What Is Shutter Speed in Photography?

Jeff Picoult

By Jeff Picoult

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Let’s be real – most amateurs just leave their cameras on auto mode and snap away. That’s totally fine! Modern cameras are smart enough to figure out the right settings for us.

slow shutter speed of big wheel in Brighton

But sometimes, you want to capture something specific. Maybe freeze that waterfall’s motion or create those cool light trails from passing cars. That’s where the camera’s shutter speed comes in. Master it, and you’ll be able to take your photos to the next level. So keep reading to learn all about this game-changer setting.

Definition Of Shutter Speed In Photography

A shutter is a little curtain that opens and closes to let light hit the sensor and capture an image. It refers to how long this shutter stays open for each shot.

Canon EOS 5DS R

By adjusting that speed, you decide how much light reaches the sensor. The longer it’s open, the more light gets in. It’s one of the key ways photographers control exposure, along with ISO and aperture settings. 

The range of this period is huge. It can be as fast as a fraction of a millisecond or stay open for several seconds.

Some cameras can go crazy fast. Many higher-end models with their electronic shutter can have the highest shutter speed of up to 1/64,000. Of course, we can also go the other way and use much slower shutter speeds to capture more light. In most professional cameras, you can easily keep that shutter open for up to 30 seconds or more (which is useful in long-exposure photography).

How Is Shutter Speed Measured?

shutter speed guide

The shutter speeds we use have been standardized using fractions of a second. Most of the time, each setting lets in roughly double or half the amount of light as the next step up or down. So, a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second lets in half as much light as 1/250.

How Shutter Speed Affects Your Photo Quality

Shutter speed affects your photos in two major ways. It controls how bright or dark the shot turns out and also how sharp or blurry any movement gets captured.


The slower the shutter speed, the longer the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. More light hitting the sensor results in a brighter image. On the other hand, crank that shutter speed up, and you’re letting in less light over that shorter exposure time, giving you a darker shot.

Of course, there’s a balance to strike. When it’s too slow, you risk overexposing and blowing out highlights. Too fast, and you’ll be left with an underexposed, muddy mess of shadows.


Shutter speed has another major trick up its sleeve: freezing or blurring motion. And this is where it really starts to get fun (or frustrating, depending on your skill level!).

You’ll want a nice fast shutter speed for those crisp, tack-sharp shots. Take a hummingbird in flight as an example. With those swings beating, you’ll need to be cranking that speed to freeze every feather in place.

The same goes for other high-speed actions like F1 cars whipping around a corner. If you want to capture that peak moment without blur, only a seriously faster shutter speed will do the trick.

On the flip side, maybe you want to embrace that sense of motion and add some artistic blur. Slowing that shutter right down can create some cool effects. Common examples are silky smooth waterfalls or light trails from passing cars.

The longer the exposure, the more that movement will smear across the frame. Just be warned: you’ll need one hell of a steady hand (or a sturdy tripod). Otherwise, you’ll likely end up with a blurry mess instead of artistic intention.

Playing With a Tripod

MeFOTO background

With a tripod system and a remote shutter release, you can lock down your camera. Now, you can go as slow as you want without worrying about shaking—half a second, one second, or even longer if you need it.

The nice thing about shutter speed is you can go as slow as you want when you need more light in the scene, as long as you’re okay with some blur. That flexibility isn’t there with aperture. Once you hit your lens’s maximum opening, you’re maxed out.

How to Get the Right Shutter Speed

It all boils down to the situation you’re shooting in and the vibe you’re going for. A basketball player’s explosive dunk mid-air calls for a shutter speed different from a graffiti mural bathed in warm sunlight.

Freezing Action

18000 freezing action

When shooting fast-moving subjects, this speed can make or break your photos. A faster shutter speed here is an absolute must to freeze the action.

The rule of thumb is to first identify the lowest possible speed that will give you a tack-sharp shot in that situation. Don’t worry about things like perfect exposure just yet. Once you’ve nailed down that minimum shutter speed, you can make tweaks to get the optimal exposure later.

From our experience, here are some good starting shutter speeds for different scenarios:

  • Birds in flight: 1/2000
  • Cars driving by: 1/1000
  • People or animals running: 1/500
  • Street photography (people walking): 1/250
  • Flowing water: 1/125

Blurring Motion

Blurring Motion

Remember, blur isn’t always a bad thing when you’re trying to capture something in motion. Sometimes, it’s exactly the whole point. Rather than razor-sharp action, you can get creative and introduce some blur on purpose.

A common look photographers adopt is a blurred main subject. They aim to show a sense of motion while keeping the background nice and sharp.

You can take a picture of a race car zipping by, with the car itself blurred but the surroundings crystal clear. Or maybe a dancer mid-spin, with their body blurred into those cool light trails.

To get that effect, you’ll still want to use a relatively fast shutter speed – not too fast that it freezes everything. Something in the 1/125 range can work well for cars and other vehicles, for instance.

Remember, it’s all relative. A super-fast hummingbird zipping by might still end up blurry even at 1/400, while it’s already good enough to take sharp images of a runner in the park.

There are scenarios where you can go extreme, too. For those misty, ethereal, long exposures of the ocean, 20-30 seconds is our go-to range.



