Camera Shutter Speed Explained

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shutter speed
It’s entirely possible to have one of the best DSLR cameras out there and still struggle with blurry or grainy photos, unclear and unsharp. There is no need to panic, however, if you find yourself in this situation; it’s simply a question of camera shutter speed settings.

What is shutter speed? One of the fundamental and most crucial aspects of photography, be it on a mirrorless camera or a compact (although, of course, the differences in ability between the best compact camera and the best DSLR will wildly differ).

Shutter speed thusly joins ISO and aperture to make up the holy trinity of how to take the photographs you want. This article focuses on explaining camera shutter speed, tying it together with how ISO and aperture complete the cycle in taking the perfect photo.

What Is A Camera Shutter?

It’s better to start from an understanding of what a shutter is before we can understand what shutter speed is.

The shutter is made of a mirror box and two doors, top, and bottom. The camera captures an image “through” the light allowed in by the shutter – think of it like curtains being pulled back to allow light in for a certain amount of time and then quickly being closed back again – when the shutter is clicked, opening up those doors, letting the light in that allows the picture to be taken.

You might very well wonder why a shutter is even necessary anymore; surely, smartphones have very powerful cameras that are point-and-shoot and deliver stunning results, but the devil is in the details.

Even some digital cameras merely have an “electronic” camera shutter, wherein the sensor just turns itself on and off for the amount of time needed. The pictures that are taken from these or, more commonly, from a phone are inevitably grainier, even with the latest technology, as compared to the average quality of a DSLR or even some of the best mirrorless cameras out there – more power is sent to the sensor to take the picture, and according to the rules of ISO, this equals more noise.

What Is Shutter Speed?

A standard DSLR camera can handle around a hundred thousand actuations (the entire process of the mirrors flipping up and down) – the actuations explain why your viewfinder goes black for a second when taking a picture since the mirrors flip upwards to allow light to the sensor, a small door exposes the sensor underneath it by moving from top to bottom, and a door covers up the entire sensor by falling, closing to let the mirror fall back into its place.

These actuations can be so fast to make it such that a camera sensor might not even be completely exposed at any given time. A fast shutter speed might be averaged around 1/1000 (of a second), with some of the best SLRs boasting a shutter speed of 1/8000 or even as much as 1/16000.

What does a fast shutter speed achieve, however?

Slow vs. Fast Camera Shutter Speed

Unlike most things, this isn’t a question of either/or – slow versus fast doesn’t mean better versus worse. Slow shutter speed means that the camera shutter is kept open for a longer amount of time, meaning that the image is captured on the film/sensor in multiple places as long as the shutter stays open, resulting in a blurry image. Fast shutter speed means capturing objects in motion much easier.

Slow shutter speeds can also result in overexposed images; the film/sensor “captures” more light, making the image much brighter. Of course, this can be just what you need, such as for night shooting.

Shutter speed can be adjusted using either on-screen settings on most modern cameras or a switch or dial on older models. Combining this with what we learned earlier, let’s say you change your settings from 1/8000 to 1/1000 – eight times less light will now hit the sensor compared to before.

Largely, striking the right balance is a strong combination of experience and knowing what you want to achieve.

Still, there are some rules of thumb that we can rely on. Some of them we’ve brought up before and some we’ll now get a little deeper into.

Generally speaking, faster shutter speeds result in pictures that are crisp, clear, and exact, but only in ideal lighting conditions. Slower shutter speed is more preferable for, say, a gorgeous portrait or a nature shot on a moonlit night – something stationary somewhere with refined and low light and subtly defined shadows. This should ideally be done with utilizing stabilization features in the camera or using a tripod, otherwise, as you’ll already remember, the longer shutter exposure results in blurrier pictures.

Of course, this can also be used to artistic effect with blurred backgrounds, dynamic movement, and certain “trick” or special effect shots – let’s say light painting, or using an external flash to highlight an object by making it appear more brightly and prominently than the background to achieve a striking effect.

Camera Shutter Speed and ISO and Aperture

In conclusion, let’s tie together our understanding of camera shutter speed with the other two fundamentals, the aperture, and the ISO settings.

In simple words, the aperture is the opening that allows light into the camera and ISO settings determine how sensitive the film/sensor is to the light.

In case you struggle with faster shutter speeds messing up the clarity of your photos, the aperture can be opened up a little more, the ISO set a little higher, but of course, this means the settings are thrown off-balance and you need to twiddle around a bit more to find your ideal shot.

This faster shutter speed also helps in capturing objects in motion, as we’ve said before, but again, it’s preferable to use a flash or know your way around lighting settings.

Understanding how the “exposure triangle” truly works might require a bit more work, of course, but understanding the place of the shutter speed in the mechanism is a great place to start, and now you’re ready to move towards a much deeper understanding of how to take the perfect photos that you want.

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