How shutter speeds work

Using a slightly slower shutter speed gives the effect of movement in the water.
Using a slightly slower shutter speed gives the effect of movement in the water.

Some would argue that the golden age of photography was the era of the 35mm film. Because of this, despite the acceleration of technology, the basic components of a camera remain. One of those components is the shutter. The shutter is a piece of retractable plastic that opens and closes at varying speeds when you take a picture.

You may remember that when I discussed apertures I mentioned that they’re intrinsically linked with shutter speed and ISO. The shutter speed is the time it takes for the shutter curtain to open and close and is measured in seconds and fractions of a second.

But what is a shutter curtain?
Well this goes back to that aforementioned golden era. 35mm film is a light sensitive strip of gelatin. Any exposure to light can ruin it if it’s not done in a controlled way. Therefore, in order to get a photograph, the lens must be focused, the aperture set to the correct value and the shutter speed adjusted so that the appropriate amount of light hits the frame.

These days the shutter curtain is a piece of retractable plastic but was originally light tight cloth. When you press the shutter release, the curtain opens, exposes light onto the film or digital sensor, then closes again. While not in use, it hides the sensor or film from light which allows you to take off the lens to change it. Compact cameras don’t generally have a curtain because they don’t have interchangeable lenses.

How do we use the shutter speed to our advantage?
Depending on the type of photography you do will depend on how you use the shutter speed to your advantage. A general rule of thumb is that if you want to get sharp, blur free images hand held, then don’t use a shutter speed lower than the focal length of the lens. For example, if the lens is set to 50mm, don’t go below 1/50sec. If you find that the picture is underexposed, open the aperture or use a faster ISO setting to ensure that you don’t break this guideline.

There are a number of different photographic disciplines where you would use the shutter speed more creatively.

Angling the camera slightly gives a sense of power from the car as you'd lean while it goes round a corner. The slower shutter speed leaves image trails - or blur - to enhance the movement. These cars were travelling at roughly 10MPH.
Angling the camera slightly gives a sense of power from the car as you’d lean while it goes round a corner. The slower shutter speed leaves image trails – or blur – to enhance the movement. These cars were travelling at roughly 10MPH.

Motorsport is a fast, high octane event and photographers want to convey this in their pictures. They do this by using the shutter speed to their advantage. Setting the camera to around 1/200sec will get sharp, frozen cars or bikes. That means that the wheels will be frozen too and won’t give the viewer a sense of the speed they can go. So a photographer will find a part of the track they go slower at – such as a hairpin bend. The camera will have a slightly slower shutter speed than is recommended and the focus will be manually set to a predetermined position. When the car gets in view, the photographer will pan with the car and at the focused area will take the shot, all the time panning. Following the car like this will keep it sharp while the slower shutter will blur the background and wheels giving a sense of movement.

Using a very long exposure allows any light burned on the image to remain there. When using lights at night this creates a light trail.
Using a very long exposure allows any light burned on the image to remain there. When using lights at night this creates a light trail.

Night landscape photography utilises a slow shutter speed to get car light trails on roads while some urban photographers have become extremely adept at using torches to create stunning night time abstract images.

This may sound simple but takes years of practice. A professional photographer understands how a shutter speed works. A camera in Auto mode can easily recommend a setting but it doesn’t have any creativity and can’t break rules against its programming. That’s why a photographer will give you much better results than a friend or a camera phone. I’m trained and have extensive experience in different types of photography. If you have an idea that I may be able to help with, please get in touch.

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