PHLEARN MagazineMastering Shutter Speed to Capture and Freeze Motion


Mastering Shutter Speed to Capture and Freeze Motion

“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”

– Marc Riboud, French photographer

We’ve all been there before; we’ll all be there again. Too dark, too light. Too blurry, not enough motion. In short: the shot’s not developing the way we see it in our minds.

All photographers – novice, intermediate, and pro – wrestle with finding the right compositional balance in their work, especially when moving toward (or diving right into) manual mode. And, while learning the finer points of the craft is half the fun, there’s no reason to struggle. That’s where we come in!

In this guide, we’ll be focusing on shutter speed, one of the three elements of the exposure triangle. Later on, we’ll return to the exposure triangle in greater depth, but as a quick reminder, the three elements are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These mechanical aspects work together organically to determine the composition of your photos, and each can be manipulated (especially in manual mode) in order to achieve a particular, desired effect.

While each element of the triangle is primarily concerned with the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor (exposure, in other words), shutter speed is unique in that it also controls the degree of motion that is or is not captured in your photograph. For this reason, shutter speed adjustment is central to successfully photographing a subject or object as it moves in front of your camera, whether it be an athlete on the run, a waterfall, a bird in flight, drifting clouds, or stars in the night sky.

This guide will address, in order, these specific questions:

  • What is shutter speed?
  • How does shutter speed relate to light (brightness or darkness of an image)?
  • How does shutter speed relate to motion (“frozen” motion vs exposed motion)?
  • How does shutter speed relate to the other two aspects of the exposure triangle (aperture and ISO)?

Let’s dig in!

What Is Shutter Speed?

Imagine a curtain covering a window and operating automatically, opening and closing at predetermined intervals. When the curtain is raised and lowered rapidly, only a limited amount of light enters the room and very briefly; we might only be left with a dim snapshot of the room in our minds. Conversely, when the curtain is raised, remains open for a longer interval, and is closed again, more light enters the room, and we might also notice motion this time – the spinning blades of a fan, let’s say – that wasn’t apparent before. In this case, we’re left with a much brighter, more “active” image in our minds.

In this example, the “curtain” is the camera’s shutter, an actual physical apparatus within the device that opens and closes at specific time intervals determined by the shutter speed setting on your camera. These settings can be altered manually to your personal preference, depending on what kind of photographic effect you wish to achieve. Let’s take a look at a conventional range of shutter speed settings, measured in seconds or, more specifically (and commonly), fractions of a second:

This chart depicts commonly used settings ranging from very fast shutter speeds, located on the left of the chart, to rather slow shutter speeds, located on the right. You’ll also notice that the micro images depicted here show a range of increasing motion blur from left to right, with the crispest or “frozen” images being captured with the faster shutter speeds (1/8000th of a second) and the more blurry or motion-affected images being captured with slower shutter speeds (1/8th of a second). We’ll discuss these variations in motion capture in greater depth later in the article, but, for the moment, let’s pin down just what shutter speed is.

You know that little “click” you hear when you press the button to take a picture? Well that button is also referred to as the shutter and that sound is the physical shutter itself opening and closing within the camera. The reason that the “click” registers in our ears as a single sound is that in most cases we’re using a shutter speed of a mere fraction of a second.

Shutter speed is one of the three basic elements responsible for determining the amount of light that enters your camera, along with aperture and ISO. It is literally equivalent to the duration of time in which the physical shutter opens and closes in front of your camera’s sensor, affecting not only how much light is allowed to enter and for how long, but also how much motion is captured along the way. So, for example, a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second means that your camera’s sensor will be exposed to light for 1/30th of a second. Pretty simple, right?

So far so good, but now that we have our basic foundation laid, we need to take a deeper look at the two main variables introduced by the manipulation of shutter speed: light and motion.


Tip

When using any DSLR camera, you’ll notice several different numbers on the LCD. These refer to the various settings for all three elements of the exposure triangle, which, of course, includes shutter speed. The shutter speed will be featured prominently on the display, as well as near the image when looking through the viewfinder. However, unlike the chart above, the shutter speed will appear as a whole number as opposed to a fraction. For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 will appear instead as “250” on the LCD. This is merely a space-saving measure to ensure a clean display readout. No cause for alarm!


How Does Shutter Speed Relate to Light?

As mentioned above, shutter speed determines how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to light. Very simply, if your shutter is open longer, a greater amount of light will be allowed to reach the sensor. Therefore, a slower shutter speed will allow you to capture a far brighter image. On the other hand, a faster shutter speed will allow less light to enter the camera, meaning the image you capture will appear much darker.

So what does this mean in a practical sense, and how does one choose when to use a slower or faster shutter speed given varying light conditions?

Insufficient/Low Light

The images above are typical examples of underexposed photos. Because these photos were either taken at night – a shooting environment with insufficient light – or with settings that didn’t allow for sufficient light to reach the camera’s sensor, the objects in these images (a cloud in the night sky and a mountain surrounded by a forest) appear dim and without any rich or distinctive detail.

