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!

Aperture

The other day, I went over a few things you can do to help improve your photography. Exposure was on the list, and aperture is one of the elements of exposure. I hadn’t planned to write anything about aperture or exposure so soon because I feel that I have yet to master the topic, but when I was out shooting the other day, I managed to take a couple of photos that I think illustrate it really well.

Basically, aperture determines how wide your camera’s shutter opens when you take a photo. It is measured in F-stops; low numbers are a shallow depth of field, and high numbers are deeper. Aperture can also affect the amount of light in the photo, so it works with your shutter speed and ISO to determine how light or dark your pictures are. I am not going to get into detail on all that today, though; I’m not sure I understand it well enough to explain it in detail and keep things interesting. Instead, I’m just going to show you what I shot.

mockingbird and babies
A mockingbird and its babies perched on a sign

See how the trees are in focus, and the birds are not? I shot this with a high F-stop, to compensate for my high shutter speed and the cloudy day. When I realized what I had done, I decreased my F-stop for a more shallow depth of field, and took the picture below.

mockingbird and babies
A clearer picture of the birds

Now the birds are clear, and the shallow depth of field has put the background out of focus, making the birds stand out even more. Had I dropped my F-stop even further, I might have had an even better photo. I was just experimenting with my settings at that time, and unfortunately the birds flew away before I could decrease my F-stop again and take another shot.

Luckily, I have a few other interesting photos from that day, and I hope they’ll help you to understand what a difference understanding aperture can make to your photography.

red hibiscus
A red hibiscus captured from the side

You can see that the flower is quite sharp, but the background is out of focus. I love photographing flowers; they’re beautiful from every angle, they don’t move much (except when it’s windy) so I don’t have to worry about them getting up and leaving, and it’s usually inexpensive or free. I can change camera settings and practice as much as I want. Yay!

yellow hibiscus
A yellow hibiscus up close

Here’s one more; the flower’s pistil is in focus, but the petals are not. Once again, this is due to a low aperture. It’s sort of my taste to have photos with a sharply focused subject toward the center, usually a close-up, and a shallow depth of field is good for that style of photography. However, a large aperture is better for things like landscape photos, where you want more of the image to be in focus. I don’t do a lot of landscape photography at this point, but I do have a couple of examples.

sunsphere world's fair park
The Sunsphere and World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville, TN.
Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

Although I have other landscape pictures, they were from my days of shooting in auto and hoping for the best, so I’m not going to share them today. I’d rather use this blog for the shots that I’ve taken in manual, so I can keep track of the progress I make. But both of these are examples of subjects you would want to tackle with a fairly large aperture, so you can capture as much detail as you can.

That’s all I have today! If you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comment box below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Five things you can do to improve your photos today

Sooo…Like I said in this post the other day, I’m in the process of working to improve my photography. I can’t afford to take classes, but I have plenty of time to practice right now! Here are some things that have been helpful for me.

Best of all, most of these are things that will only cost you time.

Go over your camera manual and learn what the basic settings are
I know this sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to do it all at once. My Canon’s manual is huge…I downloaded a copy and keep it on my phone, so I can refer to it when I’m out shooting without having to lug the actual booklet around. It’s been a great help, especially when I was shooting indoors one day and realized I didn’t know how to adjust the white balance setting. I just pulled out my phone and from there it was an easy fix.

If you don’t have a manual for your camera, Google your model and see if there is one available online to access or download. If you can’t find one that way, see if you can find a forum and ask others for advice.

Learn a bit about exposure
There are three main elements to exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. It’s a lot to cover here, so I’m not going to go into great detail today. Respectively, they are how wide your shutter is open, how long it stays open, and how sensitive your camera sensor is to available light sources. By manipulating the way these three elements interact with one another, you can control how bright or dark an image is, how much noise is present, motion and blur, and all kinds of things. I’m sure I will write a post just on exposure one day, but in the meantime there are loads of tutorials online that will give you an idea of how this works.

Depending on your camera model and preferred shooting mode, you may have more or less control over each of these elements. Shooting in manual should give you complete control over your exposure, although finding the correct balance every time can be tricky.

Practice mindfully composing photos
Instead of just mindlessly snapping away and hoping for the best, lately I’ve been focusing a lot on composition. Whether it’s during the shooting process itself or afterward when I’m editing, I’m trying to expand my horizons a bit in this area. The rule of thirds is especially difficult for me; a typical photo for me used to be as tight as I could get, with my subject dead in the center. I’m trying to get away from that, although I probably won’t stop shooting that way completely. Sometimes those are the images that just speak to me.

Here’s an example of a mindless photo. I just took it, without thinking about the lighting or composition. That reflection off the sign is awful, isn’t it?
A couple steps to the left got me a much better shot of this exhibit. Granted, it’s not the most interesting subject, but it’s what I had to work with that day.

Another thing I’m trying to do is shoot in such a way that the picture will evoke an emotional response in the viewer, or maybe tell a story. I don’t feel like I have it down to the point that I can explain it very well yet, but I will be sure to post about it when I do.

Study other photographers
This is something I love to do–look at other people’s photos, consider what I like about them, and try to figure out how I might achieve similar effects in my own work. It’s not that I’m trying to duplicate their picture, just that I want to understand their use of light and patterns, focal points, and composition.

Use a tripod
So…This is the only suggestion I’m going to have today of extra equipment that you may want to purchase. It doesn’t have to be expensive, either; I see tripods at Goodwill and other resale shops all the time for $5 and under. Using a tripod can make a huge difference in the quality of your work, especially if you have a slow shutter speed, poor light, or your hands are a bit shaky. If you want to take that a step further, consider getting a shutter remote as well.

Waterfall
I shot this without a tripod, and you can see it’s a little blurry.
I used a tripod for this shot. It’s much clearer, and I was able to set a lower shutter speed and capture the motion of the water.

 

Most importantly, have fun while you’re practicing and learning. Some of this–like going over your manual and studying exposure–can get a little dull, but keep in mind that you’ll probably like your photos a lot better after you have a stronger idea of how the technical details work. Photography as a hobby doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and if it feels like a chore you might want to consider trying something different. Learning the basics on whatever equipment you currently have on hand will help you get your best photos yet, and it will also give you a better idea of what you might want to look for if or when you choose to upgrade.

Phew, that sure felt like a lot. I hope it was helpful for you! Any questions? Suggestions? Leave me a comment below! If you enjoyed my post, please give it a like and share it with your friends. Thank you!