for this subject. What I would do is set up my camera with my shutter speed fairly high, then use my aperture to focus on a flower, and take a test shot. It’s usually pretty bright outside when bees are around so I can keep my ISO at its lowest setting, which is 100. If my test shot is too bright, I’ll raise my shutter speed even higher and take another test shot. I’ll continue this until I’m satisfied. Then I’ll try to compose an interesting shot with flowers and bees. If necessary, I’ll make other adjustments and shoot again until I get what I want. Like I said, it’s a fiddly process and I’m still learning.

I was trying my hardest to get a shot of the bee in the air to illustrate this point even better, but it just wasn’t happening that day.

You can probably get away without using a tripod in this situation because your shutter speed is high and camera shake won’t be as big of a deal. It’s when you get into low shutter speeds, let’s say slower than about 1/60 of a second, that you will probably want to use a tripod to get the best possible shot.

Now let’s look at low shutter speeds. Although you’re usually shooting in fractions of a second, a slow shutter speed can be full seconds depending on what you want to capture. Some cameras even have what’s called B or bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open for as long as you hold the button down. When your shutter speed is low, your sensor is exposed to light for a longer period of time. This means your aperture needs to be a higher f-stop and your ISO might need to be higher as well. It can be hard to get a long exposure shot on a sunny day without overexposure; for best results, try shooting on overcast days or even at night when you want to use a low shutter speed. Here’s something fun to try at night.

Set up near a fairly busy road. Obviously you don’t want to be so close that cars will hit you. A rooftop or an overpass that has a sidewalk will be ideal. You want a low shutter speed, start out around 2 or 3 seconds. Use your aperture to focus on any stationary things or objects of interest in the area. Your ISO should be low, around 100, because this is all about the light and you want it to be as free from noise as possible. Wait until a car is coming by, then take the photo. Pretty cool, right?

The white lines to the left are the headlights of a passing car. This would have been a lot more impressive if there had been more traffic.

You’ll definitely need a tripod for this sort of shooting. A shutter remote helps as well because then you don’t even have to touch the camera and risk shaking it. You can get some interesting effects if you set a low shutter speed and move the camera deliberately, though, so feel free to play around and see what happens.

A deliberate camera shake can add some interesting effects to a long exposure shot.

There is some math involved in the relationship between your shutter speed and the amount of light that reaches your sensor, but I decided to keep things simple since this is supposed to be a basics post. I wanted to cover this somewhat briefly, and I think this is probably enough for one day, don’t you? Leave a comment here or on Facebook if you’d like me to break the numbers down for you, and I’ll be happy to explain! Next Friday we’re talking about aperture, one of my favorite elements of exposure. I’m going to do my best to have some fun pictures to share. In the meantime, I hope you’ll like and share this post with your friends! Thanks for reading; see you next week!

Photography Basics: Exposure at a Glance

Welcome to my basics series! Although a lot of my posts involve DSLR shooting, since that’s what I primarily use, I wanted to create some articles that would be universal to photography with almost any digital camera. For those of you who don’t know, DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex, and it refers to the way the camera uses a single lens and a mirror to process light into images. At this time, I’m more interested in the art of taking photos than in the more technical details of how a camera works; I’m planning on writing some posts in the future about different types of gear when I start getting ready to upgrade my equipment, but today is not that day. Today we’re talking about exposure, which is the foundation of photography no matter what kind of camera you’re using.

But I won’t leave you tech fans high and dry. If you want to know more about the differences between types of cameras on the market, here is a Wikipedia article that talks about DSLRs, traditional digital cameras, and the newer mirrorless system cameras. Enjoy!

Exposure is basically how bright or dark your image appears. It’s something I’ve touched on before here and here, but so far have not discussed in detail. It’s one of those things that seems simple in theory but can be tricky to master.