Basically, in circumstances where there is less light, you’ll want to use a slower shutter speed to allow your camera sensor to receive more of the light that is there. Two common situations where a slower shutter speed would be appropriate are in an interior space where the light is dim and also for night photography. In these conditions, using a faster shutter speed simply wouldn’t allow enough light to reach the camera sensor in order to produce a high-quality image.

As a general rule, for indoor settings with dim or low light, a good place to start your shutter speed would be around 1/250. In settings where there’s a near total absence of light (nighttime), you may have to choose a shutter speed of 1/60 or slower in order to capture a high quality image. This will introduce variability in the amount of motion captured, but we’ll address that in the next section.

Adequate/Bright Light

These are similarly typical examples of images that are improperly exposed. However, in this case we have photos that are noticeably overexposed. While in the first example the details of the images were obscured by insufficient exposure, here the details are lost due to “whitewashing”, or an excess of brightness (exposure), due either to exceptionally bright environmental light or settings that allow too much light to reach your camera sensor.

In situations where there’s an abundance of light, as in a brightly lit room or outdoors during the day, a faster shutter speed will be more appropriate. Using a slower shutter speed in such conditions would allow far too much light to reach your camera’s sensor, resulting in an overexposed image with details washed out by bright light. By choosing a faster shutter speed in situations with adequate or bright light, you’ll be able to reduce the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor that might otherwise wash out your image.

A good starting shutter speed for capturing images in these conditions is around 1/1000, especially if you’re photographing subjects or objects outdoors. However, if the captured image is still too bright, simply adjust your shutter speed to a faster setting. Again, this will affect how motion is captured in your image.

Now that we understand the ways in which shutter speed affects the relative brightness or darkness of an image, let’s examine how varying shutter speeds affect how motion is captured within an image.

How Does Shutter Speed Relate to Motion?

As briefly mentioned above, various shutter speeds drastically affect not only how much light reaches your camera’s sensor, but also the degree of motion that is captured or reduced in a given image. In order to decide which shutter speed is most appropriate, you first have to determine what kind of motion effects you wish to achieve in a particular image.

Often, novice photographers will begin to experiment with varying shutter speeds with the impression that any motion or blur captured in an image is automatically a negative thing. And while a moderate or high degree of motion is not always desired, sometimes introducing motion into an image can greatly enhance its beauty and aesthetic value. It’s really a matter of personal taste, style and preference. Again, such experimentation can be every bit as satisfying and enjoyable as the finished project, so enjoy the journey.

Simply stated, the first determination to be made when choosing a specific shutter speed is whether or not there are moving objects in your frame and how you would like them to appear in your image. In other words, you have to ask yourself whether or not you want to introduce a degree of motion blur or if you want to “freeze” the moving object. The answer to this question will determine the appropriate shutter speed.

Just as a slower shutter speed will allow more light to enter your camera, it will also allow for more motion blur to appear in an image since the shutter will be open for a longer interval and will therefore capture more movement. Similarly, a faster shutter speed will allow for less light to enter the camera, and will also capture minimal movement, reducing blur and freezing the object in motion, creating a sharper image.

In order to get a better understanding of different types of motion capture, let’s take a look at some images relative to varying shutter speeds, along the spectrum from fast to moderate to slow exposures.

Faster Shutter Speeds for Freezing Motion

The image below depicts a range of shutter speeds that would be considered faster (greater than 1/1000th of second), and therefore better for reducing motion and freezing a moving subject:

The following images depict subjects photographed within this range of shutter speeds:

Here, we have three perfect examples of a range of subjects in various stages of movement and at different rates of speed. However, while a great deal of motion is occurring in these scenes – the cascading waves of a waterfall, a body at the peak of a jump, and a dog spriting at high speed – these subjects appear frozen in time due to the employment of a faster shutter speed.

Again, notice also how crisp and clear the images appear when using these settings. Additionally, we can see that all three of the scenes occur in conditions with a greater amount of light, allowing for a faster shutter speed to be used without overly darkening the images.

Moderate Shutter Speeds for Minimal Motion Capture

Referring again to our shutter speed chart, let’s take a look at what’s considered to be a moderate range of shutter speeds (around 1/250th of a second):

The images below were taken at or around this middle portion of the spectrum:

In these examples, we can see that a medium shutter speed produces images that, while crisp and clear, do in fact allow for a slight degree of motion effect. This is most evident in the second and third images, where some motion blur can be detected around the cat’s body and the woman’s extremities, respectively. It’s also important to note here that all three images were captured indoors or in an enclosed space, which, due to more limited light, requires a slower shutter speed to illuminate the subject and avoid an overly dark exposure.

Slower Shutter Speed for Capturing Motion Blur

Let’s take a look at our shutter speed spectrum one more time to examine a range of slower shutter speeds (1/60th of a second and slower):

The following images were all captured within this much slower range of shutter speed:

Here we have an interesting variety of images captured by using a slower shutter speed.

