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How Does Shutter Speed Affect My Photography?

Shutter speed is one of the three elements of the exposure triangle, along with aperture and ISO. It refers to the amount of time that the camera’s shutter is open, allowing light to reach the film. Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second, such as 1/60, 1/125, or 1/500.


Understanding shutter speed is essential for any photographer, especially for film photography beginners. Shutter speed affects not only the brightness of your photos, but also the motion blur and sharpness. By adjusting the shutter speed, you can create different effects, such as freezing or blurring the movement of your subject, or creating a sense of motion in your background.


In this article, we will explain what shutter speed is, how it works in a camera, and how it affects your photographs. We will also give you some tips on how to choose the best shutter speed for different situations. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of shutter speed and how to use it creatively in your film photography.


What is shutter speed and what impact does it have?

Shutter speed is the duration of time that the camera’s shutter is open, exposing the film to light. The shutter is a mechanical device that covers and uncovers the film inside the camera. When you press the shutter release button, the shutter opens and closes according to the shutter speed you have set. The longer the shutter is open, the more light reaches the film, and vice versa.


A photograph of a low light exhibit in the Tate Modern underhalls.
A low light exhibit in the Tate Modern, shot on 200 ISO film, required a long exposure to fully capture the light completely. This was shot at f/1.7 at 1/4s shutter - hand held, but braced against a wall. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


Shutter speed is usually expressed in seconds or fractions of a second, such as 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, and 1000. Each shutter speed value is either half or double the previous one, which means that each value lets in half or double the amount of light as the previous one. For example, a shutter speed of 1/125 lets in half the amount of light as a shutter speed of 1/60, and a shutter speed of 1/250 lets in half the amount of light as a shutter speed of 1/125. This is called a stop of light, and it is a common way to measure the changes in exposure.


Shutter speed has a direct impact on the appearance of your photographs, especially when there is movement involved. The faster the shutter speed, the more likely you are to freeze the motion of your subject, resulting in a sharp and crisp image. The slower the shutter speed, the more likely you are to capture the motion of your subject, resulting in a blurred or streaked image. This can be used to create artistic effects, such as showing the speed or direction of your subject, or creating a sense of dynamism or drama in your scene.


However, shutter speed also affects the overall brightness of your photos, depending on the lighting conditions and the other elements of the exposure triangle. If the shutter speed is too fast, your photos may be underexposed, meaning they are too dark and lack detail in the shadows. If the shutter speed is too slow, your photos may be overexposed, meaning they are too bright and lack detail in the highlights. To avoid this, you need to balance the shutter speed with the aperture, taking into account the ISO rating of the film that you've loaded - these are the other two factors that control the exposure of your film.


To get the correct exposure of your film, you need to find the right combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that suits the lighting conditions and the creative effect you want to achieve. This is the concept explained by the exposure triangle. This can be done by using a light meter, which is a device that measures the amount of light in your scene and suggests the best settings for your camera. A number of newer film cameras have a built-in light meter, which can be either a needle or an LED indicator in the viewfinder. If your camera has aperture or shutter priority, or is fully automatic, you'll also likely have an exposure compensation dial, which allows you to adjust the exposure by adding or subtracting stops of light. If you don't have a built-in light meter, you can also use an external one, which can be either a handheld device or an app on your smartphone.


When should I use a fast vs a slow shutter speed?

Simply put, the longer the shutter is open, the more light reaches the film, and vice versa.


As mentioned, shutter speed affects not only the brightness of your photos, but also the motion blur. Motion blur is the amount of movement that is captured in your photos. If you use a fast shutter speed, you can freeze the motion of your subject, creating a sharp and crisp image. If you use a slow shutter speed, you can capture the motion of your subject, creating a blurred and dynamic image.


There are different use cases for both fast and slow shutter speeds, depending on the effect you want to achieve and the situation you are in.


When to use a fast shutter speed

You can use a fast shutter speed to capture fast-moving subjects, such as sports, wildlife, or children, and avoid blurry photos while capturing the details and expressions of your subject. A faster shutter speed also allows you to set your aperture wider in brighter conditions if you want to create a shallow depth of field, separating your subject from the background, keeping only the subject in focus and making the background blurred. This is useful for isolating your subject and creating a bokeh effect.


A picture of two men eating lunch in Greenwich Market.
In order to capture the people sat eating their lunch in Greenwich Market, a fast shutter speed of 1/125s was required. The light was sufficient to allow me to stop down and keep a decent depth of field on 400 speed film. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


If the light conditions are not conducive, you will need more light or a more sensitive film, so you may have to use a flash if you haven't loaded a fast enough film, and you're working in close quarters where a speedlight will help.


