Tips for Choosing Shutter Speed

Learn When to Make Use of Different Shutter Speed Settings

Steve Whiston, Fallen Log Photography / Getty Images

Shutter speed is something beginning photographers seem to have a hard time understanding. After all, how can a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second be that much different from 1/250th of a second? They’re both incredibly short amounts of time, impossible for most of us to measure.

But in photography they’re almost like night and day. Each shutter speed has a specific type of photograph in which it is the best option.

Use these tips to help you decide on the best shutter speed for various types of photos.

Shutter Speed Explained

First, a quick primer on setting shutter speed. With a DSLR camera or an advanced point and shoot, you probably can search through the camera’s on-screen menus to find a setting where you can specify the exact shutter speed.

With a beginner-level point and shoot camera, you may not be able to set the shutter speed yourself. However, you can tell the camera to shoot at a high shutter speed by using scene modes, specifically a “sports” scene mode.

If you want to shoot at a slower shutter speed, you again can potentially use a scene mode, although it might not work as well as the fast shutter speed with the sports scene mode. Select a “night” scene mode, such as fireworks mode or night landscape mode, to tell the camera to shoot at a slow shutter speed.

Making Use of Shutter Priority Mode

Nearly all cameras also include a shutter priority mode, which tells the camera to create all of the settings automatically, but the camera must set the fastest maximum shutter speed possible first.

It then builds the other settings based on that fast shutter speed.

When to Use Fast Shutter Speeds

You will want to shoot at a fast shutter speed in quite a few different photography situations. When shooting photos of sports, for example, a fast shutter speed is important to “freeze” the action, meaning the athletes will be stopped without any motion blur in the photo.

Other appropriate subjects for a fast shutter speed include photos of children, running water, or pets. Basically, anything that is moving can require a fast shutter speed.

When to Use Slow Shutter Speeds

A slow shutter speed is appropriate for any type of low-light situation. If you’re shooting at night, or if you’re shooting fireworks photos, a really slow shutter speed is required to allow enough light to reach the image sensor to actually record a photo.

If you’re shooting a photo where a bit of blur is desired, again, a slower shutter speed can achieve this. As shown in the photo included here, a slower shutter speed was used to photograph the race horses, resulting in a blur that provides an artistic look.

If you’re shooting with a flash, you will be limited in the shutter speeds you can use, as the camera’s shutter speed must be synched to the flash unit. You will have a difficult time stopping the action with a flash because you cannot select the fastest shutter speed you may want.

Diagnosing Shutter Speed Problems

Finally, even when not using a flash, you might find the camera simply will not let you set the shutter speed as fast as you want. If you don’t have much light in the scene, a fast shutter speed is difficult to use, because the camera needs a lot of light in the scene to use a fast shutter speed.

In this case, find a way to add more external light to the scene, without using a flash. Or, you can increase the ISO setting for the camera, which will increase the light sensitivity of the image sensor, allowing you to shoot at a faster shutter speed. The downside of shooting at a higher ISO is that your photo might lose a bit of image quality, because the photo might have additional “noise,” or stray pixels, in it.