Guide to Shutter Speed and Capturing Motion

How to Use Shutter Speed to Freeze or Portray Motion in your Photos

In the last tutorial we learnt that aperture referred to the opening in the camera lens that allows light to enter the camera and onto the digital sensor or film. In this one, take a look a shutter speed and how it affects the look of our photographs.

What is shutter speed?

The shutter speed refers to the amount of the time the aperture actually remains open to let the light in. Shutter speed can also be referred to as “exposure time”. This can range from extremely fast shutter speeds such as 1/10,000 of a second to extremely slow shutter speeds where the aperture can remain open for several minutes.

How does your choice of shutter speed affect the look of your photograph?

The most obvious effect your choice of shutter speed will have concerns any motion in the scene you are capturing. Fast shutter speeds will appear to freeze motion. You will often see this in sports photography for example. Slower shutter speeds will do the opposite. They will blur motion. Rather unsurprisingly, this is known as motion blur.

Both fast shutter speeds and slow shutter speeds can be used to great creative effect in many genres of photography.

Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Motion and Blur Motion
Wikimedia Commons

Let’s take a look at these three photos of a colourful windmill. A different shutter speed has been used in each one. In the first version, a fast shutter speed of 1/500 of a second has completely frozen the motion of the windmill. It looks as if it has completely stopped.

In the second photo, a much slower shutter speed of 1/30 of a second has been used. Now 1/30 of a second may seem like a very fast shutter speed. In fact, it is slow enough to blur the motion of the fast spinning windmill.

In the final photo, an even slower shutter speed of 1/4 of a second has made the spinning windmill look like a complete blur of colours. Slow shutter speeds that create this motion blur effect can be a great way of portraying movement in an otherwise static image.

How to Use Fast Shutter Speeds to Freeze Motion

Here are some more examples of how a fast shutter speed can be used to freeze a moment in time.

Fast shutter speeds freeze motion eg. street photography
Cyclist on Merrion Square – Dublin

I generally use fast shutter speeds when shooting street photography. Street photography is often about capturing a precise moment in time. The French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called it capturing the “decisive moment”. I will cover this in more detail in a future tutorial. In this case, a shutter speed of 1/400 second froze in time the cyclist as he passed the historic Georgian buildings on Merrion Square on the Southside of Dublin City.

Fast shutter speeds freeze motion eg. sports photography
Rugby at the Aviva Stadium – Dublin

As already mentioned, fast shutter speeds are often used in sports photography to freeze a precise moment in the game. In this case, a shutter speed of 1/500 second has captured the exact moment the ball was thrown into the air at this lineout during a rugby match featuring the mighty Leinster against Scarletts. Leinster won the match but I must admit that the Welsh were far more talented singers!

Fast shutter speeds freeze motion eg. wildlife photography
Seagull in Dublin

Wildlife photographers often use fast shutter speeds to freeze animals in motion and show the detail of the animal itself. I rarely take pictures of animals but this seagull in Dublin proved to be an interesting subject. A shutter speed of 1/400 second ensured I captured all the detail in his feathers. The cheeky b#####d stole my bag of chips a few seconds later.

How to Use Slow Shutter Speeds to Portray Motion

Slow shutter speeds blur motion eg. waterfall photography
Sonsbeek Waterfall – Arnhem

As we saw with the windmill photographs earlier, slow shutter speeds can be used to blur motion. In this photograph of a waterfall in Arnhem, The Netherlands, a relatively slow shutter speed of 1/3 second is enough to blur the flowing water to create a pleasing hazy effect that portrays this sense of movement.

Slow shutter speeds blur motion eg. people moving on a street
Grafton Street – Dublin

In this photograph of a very busy Grafton Street in Dublin around Christmas time, I wanted to portray the movement of the people on the street as they milled about. A slow shutter speed of 1.6 seconds was enough to blur the people to achieve this. As mentioned earlier, capturing motion blur is an effective way of portraying movement in an otherwise static photograph.

Slow shutter speeds blur motion eg. traffic trails
Arcade du Cinquantenaire – Brussels

Very long shutter speeds can be used creatively to capture light trails. In this case, a long shutter speed of 30 seconds has caused the lights from the moving cars to leave white and red streaks of light as they sped along the motorway below me. This is a commonly used technique in urban landscape photography. The low light at night time makes very slow shutter speeds possible.

Slow shutter speeds blur motion eg. long exposure photography using a neutral density filter.
Fishing Boat at Sunset – Monastir, Tunisia

Sometimes, we can use filters to slow down our shutter speed dramatically to create even more extreme effects. In this photo, I used a 10 stop neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens down to 1/1000 of what it would be without the filter. This allowed me to set a very long shutter speed of 160 seconds. I used a rock steady tripod for this shot as well as a shutter release cable in order to prevent shaking the camera when pressing the shutter.

The almost 3 minute exposure time blurred the movement of the evening clouds as they moved slowly across the sky creating a very dramatic effect as well as blurring the water of the sea. Anything that wasn’t moving such as the boat remained sharp.

The Importance of a Good Tripod

Sturdy Tripod for Long Exposure Photography

When using slow shutter speeds, a high quality solid tripod is essential. I’d almost say it’s the most important piece of equipment for landscape photographers (who tend to use slow shutter speeds a lot). Even the slightest movement of the camera during a long exposure can cause camera shake and ruin the shot. A good heavy tripod also acts as a handy weapon when photographing the dodgier parts of a city.

How do I know if a shutter speed is fast enough to hand hold without worrying about camera shake?

There are times we don’t have a tripod with us or perhaps we are not permitted to use one at a particular location and we have no option but to shoot handheld. There is a simple trick to work out if your shutter speed is fast enough to do this without risking camera shake.

Take a look at your focal length value on your lens (Focal length is covered in more detail in a later tutorial). This is a measure of the angle of view or how much you have zoomed in or out. It is measured in millimetres with lower values signifying wider angles and higher values showing that your lens has zoomed in closer to the subject.

Focal Length Indicators on a camera lens.
Focal Length Indicators on a Camera Lens | Adobe Stock

Simply take your focal length, multiply it by 2 and then divide by 1. For example, a focal length of 60 mm multiplied by 2 is 120. This means that a shutter speed of 1/120 of a second is safe enough to prevent camera shake at this focal length. That said, many modern cameras and lenses have image stabilisation features that actually allow you handhold your camera at much slower shutter speeds without risking camera shake.

Be careful while typing.

Mixing up letters on a computer keyboard.
Adobe Stock

At this stage, I would like to point out the importance of being very careful when typing the term “shutter speed”. I was giving a presentation on this topic one evening at a photography club and was wondering why the audience looked perplexed and a little disturbed as I put up the title slide. My first slide had just informed my audience in giant letters that I was going to give them a detailed presentation about “Shitter Speed”. In my defence, “u” and “i” are right next to each other on the keyboard.

Shutter Speed and Motion Infographic

The chart above illustrates the effect your choice of shutter speed will have on capturing motion in the scene you are photographing. Notice that the faster shutter speeds freeze the motion of the person running while the slower exposure times blur the motion.

In our next tutorial, we will take a look at how aperture and shutter speed affect each other.

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I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

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