Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shutter Speed Guidelines

Using the wrong shutter speed can make a good photograph go bad ... and quick. This article will provide some quick and dirty guidelines to use when thinking about shutter speed. If you are looking for more details, you can read the overview article on shutter speed that includes a detailed infographic of photographs arranged along a grid of ever-increasing shutter speeds.

Shutter speed is also the topic for the week of May 18th in the Boost Your Photography 52 Weeks Challenge (#byp52weeks). Read more about #BYP52Weeks or join the group here.

Shutter Speed Guidelines

Shutter speed is the measurement of how long your camera's shutter is open while recording an image. The longer the shutter speed, the more light is recorded. You can use shutter speed to freeze moving objects, to record movement as a blur, or to create patterns and designs by intentionally moving the camera while the shutter is open.

Shutter speed is more likely to cause issues in low light situations. If there is less light available in the scene, your camera will want to choose a longer shutter speed. This can cause image issues, particularly if you are handholding your camera. The longer the shutter speed, the more likely that your natural movements or "camera shake" will be recorded as part of the final photograph. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a camera shake warning (for my Canon, it is a red icon of a camera with little motion curves on the sides) that will appear if you are trying to take a photograph with a slower shutter speed.

A highly exaggerated show of "camera shake."
This was an attempt to handhold a 1 second shot from a canoe.

There is a handy guideline for successfully handholding your camera: keep your shutter speed at or faster than the fraction of 1 over the focal length of your lens. Or, translated, if you are shooting with a 50 mm lens, you should generally be able to handhold your camera as slow as 1/50th of a second. If you are shooting with a 200 mm zoom lens, however, you should use a shutter speed faster than 1/200th of a second.

As they say in Pirates of the Caribbean, this isn't a hard and fast rule, it's more like a guideline. If you have an image stabilized lens (IS also abbreviated VR for vibration reduction or VC for vibration control), you will be able to handhold your lens at even slower speeds. Using stable handholding techniques (tucking in your elbows, making yourself into your own tripod, etc.) can also keep you more stable at a slightly longer speed. Practice shooting at slower shutter speeds and zoom in closely to evaluate your results to know your own personal baselines.

Shutter Speed: Freezing Motion

Shutter speed is critical for controlling the appearance of motion in your photograph. Quicker shutter speeds can make even moving subjects look frozen in time, while longer shutter speeds will make moving subjects into blurs. The key shutter speed to remember is 1/250th of a second. In general, shutter speeds faster than 1/250th of a second will be sufficient to freeze a moving subject, while shutter speeds slower than 1/250th of a second may lead to blur in a moving subject.

Butterfly landing, shot at 1/200th of a second.

Of course, this guideline is also dependent on the speed of your subject. Freezing the motion of someone walking is easier than freezing the motion of someone biking or driving. Likewise, only a very rapid shutter speed will freeze the motion of a bird in flight. With the butterfly above, the shutter speed of 1/200th of a second was not quite fast enough to freeze the motion of the wings.

This "levitation" style shot was taken at 1/320th of a second. While this is quicker than the guideline speed of 1/250th of a second, you may notice that it was not quite fast enough for this situation. The giveaway in this case is my shoes, which still show a noticeable blur which takes away from the implied "flight" of this image.

Shutter Speed: Showing Motion

The opposite strategy is to use shutter speed to show the process of motion. One method is to use a longer shutter speed to blur the movement of your subject. You can see examples of such a shot in the article on Long Exposure Photography at the Faire(e). Another method is to move your camera while shooting to keep your subject still and your background blurred. This technique is called panning and you can read more details in the full post on Panning in Photography.

Panning makes a moving subject (the car) appear still. Read more on Panning in Photography

Another method for showing motion is known as ICM or intentional camera movement. Like panning, this technique involves moving your camera while shooting. Panning involves intentionally following your subject, while ICM can involve any kind of camera movement and is often used to create more abstract photographs.

Intentional Camera Movement during a sunrise, 1/2 sec. long shutter

Shutter Speed: Portable Summary

There are many different ways to use shutter speed creatively and practically. If you can remember a few simple guidelines - 1/250 to freeze motion and 1 / focal length to handhold - then you can be much more successful at capturing the shot you've envisioned. Want an easy way to keep those guidlines handy? Copy and print out the following business-card sized shutter speed "cheat sheet" and throw a copy in your camera bag.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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