In the first image, a slower shutter speed is employed in order to capture the moment of a weightlifter at work, with the motion blur enhancing the effect of the physical action. In the second image, the chaos of lottery balls in motion and colliding with each within a container is achieved by using a much slower shutter speed, an aesthetic effect that could not be achieved if a faster shutter speed were used. The last photo is a particularly interesting example not only in that it’s a night photo, but that streaks of light coming from the stars in the night sky are captured as the earth rotates. Given the light and the photographer’s desired effect, only by using an extremely slow shutter speed (much slower than our chart even displays) could this image be captured in such a way.


Tip

When shooting with slower shutter speeds, it’s often advisable to use either a tripod or a stationary surface on which to mount your camera in order to reduce undesired or superfluous blur in your images. Doing so will stabilize both the camera and the image itself.

It’s also important to note here that there are two different types of blur that occur with slow shutter speeds: motion blur and camera shake. Motion blur occurs when the subject being photographed is moving in front of the camera; this is the type of blur that can be either captured or reduced depending on the shutter speed, even within a slower range of speed.

Camera shake, however, refers to movement captured due to the camera itself moving while the shutter is open. This “shake” or blur is often undesirable, and once again can be eliminated most effectively by using a tripod or another stable surface (as opposed to holding the camera in your hands).


Balancing the Exposure Triangle

In our previous installment, Understanding Aperture: Controlling Light Based on the Exposure Triangle, we took an in-depth look at a variety of different ways that proper light exposure can be achieved by adjusting the camera’s aperture. This time, let’s consider some examples of how this balance can be achieved in relation to shutter speed. But first, let’s briefly summarize what we’ve learned about fast shutter speeds versus slow shutter speeds.

Fast shutter speed:

  • Freezes subjects in motion (eliminates blur)
  • Allows for less light to reach the camera sensor
  • Is best employed in settings with abundant light

Slow shutter speed:

  • Captures subjects in motion (allows blur)
  • Allows for more light to reach the camera sensor
  • Is best employed in settings with limited or low light

Now, we know that shutter speed is equivalent to the time interval during which the camera’s shutter is open. This is one part of the exposure triangle. As a reminder, the other two aspects of the triangle are aperture and ISO.

A Note on Aperture

Aperture, as discussed in the previously mentioned guide, is the variable size of the opening in the lens when an image is being captured. Aperture not only controls how much light enters the camera, but also determines the depth of field of an image.

Briefly stated, a wider aperture allows a great deal of light to reach the camera sensor, but will result in a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field basically means that areas of the image that are farther away from the photographer will appear blurry, while subjects or objects nearer to the camera will appear crisp and focused.

The opposite is true for a narrower (more closed) aperture, in which less light will reach the camera sensor, but will provide a wider depth of field. A wider (deeper) depth of field will keep all areas of the image in focus regardless of their relative distance away from the photographer.

A Note on ISO

ISO (to be discussed in detail in an upcoming guide) refers to a camera’s relative sensitivity to light, or, in other words, its “ability” to capture light.

So, let’s use an example to demonstrate how we might “balance the triangle” under a particular circumstance.

Imagine you have a subject you wish to photograph and you adjust your aperture to a wider setting, which provides you with a great deal of light. However, it also provides a shallow depth of field, and you’re not content with this as you wish for a greater area of the image to remain in focus.

You then adjust to a narrower aperture setting, which corrects your problem regarding the depth of field and image clarity. Yet again, your image now appears far too dark for your liking, and another adjustment needs to be made. But what do you adjust?

You remember that a slower shutter speed allows for more light to reach the camera sensor, so you adjust the speed down the scale to a longer exposure time. But in doing so, you’re also reminded that this allows for greater motion blur, and, in this case, that simply won’t do.

You want to eliminate that undesired motion blur, so you adjust back to a faster shutter speed so that you can freeze your subject in time. But now the image is back to being a bit too dark. So what now? Are you stuck?

Not at all. This is where you turn to the third and final part of the exposure triangle, the ISO. At this point, you’ve achieved both a satisfactory depth of field and your desired lack of motion, but you still need more light. The solution here is to raise the ISO to a higher setting in order to increase the camera’s light sensitivity, thus achieving a brighter exposure proper to your chosen subject.

To illustrate this adjustment, below is an example of an image noticeably improved in quality by increasing the ISO level by multiple intervals:

Conclusion

Working with adjustments in shutter speed can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of learning to master manual photography, as it allows for an incredibly wide variety of photographic effects and offers a vast array of aesthetic and stylistic choices and variations. As we like to remind you, experimenting with the settings on your camera – shutter speed included – is part of the joy of learning photography; there is always more to learn and the journey is half the fun. So as you continue to explore and develop your craft, make sure to remind yourself to have fun and keep an open mind.

Thank you for reading, and keep an eye out for our forthcoming guide on the third part of the exposure triangle: ISO.

Seth Kravitz

Seth is the CEO of PHLEARN and an avid writer, photographer, startup investor, and business mentor in Chicago. He joined PHLEARN in 2016 and has been focused on expanding the community to reach millions of new Phans and make learning fun for the next generation of great artists.

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