Are you trying to learn to take manual control of your camera settings but you’re having a hard time understanding the nitty-gritty details—like why you might choose one shutter speed over another? Depending on what you’re shooting and how you’re doing it, some shutter speeds are ideally suited to specific photographic situations. Whether you’ve set your camera to full manual or shutter priority mode, here’s a primer on shutter speeds and how to best put them to use.
Need a long exposure? Look to the shutter speeds of 1 second and slower. I use 1-second exposures when my camera is on a tripod exclusively, and with a cable release or at the very least a self-timer so that my hand doesn’t let camera shake from pressing the shutter ruin the exposure. I find myself regularly relying on second-long exposures when photographing architecture, both indoors and exteriors, because of the small aperture that provides for greater depth of field and maximum sharpness. In the landscape, such long exposures are a great way to introduce deliberate motion blur thanks to wind and moving water.
One thing that quarter-second shutter speeds are very useful for is intentional motion blur with living subjects. If I’m handholding the camera and panning with a moving subject, that quarter-second shutter speed is perfect for creating intentional motion blur of a cyclist pedaling or a jogger running. For even more blur, slow down to a half second or even a full second. If you’re getting more blur than you’d hoped for and need more sharp detail, shorten up to an eighth or fifteenth-of-a-second exposure.
The default shutter speed? Once upon a time it sure was. It was even indicated by a different color on the dials of manual cameras for decades. That’s because it was the maximum sync speed for using a flash with a focal plane shutter—until modern DSLRs upped that limit to 1/250th. But 1/60th is still an immensely useful shutter speed. To my mind, it’s the minimum safe shutter speed at which I can handhold a “normal” photograph. What defines normal? Using a medium focal length lens in bright light on a subject that’s standing still. If I’m using a very long telephoto lens that may put that to the test, but generally speaking, 1/60th is a comfortable lower-limit for handholding the camera.
This is the shutter speed I use most often with strobes. Why? Because it’s fast enough to eliminate most ambient light when working indoors at low ISOs, yet slow enough to safely synchronize with the strobe 100 percent of the time. Even though most cameras claim a sync speed of 1/250th, I often find banding at that speed—and even 1/160th. So 1/125th is my default strobe shutter speed when I want to eliminate ambient light and maximize the exposure from the flash.
A lot of people think that because a photographer can handhold with a normal lens at 1/60th of a second, that speed is sufficient for most subjects—including portraits. But if you find yourself photographing people at 1/60th of a second with regularity, you’ll begin to notice something when you look closely: your pictures won’t be sharp, especially if you’re using a slightly longer than normal portrait lens. People move! And those movements, even when “sitting still,” can be fast enough to put motion blur into your pictures. So instead my rule of thumb when shooting natural light portraits (as opposed to those illuminated by strobe, which necessitates a slower shutter speed for flash synchronization) is to use a shutter speed of 1/250th or faster. The resulting wider aperture that’s required also tends to provide the benefit of shallow depth of field, thus better isolating the subject from the background.
Shooting sports? Whether it’s soccer or basketball, baseball or field hockey, the faster the shutter speed the better. In normal daylight, with an aperture of ƒ/5.6 or so, you’ll find yourself with a shutter speed of 1/1000th. This is the ideal place to be if you want to freeze fast-moving action without having to crank the ISO or open up to a maximum aperture and shrink the depth of field to a point that tack-sharp focus becomes difficult. 1/1000th is a great starting point for action photography and will ensure even fast runners will remain sharp on the sensor.
What on earth could you accomplish with such a fast shutter speed as 1/8000th of a second? You could freeze incredibly fast-moving objects—like splashes and helicopter blades and hummingbird wings. These are the kinds of subjects that we’re not able to discern with the naked eye and that are most often photographed with high-speed stroboscopic photography. Sure, you’re going to need to open up that aperture and crank the ISO at 1/8000th of a second, but when you need it, it’s great to have—and these days it can be found on a wide variety of mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.