Shutter Speed – The Basics

Lesson #4 in Photography for Ignorant Geniuses

Action in motion
By understanding shutter speed you can learn how to take photos that show motion.

In the greater scheme of things, shutter speed is probably one of the easier concepts to understand in photography. It affects the feeling of movement within an image.

At the most basic level you only need to understand one simple concept:

If the shutter speed is short (fast) enough, any movement happening in the photo or behind the camera will be frozen.

Keeping this in mind you should quickly realise there are two major areas in which this will impact our photography: involuntary camera shake that will ruin photos; and choosing between showing movement or freezing action. Work with a shutter speed which is fast enough and all your photos will be razor-sharp (as long as you get the focus right).

Shutter Speed & Camera Shake

Camera shake is the ugly head of shutter speed – something that we usually do our very best to avoid. If shooting on automatic and we have our flash turned off, sometimes the camera will choose a shutter speed which is very low (if shooting inside, or at night, for example). Some point-and-shoot cameras will let you know that you are likely to have shaky pictures – but that doesn’t really help.

Horrible camera shake - the photo on top was taken at 1/400s, the one at the bottom at 1/6s with no Image Stabilisation. Both pictures shot at 55mm.

Camera shake also increases as we zoom in because all our movements are amplified and therefore greatly exaggerated. This means that a shutter speed that might not result in a shaky picture when shooting at 28mm (wide) will be shaky at 280mm (telephoto) because each little shake in our hands will be multiplied tenfold!

As a rule of thumb, given average conditions and relatively steady hands, it is safe to assume that for a good, clear, shot you need to have a shutter speed which the same fraction of a second as the length you are shooting at. It might sound complex, but it is actually very simple:

If shooting at 30mm you need to assume that you need a shutter speed of at least 1/30 of a second for a shake free photo. At 300mm you need 1/300 of a second for a sharp picture and so on…

When you are shooting in a situation which might result in camera camera shake, there are a few things you can do to avoid it:

Increase ISO and/or Aperture

The best way to increase shutter speed is to open your aperture as much as possible. Select the smallest f-number available on your camera. Once you have done this, if it is not enough you will have to resort to your camera’s ISO. Push it up slowly until you are shooting within the safety range suggested above. Keep the usual ISO caveat in mind – each time you push it up a notch you are reducing the overall image quality by adding noise to the image.

Steady yourself and Grip the Camera Well

You should always hold your camera with both hands, but when shooting in challenging conditions this becomes far more important. If standing upright make sure to open your legs slightly and put one leg in front of the other to give you maximum stability. I sometimes find a wall to rest against to help me steady out too.

Steady Boy
Kneeling down and holding the camera well allowed me to take a sharp shot in this fashion shoot we shot at dusk.

Add Stability

A tripod is the best way to avoid camera shake – whether you’re shooting in the dark or using a telephoto lens in challenging light, nothing beats a sturdy tripod. If you don’t have one handy, however, you will need to get creative. Support your camera on anything you find at hand – a glass if you’re at table, a pillar or a barrier – I’ve used everything imaginable to get a steady shot when shooting in the street.

Invest in Image Stabilized Lenses/ Cameras

If you are in the process of buying a new camera or lens for your interchangeable lens system, you should really consider image stablilzation (IS). There are various methods of stabilizing images and most of them work very well.

Stablilization comes in various levels usually ranging from three-stop to five-stop. Keep in mind that IS only stabilizes camera shake – it will not hold your kid still in a photo, you need a different kind of stablilzation for that!

Shutter Speed & Motion

I will eventually develop this into a lesson in itself, however once you have understood the concept of shutter speed enough to avoid shaky pictures, you can start playing around with the values to use them to your advantage. There are many types of photography that need shutter speed control, however the most obvious two are covered below:

Frozen action

If you shoot action photos at a fast enough shutter speed you can freeze motion. When you freeze motion you need to make sure that the image itself conveys action. So for example if you’re shooting a sprinter, or the motorcyclist in the image below, it is more important to freeze motion because the image in itself already implies action.

Shot at 1/1000s, this image freezes the moment completely. The position of the motorcyclist, however, does not leave much to the imagination about whether there is action in this shot!

Panning to show motion

On the other hand, there are times when you want to show motion by panning along with the subject. By panning at the same speed of the subject you are shooting you can ensure that the subject itself is sharp but the background is blurred. When shooting this way you should always set your camera to drive mode (or multiple shots) and keep your finger on the shutter release. This will eat up your memory but it is really the only way to ensure that you get at least one good picture out of each passing by.

When you want this kind of photo you need to take much longer exposures, because the goal here is to actually show motion.

Classic car race
In this shot the car was driving by and I was panning at a speed that matched it. By shooting at 1/80s I blurred the background and foreground enough to show that it was driving by at speed while keeping the car and driver sharp.


Photography for Ignorant Geniuses is a set of tutorials I give out on a weekly basis about the science behind photography. For more information (and to subscribe) click here.

(#50 of 366 X 2012 project)

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