Regardless of your subject. Your shutter speed is going to have an impact on your images in a number of ways. Exposure and content will be affected. This means the amount of light coming from your image but the amount of movement that is also captured. Out of all the settings on the camera – this is the one you want to learn first, master first and most likely change the most.

(Click to download my notebook on Shutter Speeds)

The first thing to remember is that light travels fast – like, really fast, so, in order to have sharp images we need to just capture a fast slice of the moment as it passes in front of the camera. Most cameras have a range of 4000th to 30secs as the options for the shutter speed. This range can be different from camera and model but, the bit to remember is that 4000th of second is fast and 30 seconds is very slow. We can either use the camera in an auto mode or pick the shutter speed manually, but how do we know what setting to use?

The camera helps by having a range of pre-set timings we can select using a dial or a button – in this case, the X-T2 has a dial. On the dial you will see the markings for the pre-selected timings we can select including a mode called B – this is a mode called bulb mode and is the way we can select any shutter speed we like, ranging from hours to days in some cases! Looking at the dial again, we can also see an X-marked next to a number – this symbol marks the flash sync speed of the camera. (Read more about flash here). Normally we base our shutter speed on the subject matter. We must decide how much movement we want in an image, then select a shutter speed to match. The longer the shutter is open, the more movement will occur. Sometimes we need a long shutter speed to capture the something, but then we will use another part of the Exposure Triangle to balance out the brightness and create the image we are looking for.


Let’s look at some examples and try and work out why the shutter speed is so key.

This image was taken with a very long shutter speed. So long that many waves had time to come in and merge together in the image to turn the water a different colour. A shutter speed of 320 seconds was used for this image. This sort of photography is known as Long Exposure photography. It is extremely advised to use tripods and shutter release cables when producing this sort of work. Images like this are very sensitive to movement.

GFX – North Wales – 320 second shutter time

In contrast – this image is using a high speed shutter to freeze the motion of the water falling from the bottle to the glass. The common maximum shutter speed of 8000th of a second (on a higher end camera) was used to create this image.

If we have a look at some more sample images, we can start to see how shutter speed can affect your images and we can have a look for some clues about how images are constructed.

This image of Birmingham has some interesting movement. The requirements of the image were that it should have people in the image but no recognizable faces are in view. The Exposure triangle was used to create a deep depth of field yet enough time was given to the shutter to allow enough movement to distort the faces of the people.

By the subtle movement, could you guess the shutter speed that was used?

Being able to identify the effects that shutter speed can have on your images will help to understand how we can learn to fully use this important part of the Exposure Triangle.

Above: On a first glance, it’s hard to spot any immediate signs of movement in this image. The big clue is the motion of the boats and the masts in the water.
Below: Can you spot the clue to the length of the shutter in this image?

Hint: Is it a bird? Is it a …

By the way, the cool lighting effect was achieved by using a star filter.

Settings for photographing people?

In principle – no. In photography, there are no fixed settings for anything. There are, however, rough guidelines, common practices and things that work better.

Let’s look at photographing people.  Movement in an image can come from two ways. Either camera movement (camera shake) as I hold the camera or the movement of the subject. I can easily control both elements by holding the camera correctly and asking my model to remain still. At 30th of a second, with a trained hand, there is no problem getting a sharp image. Remember the lower the f-stop or the longer the focal length, the less you have in focus to start with. At super open apertures like f1.2, just breathing can move a subject way out of focus. It is also worth noting that the longer the focal length the more sensitive motion becomes.

Below is my rough guide to photographing people based on a 35mm lens. The (old school) rule I use is that the minimum shutter speed should be, at least double the focal length. For example. If you are shooting at 200mm, you would want to try and keep your minimum shutter speed at about 200th of a second.  These are rough starting guides and don’t take into account tripods, subject speeds, wind, weather or things like lenses that have built-in stabilization features.

Is this why my images are blurry?

