One of the best ways to control the appearance of a digital photo is to adjust the camera’s shutter speed. Understanding this feature is a key to creating crisp images of moving subjects—as well as artistic shots of objects in motion. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed is actually one of the simplest photographic concepts to grasp. In fact, shutter speed is largely self-explanatory, referring to the amount of time the shutter (the plastic doors that cover the camera’s lens) remains open, letting light in. The longer the shutter stays open (or, the slower the shutter speed), the more your camera’s sensor captures the action taking place before it.
Because cameras are so fast, shutter speed is generally indicated as a fraction, measured in seconds. For example, a shutter speed of 1/30 indicates the shutter will stay open for 1/30th of a second. A shutter speed of 2 would indicate the shutter will stay open for 2 full seconds.
Using Shutter Speed
Most of the time, you’ll want to set your camera to use a fairly fast shutter speed. A fast shutter speed is key for most shots because, well, everything moves. The subject moves, and so do you, the photographer, as your arms and body shake ever so slightly. Movement is bad because it introduces blur to a photograph, which is probably not what you want when trying to capture a loving portrait of your family.
When your subject is moving very quickly—whether it’s a gazelle on safari or a car racing by on the highway—using a very fast shutter speed will take the blur out of the shot, leaving you with a crisp photo no matter how fast the subject is moving. The water in a fountain will appear as frozen droplets. A runner will be captured in mid-stride. If you’re shooting your son playing baseball, a fast shutter speed will catch the exact moment when the ball cracks off the bat.
In contrast, a slow shutter speed can add a level of blur to a photo that can be very creative. One iconic example is to photograph a bystander as a train or auto traffic rushes along behind them. If the person remains still, the finished product will offer a powerful image of a motionless individual enveloped by passing chaos. If you want to capture a picture of a moving stream, but want to give the flowing water a sense of motion, a slow shutter can bring life to the shot in a unique and compelling way.
The Key to a Slow Shutter: The Tripod
In many ways, night photography is the very opposite of sports photography. Since there’s not much light available, you’ve got to use a very slow shutter speed. When you shoot at night—or other times when you’re using a shutter speed that’s longer than your camera’s “auto” setting recommends—you must use a tripod when taking the shot. The slightest bit of movement in your arms will introduce so much blur to the photo that it will end up unusable. Even if you think you’re extremely steady or brace yourself against a fixed object, you’re unlikely to be able to achieve a usable image without a tripod anchoring your camera.
How to Change Shutter Speed
Manipulating shutter speed isn’t difficult, but how you do it depends on the type of camera you have. With a point-and-shoot camera, shutter speed is changed by twisting the dial to one of the manual modes. The easiest way to do this is to use the “S” or Shutter Priority mode. Once in Shutter Priority mode, you’ll be able to set the shutter speed as you desire, and the camera will compensate for the amount of light being let in by automatically setting the aperture value for you. Advanced photographers can also use the “M” or Manual mode if they want to be able to control both the shutter speed and the aperture value.
On an interchangeable lens camera, the process is generally the same. Simply set the mode dial to “S” or “M” and use the jog dial or the lens’s focus ring to adjust the shutter speed on the fly.
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