Becoming a Manual Photographer: Shutter Speeds

I’m back! I took a week off from blogging but I’m back as we continue our intro to manual photography series. Today we cover the second of the three major settings in manual photography: shutter speeds. If you haven’t yet read my first blog on aperture, click here.

Shutter speeds are actually an easy concept to understand. When you look through the viewfinder in your camera you are literally looking through the lens (TTL). You might be wondering then why the viewfinder in a camera isn’t located directly behind the lens. That’s because your camera’s image sensor (or film in traditional 35mm cameras) is located there. The viewfinder consists of a series of mirrors that allows the image from the lens to reach the eye-piece of the viewfinder, as can be seen below:Untitled-1

When you release your shutter button to take a photo, one of the mirrors in that series pops up for a designated period of time. This allows the light passing through your lens to be recorded onto your image sensor or film, resulting in a digital image or negative. You can control the amount of time your shutter remains open to allow more or less light into your camera. This will dictate how bright or dark your image becomes. Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second. Common shutter speeds range from a full second up to 1/1000 of a second.

This leads to another factor we must consider when selecting shutter speeds. While your shutter is open, your camera is capturing an image. However, still images do not function the same way video does. Any motion within your frame or motion of the camera itself can blur your image. The longer your shutter is open, the more susceptible it is to this blur. When shooting at low shutter speeds a tripod is absolutely necessary. Even a photographer’s breathing rate can affect the image at very low speeds!

Let’s observe the following waterfall photo I took a while back. In order to capture the ripples and droplets of the fast-moving water in vivid detail, I had to shoot at a relatively fast shutter speed. This particular photo was shot at 1/250 of a second. Sports photographers often shoot at very high shutter speeds to capture moving athletes in stunning detail.

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With that said, you are always encouraged to take artistic liberties and play with your shutter speeds in unique ways. Maybe you don’t want to capture your subject in crisp detail. Maybe you want to plop your camera on a tripod and slow the shutter down to create a cool light trail effect as can be seen below. Allowing the amusement park ride to blur in motion creates a sense of speed and the trailing lights add to the excitement of the photo. I shot this at 1/10 of a second. Admittedly, I was not using a tripod, however I always recommend using one at anything slower than 1/30 of a second. Don’t be a hero, no one has hands that steady!

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Join me next week when I cover the last element of manual photography: ISO, and show you how to utilize all three settings to master your compositions.

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