There can be many reasons why images are blurry, but the camera shake and movement in an image can be identified easily sometimes, usually with quick fixes too. If we look at these two images for example, both have a good exposure however, one is out of focus, but the other is in focus just has unwanted movement. Being able to understand why an image didn’t work can be important, but also remember that there are no ‘correct’ settings.

Interestingly – the look of motion blur is very different to an image that is out of focus. Let’s compare the images below.

The image of the left – we can see areas that are sharp and ‘in focus’ yet, we have areas that areas that are blurry too. This is clear sign that the shutter speed needs to be quicker to suit the movement that subject is creating. The image on the right is uniformly out of focus which indicates that shutter speed is not the cause of the blurry nature – and was in fact back focused.

The images below might help explain this a little more. A shutter speed of 160th using flash was easily fast enough to capture this handsome young pup.

You can easily with shutters speed with a household experiment. To create some example images Stephanie used a windmill, tripod, shutter release and a hairdryer. She set the camera up on the tripod set to shutter priority (camera set to automatically determine ISO and aperture) to maintain a constant exposure. An Ice Light was used to light the ideas.

We can quickly see the dramatic effect that increasing the shutter speed has.

See image references below.

What is OIS?

Some lenses have built-in electronics that help reduce the amount of movement that makes it on to the final image. These systems can only correct so much movement and are designed for dealing with camera shake, not subjects that are moving. The best way to reduce movement is getting your camera stable. Use a tripod or a monopod if can. Keep your shutter speed higher than your focal length and you should be fine – OIS is not a save all solution and only really is needed at longer focal lengths or when shooting video.  Most systems and on all XF lenses, you can find a switch to turn the system on and off. Extra battery usage, as well as a small sound, can be expected – this is normal. You will see the full effect of the system when you half-press the shutter button or when in a video mode.

How does flash effect shutter speeds?

Normally, we would say that flash controls ambient light and aperture controls ambient and flash – but this is a very ambiguous statement and while has some truth does not shape the whole story of how they balance together. Most cameras have something called a Flash Sync Speed. This is the limit of the camera being able to link to a flash system in order to work correctly. There are many ways around this sync speed – so don’t worry too much.

Combining flash and long shutter speeds can be super fun and help get some very interesting effects, as you can see in this image below where we have used a longer shutter speed to capture movement and freeze parts of the motion too. This happens as the shutter is open enough time to create an exposure than from the movement, then a burst of light is put out and freezes part of the image. It looks pretty cool!

As a summery in regards to shutter speed, there are two main ways of using light to make an exposure. Using flash or ambient. Flash lights give a big burst and ambient light is less intense therefor needs a longer shutter time to capture the same amount of light – also letting us capture motion.

In the most simple terms, shutter speed helps us control the amount of light entering the camera. If you solely use ambient light you’ll find that this is the most common setting you will change as a photographer. Also it can be one of the most creatively impackful settings for any photographer.

For example, say the exposure of the Photographer man in the image above has a value of ‘X’ we can either use flash to give a high power burst of light, meaning we can use a fast shutter to freeze the motion and ensure a sharp image, or a longer exposure of ambient light to build up to the same level, risking the chance of movement in the image.


Other things to think about:

Focal Length.

Due to how the optics work, longer lenses are subject to camera shake and vibration much more than wider angle lenses. The weight and balance of the lenses also have an effect on the stability of the lens. Most longer lenses have tripod mounts attached to a brace or collar that fits around the lens. This gives a better-weighed position to hold the lens and center point in which to use a tripod or monopod.

Wind and weather.

Sometimes we can get a perfect balance of shutter speed and movement in a subject – like this image of Jodi.
Wind is blowing her hair around enough to create motion but the shutter speed is fast enough to give good clear eye contact.

Some samples of Long Exposure Photography.

Click here to download my notebook on Shutter Speeds


This blog is part of the EXPOSURE TRIANGLE blogs.

Find the links to the other two by clicking the images.

Extra reading – Marc Levoys lectures are very intense, but if you are looking for a more technical explanation of how photography works and the maths & equations behind it check out this link for a full comprehensive set of lectures.