Getting the correct exposure is essential in photography. To do this you need to know about three things: aperture, ISO and shutter speed. This photography guide is going to be all about shutter speed. We’re going to cover what exactly it is, how it works with aperture and ISO and how to calculate it when you’re shooting in manual mode. Ready? Let’s go!

What is Shutter Speed

A slower shutter speed allows for silky smooth waterfalls

So what the heck is shutter speed anyways? Shutter speed is how long the shutter inside your camera is staying open to allow light in. A faster shutter speed means the shutter is staying open for a shorter amount of time and letting less light in. A slower shutter speed means the shutter is staying open for a longer amount of time and letting more light in. So, to recap:

  • Slower shutter speed means that your shutter will be open for a longer amount of time and let more light in. This means your image will be brighter.
  • Faster shutter speed means that your shutter will be open a shorter amount of time and let less light in. The means your image will be darker.

This length of time is typically measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. So 1/250 means the shutter will be open for 1/250th of a second. On your camera it will actually look like this – 250. Most cameras lose the 1/ part. For shutter speeds that are seconds long they will typically look like this – 1″ or 10″.

Many cameras also have a bulb feature. This feature allows you to leave the shutter open for however long you want it to be open. This feature is most commonly used in night photography and astrophotography.

Exposure Basics: How Shutter Speed Works with ISO and Aperture

Shutter speed works with aperture to create an exposure. ISO also factors into this by allowing you to change the brightness of your image. Let’s discuss.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

Aperture controls how wide the opening on your lens is. The wider this opening is, the more light that is able to reach your sensor. This means your image will be brighter. To make up for this your shutter will need to be faster.

  • Faster shutter speed = wider aperture
  • Slower shutter speed = narrower aperture

ISO and Shutter Speed

In simple terms ISO is how sensitive your sensor is. A higher ISO means your image will come out brighter while a lower ISO means your image will come out darker. You can use this to your advantage by choosing the shutter speed you want for your image or subject and then adjusting your ISO to brighten or darken your image. Try not to rely on ISO too much though. Higher ISOs tend to introduce grain into your photos.

Shooting in Manual Modes

There are two manual modes in which you have control over your shutter speed: Manual Mode and Shutter Speed Priority Mode (Tv on Canon cameras). Learning how to shoot in either mode can vastly improve your photography and open up many creative avenues for you.

Shutter Speed Priority Mode

In shutter speed priority mode you have full control over how long your shutter stays open while your camera takes control over your aperture. This is helpful for when you know how long you want your shutter to stay open but having a certain aperture isn’t necessary. Situations where you are capturing fast moving objects (like sports or car races) may require you to be in shutter speed priority so you can freeze that motion while letting your camera make sure the exposure is mostly correct by choosing the aperture.

Manual Mode

Shooting in manual mode is when things start to get tricky. How do you even know where to start? I recommend starting in either aperture or shutter priority modes and see what the camera suggests for the scene and then go from there. Whenever you make an adjustment to one setting however, you’ll need to make an adjustment to the other to keep the exposure correct. For instance if you widen your aperture by one or two stops, you’ll want to speed up your shutter by one or two stops as well.

That is unless you want to brighten or darken your image. The thing about shooting in full manual mode is you have full control over how bright or dark your photograph comes out. The camera knows what a correct exposure is supposed to look like, but that doesn’t mean your image has to look like that. In full manual mode you have the ability to use either setting to create the image you want.

When to Use a Slower Shutter Speed

a hometown creek photographed at a slower shutter speed to create motion blur in the water
2 seconds at f22, ISO 100

I love shooting waterfalls and they provide a great opportunity to show off what exactly shutter speed is capable of so waterfalls are going to be in literally every example. Anyways, when should you use a slower shutter speed?

To Show Motion Blur

The slower your shutter speed is, the more motion blur you’ll have in your photo. This perfect for when you want to show movement like flowing water or how fast an object (like a car or a runner) is moving compared to still objects.

Low Light Situations

You’ll want slower shutter speeds when you are shooting in low light situations. For example, if you are shooting landscapes at dawn or dusk, or at night, you’ll want those longer shutter speeds. The same is true if you are shooting stars, or dark room and don’t want to introduce the noise that comes with cranking up your ISO.

When You Have A Tripod Available

One thing about shooting with a slower shutter speed is that you will get camera shake if you do not have a tripod or other steady surface to set your camera on available. To avoid this, you can bump your ISO up but this can start to introduce noise. Having a tripod available to put your camera on will allow you to get the shutter speed you want without having to change your ISO.

When to Use a Faster Shutter Speed

a hometown creek at a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion in the water
1/20 of a second at f8, ISO 500

We’ve covered slow shutter speeds, but when should you use faster shutter speeds?

To Freeze Motion

The faster your shutter speed is the less motion blur you will have in your image. You’ll want your shutter to open and closer faster when trying to freeze motion such as fast moving objects.

Well Lit Situations

In well lit situations you’ll want your shutter to move faster to avoid camera shake, to make sure the image comes out at the appropriate brightness and to reduce motion blur. Think about a well lit party or outdoor wedding. You’ll want that faster shutter speed to catch all those special moments without too much motion blur.

No Tripod Available

Camera shake is the bane of most photographers’ existence. This happens when you are hand holding your camera and the shutter speed is too slow. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some cool stuff you can do hand-held with a slow shutter speed. In most cases however, if you don’t have a tripod you’ll want to be at or above 1/50.

Final Thoughts

I’ve written extensively on this blog about how often I shoot in aperture priority mode. For the kind of photography I usually do, aperture priority is all I really need. However, there is so much you can do creatively just by adjusting your shutter speed. With shutter speed you can take motion blur to the extreme or you can freeze motion entirely. You can even do both in the same image.

For me, getting the correct exposure has always been a challenge. I hang out in aperture priority mode because it works for the kind of photography I do and because it’s easier. This may work for you as well. However, as you grow as a photographer, you’ll discover that there are many instances where you either need full control over all of your camera’s settings or at least over your shutter speed to get the photograph you envisioned.

Subscribe to our newsletter to get more awesome photography guides!

Like this post? Please share it on Pinterest!


Hey there! My name is Leah and I'm a photographer, blogger and wanderer from north Texas. I've been doing photography for nearly a decade now and absolutely love it. My day job is real estate photographer and in my free time you can often find me at a park taking pictures of leaves and flowers. Outside of that my fiance and I love to travel. We spent nine months backpacking through Europe and now spend our free time attempting to plan and going on shorter trips both in the States and abroad.

Write A Comment

Pin It