Unlock the Power of Shutter Speed in Your Photos

The shutter speed you use has a tremendous impact upon the look, feel and overall oomph of your images. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The shutter speed you use has a tremendous impact upon the look, feel and overall oomph of your images. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Learning how to truly control and use shutter speed is one of most important lessons we all must master as photographers. The reason? Your camera’s shutter speed function is the most powerful image-making element in your arsenal of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. It’s the one factor that, more than any other, can make or break your image. So getting really, really good at using this feature to its full advantage will go a long way towards improving your photography. That’s what we’ll start to do here.

Why do I say shutter speed is so important? Because by using shutter speed correctly and with careful intention, you can greatly enhance the power of the images you’re already making. I’ll give some examples below.

Example 1: Sports Action

Colston catch.

New Orleans Saint Marcus Colston catches a Drew Brees pass. 1/1000th sec @ f2.8, 400mm Canon lens. (Copyright 2010 / The Times-Picayune / Andrew Boyd)

You’re shooting a football game (or other sporting event) with your 300mm lens. It’s a daytime event and you’re camera is set for 400 ISO, Program Mode. The camera picks 1/500th of a second @ f8 for the exposure. The resulting photos will be perfectly ok, but just ok. How could you improve these action shots?

First of all, get out of Program Mode! Change to full Manual or Aperture Priority mode. Then open up to minimum (wide open) aperture and a higher shutter speed, in this case, the equivalent exposure would be 1/2000th sec @ f4 with my Canon 300 mm f4 lens.  What will this change do for your images? First, the minimum aperture will help throw elements you aren’t focusing on out of focus much, much better than the former f8 aperture would do. This alone will improve your images. But just as importantly, 1/2000th sec is FOUR TIMES faster than 1/500th sec, and the detail and action-stopping quality in the images will be much, much CRISPER. (If you doubt this, go out and perform this very exercise at a local soccer or football game, you’ll quickly see how much cleaner the 1/2000th sec images will be.)  To sum up, for peak action, you want very, very fast shutter speeds with minimum apertures.

Example 2: Cyclist Riding (Pan blur)

Now we go to the opposite end of the shutter speed spectrum: intentional blur.

Besides providing you with the ability to make jaw-dropping, incredibly crisp action photos, shutter speed can be used to create beautiful, amazing implied motion with slow shutter speeds. (The photographer most famous for this technique is Ernst Haas, whose later career was defined by it.)

Cyclist. 1/200th sec @ f2.8, ISO 100. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Cyclist. 1/200th sec @ f2.8, ISO 100. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

For this example we’ll be shooting a cyclist. The first shot at left is a standard, straight-up version of someone on a bike. Pretty boring, no? Well, let’s try to do something a big more creative. We’ll imply all of the wonderful feeling of cruising on a bike, the wind blowing through your hair, by panning as we follow the action, attempting to match our pan speed to the speed of the cyclist. This will require a slow shutter speed and correspondingly high aperture. To further slow things down, I’ll suggest setting your camera to the slowest ISO available, in my case, ISO 100. We’ll need to experiment some to find the perfect shutter speed for this photograph, since the speed of the cyclist will have a big bearing on the most dramatic shutter speed to use.

Experimenting with the shutter speed is the best way to determine the correct shutter/aperture combination for your situation. In this case, the 1/60th version doesn't imply enough motion to be effective; the 1/30 & 1/15th versions are better. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Experimenting with the shutter speed is the best way to determine the correct shutter/aperture combination for your situation. In this case, the 1/60th version doesn't imply enough motion to be effective; the 1/30 & 1/15th versions are better. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

So whether it’s fast or slow shutter speeds that might work in the situation you’re shooting, try to think carefully about all that this feature can do, before you press that shutter button!  You want to be making informed and intelligent choices for your shutter speed, dictated by the situation you are shooting.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related posts on the web:

Smashing Pumpkins at Pixsylated

Using Blur to Portray Movement at Digital Photography School

Shutter Speed at DIYPhotography.net

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

13 Comments on "Unlock the Power of Shutter Speed in Your Photos"

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  1. Awesome!
    Thanks a lot for the tip! =)

  2. Good comparison for shutter speed. Indeed using the right shutter will vary on the situations and the focus. For fast action or games, low ISO and shutter speed will help you get the details of the photo however you might miss some actions. For fast ISO on the other hand, you will capture the other movement however part of the photo will not have a detailed photo. Just try to play with it and see what’s best.

  3. it was a nice technique, thanks for the post its interesting! im looking forward for your another article, keep it up!

  4. Anisha Kaul says:

    The photographs helped me understand the effects shutter speeds have. Thanks for the nice article.

  5. Jenny says:

    To freeze movement in an image, you’ll want to choose a faster shutter speed and to let the movement blur you’ll want to choose a slower shutter speed. The actual speeds you should choose will vary depending upon the speed of the subject in your shot and how much you want it to be blurred.

  6. sarah says:

    The alternative of selecting a slow shutter speed is to go for a fast shutter speed to do the exact opposite to stop your subject in its tracks. In this case you need to use a shutter speed faster than the speed of the moving subject, which varies depending on the direction too. If the subject is moving across the path at close range it will appear to be moving faster than a distant subject and a faster speed will be needed. And if its coming towards you, duck!
    Using a subject freezing shutter speed is perfect if you want to stop a goal-scoring footballer in is tracks, freeze an athlete in mid air or an insect or bird in mid flight. Its less effective for cars or vehicles as it makes them look static.

  7. I loved reading this article! Keep writing, Andrew! I’m certain a lot of new photographers are gaining a lot from reading your blog. Cheers to you! 🙂

  8. Thanks Christie! You can spread the word, always looking for more readers.

  9. Bryan says:

    Very nice. Changing the shutter speed depending on the situation can definitely make for dynamically different photos, as you’ve shown in your two examples. There are plenty of other things you can do with shutter speed as well, but this is a great introduction.

  10. Hey! Quick question that’s completely off topic. Do you know
    how to make your site mobile friendly? My blog looks weird when browsing from my iphone4.

    I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to fix this problem.
    If you have any suggestions, please share. Thank you!

  11. If you are a WordPress site, you should look for a theme that’s HTML5 and mobile compliant. Otherwise you’ll need to fine a plugin that will make the translation for you. I had one before I switched themes a couple of months ago but I can’t remember the name, sorry.

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