I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that most beginner photographers shoot in Auto, or whatever their camera’s approximation of Auto is. It’s easy and safe, and most cameras will probably produce decent pictures in Auto. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But what if you want to do better than decent? Well, then it’s time to get out of the safe zone that Auto mode provides and start taking control of your photography. This is a process, by the way–don’t be discouraged if your pictures are bad at first. Set aside time to practice and you’ll eventually see your hard work pay off.

This was taken on auto at sunset. It’s not a bad photo overall, but I prefer the manual version below.
This one was taken in manual, just a few seconds after the auto picture. It is a bit darker, but I feel like the sunset looks much deeper. Honestly, I probably should have gotten in place a few minutes earlier.

The first step in the process is to dig out your camera manual and figure out how to change the settings. You’re looking for three things–shutter speed, aperture (or f-stops), and ISO. If you don’t have the manual, look for your camera model in a search engine and see if one is available to view online or download. If you’re shooting with your smartphone, consider an app that will give you that level of control over your phone’s camera. Open Camera (Android) or Halide (iOS) came up after a quick Google search for me; I don’t use either of them, though, so I can’t tell you how well they perform. You’ll have to try them out on your own and then come back and tell me about them. (I’m 100% guilty of leaving my phone in Auto all the time; I don’t take pictures with it all that often.)

Step two is learning how these three elements interact with one another to create an image. This one’s going to take some practice. For now, we’ll just go over what the elements are.

Shutter speed–In a digital camera, shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. In a nutshell, high shutter speeds are good for bright places, while slower ones will allow more light to reach your sensor when it’s dark. But wait, there’s more! Your shutter speed will also determine how much motion is in an image. A high speed will allow you to capture subjects in motion while lower speeds introduce blur. Shutter speed is usually measured in seconds or fractions of a second. We’ll talk more about this next week.

This was shot at a fairly high (I want to say 1/250 but of course I didn’t write it down) shutter speed. As you can see, the water in the fountain is “frozen” midair.
Same fountain, same time, the big change was a much slower shutter speed. I also had to adjust aperture to keep from overexposing the shot. You can see the motion of the water here, and the background is brighter as well.

Aperture–We’ve talked about aperture before, and we will again. You can’t have a complete understanding of exposure without learning about all three elements, and I feel like this one allows you a great degree of creative control over your photos. Aperture is the opening in the lens of your camera (and different lenses will allow you to achieve different apertures, which is another bonus of a DSLR or a camera that allows you to switch out lenses); it’s measured in F-stops. Small numbers are wider openings, which allow more light to pass through the lens. Large numbers are smaller openings and let in less light. But that’s not all! Your aperture also determines your depth-of-field, or which parts of the photo are in focus. Large numbers are good for landscape photos or pictures where you want everything to be the same level of focus. Small numbers are good for softness or artistic blur.

This field of sunflowers was shot at a high f-stop (I want to say 16 or 20), so all of the flowers have about the same amount of focus.
This sunflower was shot at an aperture of F 1.8, the widest I can produce at the moment. The image in the foreground is fairly sharp and the soft background makes it stand out even more.

ISO–The ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to light. Lower numbers are less sensitive, while high numbers are more sensitive. Like shutter speed and aperture, ISO is also a twofold element. A high ISO will allow you to take photos in darker environments, but it also introduces noise to your photos. I don’t care for noisy photos, and I had a serious problem with cameras taking very noisy pictures in low light. So taking control of this was a big deal for me. I tend to shoot with a low ISO and only change it if I can’t get the shot I want by altering my shutter speed and aperture.

Here’s an example of a photo with noise. I shot this on Auto a long time ago. See all the speckles in the background? That’s noise caused by a high ISO.

When you’re getting ready to take a photo, exposure is one of the first things you need to consider. It’s not just how bright or dark you want your image to be, but also how you want to capture motion, depth-of-field, and the amount of noise you’re willing to put up with to achieve your desired shot. It’s a balancing act. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to show you how to manipulate all three of these elements so that you can find the balance in your own photography.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Please come back next Friday for a more in-depth look at shutter speed. I’m working on putting some really cool stuff together for you. In the meantime, you can follow me on Facebook for more pictures, articles, and other goodies.