Shutter Speed Basics: A Guide for Beginners

Shutter speed is one of the three elements that make up the exposure triangle, and plays a fundamental role in photography. Through the use of different shutter speeds, you can achieve a number of unique effects. Read on to learn more about shutter speed and why it is important that you pay attention to it while shooting.

Shutter speed displayed on top LCD of a Nikon D610 DSLR
Shutter speed is displayed on the top, in the center of the LCD screen on this Nikon D610 DSLR.

What is a Camera Shutter?

A camera shutter is a curtain between the digital sensor (or film compartment in old, non-digital SLRs) and the lens mount. When you press the shutter button, the curtain opens, exposing your camera’s digital sensor (or film) to light coming through the aperture of your lens. When your exposure ends, the curtain goes back to its closed position.

Caution tape and cone in bank parking lot at night. Photo Details: ISO 400; aperture f/3.2; shutter speed 1/60 second; white balance: tungsten; camera: Nikon D90; and lens: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D.
Caution tape and cone in bank parking lot at night. With this shot, I didn’t have my tripod with me. Since I shot it hand-held, I adjusted my settings to get a shutter speed of 1/60 second to ensure the image was not blurry. Photo Details: ISO: 400; aperture: f/3.2; shutter speed: 1/60 second; white balance: tungsten; camera: Nikon D90; and lens: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D.

Shutter Speed

The length of time your camera’s shutter is open is called shutter speed or exposure time. Shutter speeds vary from a fraction of a second to multiple seconds, or even many minutes for really long exposures. If you use a fast shutter speed, you can effectively freeze fast-moving subjects, such as an athlete in motion or a passing car. A slow shutter speed is very useful for creating motion blur, whether panning with a moving object or taking a photo of a waterfall. In any situation where you have very little light, a slow shutter speed is needed to sufficiently expose your image.

Generally, you will most likely be using shutter speeds of 1/60 second or faster. There are some exceptions to this, including when you want to create intentional blur or visible movement in your image.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds (or fractions of a second), and approximately double (or are reduced by half) with each stop. The basic standards for exposure times are as follows: 1/1000; 1/500; 1/250; 1/125; 1/60; 1/30; 1/15; 1/8; 1/4; 1/2; and 1.

For really long exposures, many modern cameras have a B (bulb) or T (time) mode. Using bulb mode, the shutter remains open for as long as the shutter is pressed. In time mode, you push the shutter button once to start the exposure, then once more to stop it. A shutter release cable is very useful for long exposure photography.

When choosing what shutter speed you want to use, consider any moving objects in your frame and how you want them to appear in your photograph. Do you want to freeze something that is moving fast, or are you looking for blurred elements in your frame?

The focal length of your lens should be kept in mind when you choose a shutter speed, shooting hand-held. As a rule, you want to select an exposure time that has the same or larger denominator than your shutter speed, as in the following examples:

  • If you’re using a 50mm lens, you would want to shoot at 1/50 second or faster to prevent camera shake. Typically 1/60 second is the
    minimum shutter speed you want to use while shooting hand-held to prevent blur, use that instead 🙂
  • If you’re using a 400mm zoom (or prime) lens, you’ll want to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/400 or faster.

Lenses with longer focal lengths effectively magnify the amount of camera shake in a shot. Keeping this in mind, you will want to increase your shutter speed to ensure you get a sharp image. These are just general guidelines, and features like image stabilization can help you shoot sharp images hand-held, at shutter speeds slower than the focal length of your lens.

Dead and living bushes, near Mobil gas station in Nyack, New York.
Dead bush between two living ones. Since this shot was hand-held, I made sure that my shutter speed was fast enough for it to be sharp. Photo Details: ISO: 200; aperture: f/5.6; shutter speed: 1/60 second; white balance: cloudy; camera: Nikon D90; and lens: Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D.


It is important that you keep all elements of the exposure triangle in mind when shooting, not just shutter speed. Paying attention to shutter speed and disregarding aperture and ISO will not do you much good. All three elements come into play when creating the ideal exposure, so make sure you think of that while shooting.

Have you taken photos that effectively show the creative use of slow or fast shutter speeds? Feel free to upload them in the comments. Alternatively, you can post a link to an image on your site or other photo-sharing website.

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