When to use a slow shutter speed

A slower shutter speed is great for capturing slow-moving or stationary subjects, like landscapes, architecture, or still life. You can create a deep depth of field, keeping everything in your photo in focus and sharp. Or, with moving objects, you can create a motion blur effect with a slower shutter, to convey a sense of movement, speed, or direction. The trails of car lights, the flow of water, or the movement of clouds are great examples of when a slower shutter is going to have a marked creative impact.


A photograph of cyclists and cars in motion on the north side of Blackfriars Bridge in London.
I was already working in low light conditions here, but the impact of stopping down a little further and lengthening my shutter speed meant that I capture the dynamic of the cyclists' and the cars' motion. If I had opened up to the widest aperture, I would have been shooting at 1/125s (using 800 speed film) and not achieved such a dynamic. But since I stopped down to f/5.6, I managed to lengthen the shutter by 5 stops, and achieve a 1/8s exposure, capturing movement, while keeping the background and non-moving elements sharp. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


If you're working in bright conditions, you'll need to make sure you have a lens that can stop down far enough, or use a slower film, or additionally you can add neutral density filters to the front of the lens until the exposure is long enough to satisfy your needs.


How do shutter speed and aperture relate?

Shutter speed and aperture are two of the three elements of the exposure triangle, along with ISO. They work together to control the amount of light that reaches the film and the depth of field of your photos.


Aperture is the opening of the lens that lets light into the camera. It is measured in f-stops, such as f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc. The smaller the f-number, the larger the aperture, and the more light that enters the camera. The larger the f-number, the smaller the aperture, and the less light that enters the camera.


Aperture also affects the depth of field of your photos, which is the range of distance that is in focus. The smaller the f-number, the larger the aperture, and the shallower the depth of field. The larger the f-number, the smaller the aperture, and the deeper the depth of field.


Shutter speed and aperture have an inverse relationship, which means that if you change one, you have to change the other to maintain the same exposure. For example, if you increase your shutter speed by one stop (from 1/60 to 1/125), you have to decrease your aperture by one stop (from f/8 to f/5.6) to let in the same amount of light. Conversely, if you decrease your shutter speed by one stop (from 1/60 to 1/30), you have to increase your aperture by one stop (from f/8 to f/11) to let in the same amount of light.


However, changing your shutter speed and aperture also changes the motion blur and depth of field of your photos, respectively. Therefore, you have to balance these factors according to your creative vision and the situation you are in.


To help you understand the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, you can use the concept of the exposure triangle, which also includes ISO. ISO is the sensitivity of the film to light. It is measured in numbers, such as 100, 200, 400, etc. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film, and the less light you need. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive the film, and the more light you need.


A photograph of a swan opening its wings in a display of dominance.
The majesty of this swan is captured gloriously - and sharply - due to a fast shutter. Shot at 1/250s, the opening of the wings to full extension is frozen and the swan stands, statue-like, dominating both his peers, and his territory. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

ISO also affects the grain of your photos, which is the amount of noise or texture that is visible. The higher the ISO, the more grainy your photos, and the lower the image quality. The lower the ISO, the less grainy your photos, and the higher the image quality.


The exposure triangle shows how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO affect each other and the exposure of your photos. You can use it as a guide to adjust your settings according to the lighting conditions and the effect you want to achieve. However, there is no one right or wrong setting for every situation, as exposure isn't an absolute value and many different exposure levels can be correct, as well as different settings producing different results and moods. You have to experiment and practice to find the best settings for your style of photography.


How do I adjust the shutter speed on my camera?

Adjusting shutter speed depends on a couple of things: what kind of camera you're shooting and what mode you're shooting in. If you're shooting a fully mechanical, manual camera with no automation (such as the Olympus OM-1 or Pentax K1000), you will have full control and just need to find the right control. If, however, you're shooting a more modern camera with some form of automation (such as the Contax G1, Olympus OM-4, etc), then you need to be in a mode that allows you to change the shutter speed (shutter priority, or manual).


  • Manual mode: You have full control over both the aperture and the shutter speed. You can use a light meter or the camera’s built-in meter to determine the correct exposure. To change the shutter speed, you need to rotate a dial or a wheel on the camera, usually located near the shutter release button or on the top of the camera.

  • Shutter priority mode: You set the shutter speed and the camera automatically chooses the aperture for you. This mode is useful when you want to control the motion blur and let the camera handle the exposure. To change the shutter speed, you need to rotate a dial or a wheel on the camera, similar to manual mode.


The following modes set the shutter speed for you, and therefore are not suitable:


  • Aperture priority mode: You set the aperture and the camera automatically chooses the shutter speed for you. This mode is useful when you want to control the depth of field and let the camera handle the exposure. To change the aperture, you need to rotate a ring on the lens or a dial on the camera, depending on the model.

  • Program mode: The camera automatically chooses both the aperture and the shutter speed for you. This mode is useful when you want to shoot quickly and easily, without worrying about the settings. To change the exposure, you can use the exposure compensation button or dial, which allows you to make the photo brighter or darker.


