Camera Tutorial – How to Use Shutter Speed

October 1, 2007

in Camera Tips, Rachel Durik

Let’s talk speed. Shutter speed.

When you take a picture, you generally want it the shutter to stay open just long enough to capture a crisp image. Too long, and the image is blurry. You need the right shutter speed.

If you want it to, your smart little camera works all that out for you. In automatic modes, you don’t have to worry about a thing. Even in aperture priority mode or Av mode, it’s all worked out. You just have to decide the aperture.

But every now and then, you might decide you want to mix things up a bit. Your camera can’t read your mind. Let’s say you want to make the picture a little blurry to show motion. Or let’s say you want your water shots to come out all smooth and flowy. Like this stock image. That’s when you turn to Manual or Tv mode. So get your cameras out, and let’s play.

Turn the dial on the top to Manual or Tv mode. I’ll show you how to do this is Tv mode in case you don’t want to worry about apertures as well.

Then adjust the dial on the upper right (the same one to change apertures in Av mode) to your desired shutter speed. You can choose anywhere (on the 400D/XTi) from 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds. Some cameras also have a BULB setting which leaves it open indefinitely. The faster the shutter speed, the less blurry the picture, in a sense.

So for instance, let’s say you want to capture a shot of the lights trailing from cars as they pass at night. You’d need to keep the shutter open for maybe a few seconds. But let’s say you want to create a bit of motion blur in a daylight picture. A setting of 1/30 to 1/5th might do. The key is to not leave it open too long based on your lighting conditions. If you keep it open for too long, too much light gets in and overexposes your picture. It’s a lot of trial and error until you get the hang of it.

When you’ve adjusted the speed, you’ll see it displayed on the upper left corner of the LCD.

In all honesty, I’m not very good at motion blur. But here are a few shots from the archives to demonstrate what I’m talking about. This next picture I took in Paris. There was a school group dancing to accordion music on top of Montmontre. There was so much energy there, so many laughs and shouts that I knew a frozen image wouldn’t capture the moment. I want to show a bit of movement to give the picture a bit more life. It was a dark and rainy day, so I set the speed to 1/8th of a second. I love this picture. If only I had included the “e” in Montmontre!

Again, this one was in Paris. I liked how you could tell he was pouring the drink by the motion blur. It was taken at 1/6th of a second. There are a lot of problems with the picture as a whole – like the focus is off – or more likely, it was 10pm, we hadn’t yet eaten dinner and Noah was still awake. In my lap. Excuses, excuses….

There are a lot of other cool things you can do with motion blur that I just haven’t yet been able to do. Water play is cool, night images, and panning.

Ugh. Panning. I read about panning once in a magazine. They said it was hard. With a challenge like that how could I resist? Panning is when you keep the shutter open just bit and move the camera at the same speed of your subject so that the background shows motion, but the subject remains in focus. This is the most decent shot I have of panning. It’s not very good, but I’m so proud of it! Panning is SUPER HARD, at least for me, so to get a half decent image was a success. One of these days, I’m hoping to get a really good one. Here is a good link about panning with lots of cool shots. Go try it!

I should mention that anytime you play with slower speeds, you’ll likely need a tripod. Otherwise, your image will suffer from camera shake.

Playing with speeds can allow you to capture some really creative images. I’d love to see what you come up with. Water, children, and night scenes are all good places to start.

Now go shoot. I’ll be waiting for ya. If you have any success with playing with shutter speed, leave a comment with a link for others (and me!) to see!

Find more great tutorials about your camera:

Rachel is a self-taught blogger-turned-photographer and mother of two. Once the “bad picture taker” of the family, she opened up her own photography business within a year of buying her first DSLR. She is located in Eastern North Carolina and can be found at Savor Photography and her blog, The Adventures of an American Mum.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele December 6, 2011

Hi, I love your website!
I am wondering if you have any recommendations on what would be the best camera and lens (i understand most photographers have their own preferences) that is affordable for shooting gymnasts in low light? I have two daughters who are competitive gymnasts and I can never get good action shots because you can’t use flash (for the safety of the gymnasts) and they move fast and its a lower light most of the time. Also what settings are best to get the best shot.
Your help will be GREATLY appreciated.
Thank you


Stayce Koegler February 20, 2011

I just came across your tutorial on panning and wanted to share a few pics from the very first photography class I ever took!


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