Understanding Shutter Speed – The Complete Guide For Beginners

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As you start to explore the manual settings of your camera, understanding shutter speed becomes increasingly important. You’ll discover that shutter speed not only affects the exposure of your photos but is crucial to freeze motion in its place. It’s one of the three main pillars of exposure and is essential to understand if you want to capture more creative images.

This article will be building off what I discussed in my ‘best beginner camera settings,’ post and go more in-depth with shutter speed to help you discover the ins and outs of this crucial setting. Here you’ll learn more about what shutter speed actually is, how it works, and the fantastic creative effects it can have in your photography.

What Is Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how long your shutter is open for. The shutter acts as a blockade in front of your camera sensor, and when it’s closed, no light can pass through. When your shutter is open, light can hit your sensor and is recorded as the pictures you see on the back of your camera. Your shutter is actually what makes that ‘click’ noise when you take a picture, you actually hear the opening and closing of your camera’s shutter.

How Is Shutter Speed Measured

Shutter speed is measured in full seconds or fractions of a second. The number of seconds will tell you how long your shutter will remain open before it closes again. For example, a common shutter speed you may use is 1/100 (one one-hundredth of a second), which means your shutter will open and close in that amount of time. That might seem exceptionally fast, but it’s what’s necessary to capture movement! Another example would be a 30″ (30 seconds) shutter speed, where your shutter would remain open for an entire thirty seconds. This slow shutter speed can create some beautiful in-camera effects that you’ll learn about below!

Where To Find Your Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed can be found in a few different places on your camera. The first place is when you look through the viewfinder on your camera. Here you’ll find all of the related settings you are using, including your shutter speed. The next place you can find it is on your camera’s LCD screen. If you are using a higher-end camera, you can even see the shutter speed displayed on the top of the camera body.

Why Is Shutter Speed Important

Shutter speed is one of the three main pillars of exposure within your manual camera settings. It can drastically affect the exposure of your pictures, but also freeze fast motion like a hummingbirds wings or a fast car driving by. Beyond its technical importance, understanding shutter speed can play a massive role in the creativity of your pictures. To make things easier, let’s break down the two ways shutter speed is important, individually.

It Affects The Brightness Of Your Pictures

Remember how I mentioned that when your shutter is open, light can pass through to your sensor? Well, the amount of time the light can hit your camera sensor, the brighter your photo will become! The more time light has on your sensor, the brighter your picture, it’s really as simple as that.

If you had a slow shutter speed of 1 second and tried to take a photo on a bright sunny day, your photo will likely turn out completely white. Since there is so much light coming into your camera in the middle of the day, having it expose on your sensor for full second is more than enough time to make things way too bright. With so much available light, a faster shutter speed of 1/250 might be more suitable for a properly exposed photo.

The same thing is true if you were to use too fast of a shutter speed. Even though it’s a bright and sunny day, there might not be enough available light to record an image at a 1/4000 shutter speed. There isn’t enough time for light to expose on your camera sensor, so your photo will turn out completely black or just very dark. Finding the perfect shutter speed for your scene will all depend on how much available light there is.

It’s In Charge Of How Motion Is Displayed

Motion is a huge part of photography, and the way it’s captured can really make or break your pictures. If you were to capture a fast-moving object like a soccer player running, you’d probably want the motion to be frozen and crisp. Meanwhile, when you go to take a picture of that waterfall you really love, you’ll want to blur the water to create a beautiful long exposure effect. Deciding whether the motion in your photo will be frozen or blurred will all depend on your shutter speed.

When you’re photographing a fast-moving subject, their ‘position’ is continually changing. With the soccer player example, if your shutter is open for too long, it’s going to capture the quick movement of their feet and blur them together, creating motion blur. When you use a fast shutter speed, any motion that occurs while the shutter opens and closes will stay frozen in time. At a shutter speed like 1/1000, for example, any fast movements the soccer player makes would appear completely frozen.