Another technique is panning, in which you move the camera alongside the subject as you take the shot.

When done right, panning photography keeps your subject reasonably sharp while blurring the background into cool, streaky effects. It takes some practice, but it is a great way to convey motion.

Around 1/4 is a good starting point for the shutter speed for panning shots of people walking or running. Landscape photographers can go even slower, like 1 full second or more, to get that super flowy, milky look on waterfalls or rivers.

Stationary Objects

Your job gets easier when there’s no fast action in your scene. Still, don’t think you can just pick any random number. Even with a stationary subject, a wrong shutter speed can ruin the exposure times of your photos.

The main thing to keep in mind here is that the shutter speed directly controls how much light hits the sensor.

The Sunny 16 rule is a neat little trick for getting the right exposure when it’s super bright and sunny outside. If you’re shooting in that harsh midday sunlight, you set your aperture to f/16. Then, you set your shutter speed to whatever the reciprocal of your ISO is.

Let’s say you’re rocking an ISO of 200 – you’d want a shutter speed of 1/200. If you’re at ISO 400, you’d use 1/400 instead. Go much slower than that, and you risk ending up with a washed-out, blindingly bright image.

Now, let’s flip it around to a dimly lit situation – streets at night, for example.

A good starting point is to set your aperture pretty wide open, maybe around f/2.8 or f/4 if your lens allows. Then, set your camera to 1/60-1/250 or even slower shutter speeds. It lets you capture enough brightness without cranking up the ISO to noisy levels.

Just remember, when working with shutter speeds below 1/60th of a second, you’ll want to use a tripod or built-in stabilization. Even the slightest movement, like reaching for the shutter button, can cause enough camera shake to blur your photos unintendedly.

Shutter Speeds for Different Gear

Do some trial and error to figure out the slowest shutter speed you can handhold without getting blurry shots. This will be different for everyone because camera shake becomes an issue without stabilization.

Remember that your minimum handheld speed will also depend on the lens. Longer lenses amplify even the slightest movements, so you’ll likely need faster speeds to get sharp shots.

As a starting point, try slower shutter speeds, like 1/60 for shorter lenses and 1/160 for longer ones. But don’t treat those as gospel – they’re just rough guidelines from our experience.

How to Find and Adjust The Shutter Speed Settings

Adjusting the shutter speed in photography isn’t always straightforward. It depends on the shooting mode you’ve got it set to.

If you’re in full Auto mode, the camera will automatically select the shutter speed based on the available light. You don’t have much say in the matter.

But if you want to take control yourself, switch to either full Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode. In Manual mode, you get to decide everything, including shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc.

adjust camera shutter speed

Shutter Priority mode is a nice middle ground. You set the shutter speed to whatever you want, and the camera takes care of adjusting the aperture to get the proper exposure. The shutter speed stays locked at what you dialed in, but the aperture opens up or stops down to compensate.

To change the shutter speed, look for the control wheel near your right thumb on the back of the camera body. It lets you click through and select different speed stops.

Most cameras display it right on the top or rear LCD screen. But here’s the thing—manufacturers usually don’t show it directly as a fraction of a second. Instead, they use a regular number.

Any whole numbers you see refer to fractions of a second. So if you see something like 500 on the display, that means 1/500th of a second. On the flip side, if the shutter speed is one second or longer, it’ll be shown as something like 3″ for 3 seconds.

Remember that the specific way it’s displayed can vary slightly between camera models and brands. Once you know what to look for, spotting and adjusting as needed is easy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Best Shutter Speed?

There’s no universal sweet spot that works for every scenario. It all comes down to the effect you want to create and the amount of motion you want to freeze or blur.

What Are Fast and Slow Shutter Speeds?

On the slower side of the spectrum, we’re talking about a big fraction of a second (like 1/2 or 1/4). There are even slower values, like 1 second or even more.

Faster settings include stops like 1/250 or so downward. The fastest shutter speed in high-end mirrorless cameras can go up to 1/64,000 or more.

How Can Exposure Be Increased Further When the Shutter Speed Is Already Low?

You can open your aperture and let more light in. However, a wider aperture might affect how much of your scene is in focus. If that’s not ideal, you can bump up the ISO, which brightens the image but can introduce some grain.

Mechanical and Electronic Shutters: Which is Better?

With electronic shutters, there’s no physical shutter mechanism. This way, you can have stupid-fast shutter speeds. But they tend to add noise and reduce image quality a bit.

Mechanical shutters are the traditional kind with physical curtains. It gives better quality but slower maximum speeds.

How Can I Change The Shutter Speed on My Phone?

Not all phones have that feature. Some fancy phones might have a pro mode where you can tinker with shutter speed. Otherwise, you might need a third-party app to get that manual control.

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Remember, it’s all about experimentation. After learning about shutter speed, don’t rely on your camera’s auto settings. Get out there, play around with those shutter speeds, and see what awesome effects you can create. Before you know it, you’ll stop motion in its tracks and paint with light like a pro.

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Jeff Picoult

Jeff Picoult


Jeff Picoult is a seasoned photographer, who blends artistry and innovation. With a humble approach, he captures moments resonating with depth and emotion, from nature's beauty to the energy of sports.

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