The exact method of adjusting the shutter speed may vary depending on the brand and model of your film camera. Here are some examples of how to change the shutter speed on some popular film cameras:


  • Canon AE-1: This camera has a shutter priority mode and a manual mode. To switch between the modes, you need to set the aperture ring on the lens to A (for automatic) or to a specific value (for manual). To change the shutter speed, you need to rotate the dial on the top of the camera, which shows the values from B (bulb) to 1000 (1/1000 second).


The top plate of the Canon AE-1 showing controls.
Cburnett, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Minolta X-700: The Minolta X-700 has a full auto, aperture- and shutter-priority modes and manual mode. To adjust the shutter speed, simply turn the shutter speed dial from P or A to one of the shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s.


The Minolta X-700 with controls shown
FrankBothe, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Olympus OM-1: This camera has a manual mode only. To change the shutter speed, you need to rotate the ring on the lens mount, which shows the values from B (bulb) to 1000 (1/1000 second).


Olympus OM-1 showing controls.
Steve Martin, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

When choosing the shutter speed, you need to consider the following factors:

  • The lighting conditions: The brighter the light, the faster the shutter speed you need, and vice versa. You can also use a flash to add more light and freeze the motion.

  • The focal length of the lens: The longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed you need, and vice versa. This is because a longer lens magnifies the camera shake and makes the image blurrier. A general rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is at least equal to the reciprocal of the focal length. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/50 second. As you get more comfortable, your hand will get steadier and you can extend this shutter speed, or if you have something to brace your shoulder or arm against, or set the camera on, this will allow you to hand-hold at longer shutter speeds.

  • The subject movement: The faster the subject moves, the faster the shutter speed you need if you want to freeze motion, and vice versa. Use a tripod or a monopod to reduce the camera shake and allow for slower shutter speeds if you find that you cannot hand-hold at the necessary speed.


What shutter speed should I use for a given situation?


Portraits

For portraits, you usually want to use a fast enough shutter speed to keep the subject sharp and avoid any unwanted blur. If you're taking a candid portrait outside and the subject is prone to move at any moment, a shutter speed of 1/125 second or faster is usually sufficient (unless the subject is moving very fast or you are using a long lens). However, if you're in the studio with your camera set up on a tripod, you may want to take advantage of the likely stillness of the subject and elongate your shutter so that you can use a slower speed film (to reduce grain) and a narrower aperture (to increase depth of focus).


Sports

In sports photography, you're usually using a long lens and the action is usually fast. So, you would want to use as fast a shutter speed as possible to freeze the action and capture the peak moments. A shutter speed of 1/500 second or faster is usually required, depending on the speed and direction of the movement, and the length of your lens. You can also use a panning technique, which involves moving the camera along with the subject, to create a blurred background and a sharp subject. This will likely mean you need a wider open aperture, impacting depth of focus and so an autofocus camera is going to be useful, as is a high speed film (or, if you're shooting digital - which I would highly recommend these days for sports photography! - then ramp the ISO up to the maximum you can get away with without degrading the image quality too much).


Landscapes

For landscapes, you don't tend to need a fast shutter speed as the main subject of your photography is pretty stationary. If trying to create a smooth and dreamy effect - especially for waterfalls, rivers, or clouds - then use a slow shutter speed. A shutter speed of at most 1/30 second is usually fine, depending on the amount of motion and the desired effect. If you have a camera with mirror lock-up mode, then engage it for maximum stability and use a cable release. If taking a long exposure of more than 1/30s then you will need to use a tripod or a stable surface to avoid camera shake and ensure a sharp image.


Night

For night photography, you will need a slow shutter to capture the low light (and the star trails, or the light trails from cars or other sources, if that's what you're going for). A shutter speed of several seconds or even minutes is usually required, depending on the darkness and the desired effect. You will need to use a tripod or a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake and ensure a sharp image. Remember that the laws of reciprocity start to fail for different films at different exposure lengths, so you need to further adjust the aperture or shutter speed to compensate.


 

Shutter speed is an essential concept to understand - not just for film photography, but digital as well - as it affects both the exposure and the creative expression of your photos. By adjusting the shutter speed, you can control the amount of light that reaches the film, as well as the motion blur and sharpness of the image. You can use different shutter speeds to capture different effects and moods, depending on the type of photography you are doing and the result you want to achieve.

We hope this guide has helped you to learn more about shutter speed and how to use it in your film photography. We encourage you to experiment with different shutter speeds and see how they change your photos.


To learn more about how to use a light meter and how to get the correct exposure of your film, check out this article: The Correct Exposure of Film.


To learn more about the other elements of the exposure triangle, check out these articles: What is ISO in Film Photography? and The Exposure Triangle: A Guide for Film Photography Beginners.


 

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