What Causes Motion Blur

Motion blur is a crucial thing to consider when beginning to understand shutter speed in photography. While the shutter is open, anything that moves from one place to another will appear as a streak in your photo. If you’re using a fast shutter speed of 1/1000, there are few things fast enough to cause motion blur in that short amount of time. On the other hand, with a slower shutter like 1/30, a fast-moving object would become a complete blur across your photo.

A really simple way to better visualize how motion blur appears in your pictures is to set a slow shutter speed like 1/30 and quickly move your camera as you take a picture. Everything in the frame will appear as a streak because of how much your camera moved in that short amount of time.

Utilizing Motion Blur In Your Photography

When you start to understand how shutter speed plays a roll in your photography, it’s extremely fun to use a slow shutter speed as a creative tool. When using a slow shutter speed intentionally, you can create motion blur in moving objects like the ocean, a waterfall, cars driving by, or anything else you can imagine! This is called long exposure photography.


It’s important to remember that a slow shutter speed also means a brighter photo. You may have to wait until there’s less light later in the day or find a more shaded area for your long exposures. Whenever you’re using a shutter speed slower than 1/60, it’s essential to use a tripod to keep your photos as crisp as possible. At slower shutter speeds, the small movements of your hands will make your entire picture appear blurry. That’s why it’s essential your camera stays completely still with the help of a tripod. Below are some great examples of slow shutter speeds being used for creative effects.

Shutter Speed Quick Tips & Review

Now that you understand shutter speed and the role it plays in your photography let’s discuss a few important things to remember.

Your shutter speed capabilities will depend on your camera: Most cameras are capable of shooting with a shutter speed of 30″ (30 seconds) through to 1/4000 (one four-thousandth of a second). You can shoot at a shutter speed of longer than 30 seconds when you use ‘Bulb’ mode. This mode will keep the shutter open as long as you hold the button.

Get a tripod for shutter speeds slower than 1/60: There are a ton of tiny movements your hands make when holding a camera that starts to show up as blurry images when using a shutter speed slower than 1/60. The best rule of thumb is to only shoot handheld with a shutter speed of 1/80 or faster.

Motion blur isn’t always a bad thing: Motion blur can make for beautiful in-camera effects when you photograph things like a lake or waterfall. Just remember to use a tripod!

You must always consider what your subject is doing: Before you set your shutter speed, you need to know how fast your subject will be moving. There’s going to be a difference between shooting someone jumping in the air versus a hummingbird flapping its wings. Depending on how fast your subject is moving, that will dictate the approximate shutter speed to use.

Shutter speed will affect how bright (or dark) your photo turns out: When your shutter is open, light can pass through and expose on your sensor. If the light hits your sensor for too long, your photo will appear bright. If the light doesn’t hit your sensor for long enough, your photo will appear dark. Choosing the best shutter speed will all depend on how much light is available in a scene.

An Easy Way To Remember Shutter Speed

There’s a lot of stuff I talked about here, and I know how hard it is to remember all the essential details. That’s why I made the Manual Mode Cheat Sheet to help you stay on top of all the most important settings on your camera. At a glance, this free cheat sheet will help you to remember which shutter speeds are best for any scenario. It also covers other key settings like aperture and ISO. If you’re a beginner photographer struggling to figure out your camera settings, I can’t recommend the Manual Mode Cheat Sheet enough to you! Click Here to get access to this free cheat sheet!


Understanding shutter speed in photography is a big step to take for any beginner photographer. Not only does it help you to create a better exposure, but it can also be used to make some fantastic in-camera effects. Shutter speed is an essential part of shooting in manual mode and one of the most important settings to learn in your photography. Make sure to download the free Manual Mode Cheat Sheet to use as your handy reference guide to shutter speed and other essential settings!

If you know someone who’s getting started with photography and should know more about shutter speed, then make sure to share this post with them! Have you ever tried long exposures in your photography? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Shooting!

– Brendan 🙂

Photo of author
I'm a Canadian photographer and photo retoucher turned founder of bwillcreative.com. Around here I help you to decode the mystery of photo editing with no-fluff videos and written guides to help you achieve your creative goals. Outside of shooting photos and my passion for educating, you'll find me mountain biking or on the trails with my dog, Sunny!

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