Choosing the Right Shutter Speed

The world is dynam­ic, full of motion, and rarely slows down for a pic­ture. Depend­ing on your sub­ject mat­ter and your artis­tic intent, you can either freeze the action you see or allow its move­ment to show through the pho­to­graph as motion blur. How­ev­er, to do this effec­tive­ly, you must select the right shut­ter speed for the sit­u­a­tion.

Shutter speed, subject motion, and your frame

The stan­dard rec­om­men­da­tion for man­ag­ing the appear­ance of move­ment using the shut­ter is to con­sid­er the sub­ject dis­tance, direc­tion of trav­el, and your focal length. Although this advice is tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect, it’s far more help­ful to under­stand the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple upon which it’s based. Addi­tion­al­ly, under­stand­ing this prin­ci­ple allows you to han­dle chal­leng­ing con­di­tions beyond the basic lat­er­al move­ments with which the stan­dard rec­om­men­da­tions aim to assist you, such as reced­ing, approach­ing, and rota­tion­al motion.

To ful­ly under­stand how shut­ter speed affects the per­cep­tion of motion in a pho­to­graph, it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er your subject’s move­ment in rela­tion to your frame and not in terms of absolute veloc­i­ty. For exam­ple, the cruis­ing speed of a typ­i­cal pas­sen­ger jet ranges from 860–930 km/h. When viewed through a super wide-angle lens, it can take one or two min­utes to tra­verse the frame, but when seen through a super tele­pho­to lens, it can take sev­er­al sec­onds, even though the plane’s veloc­i­ty is con­stant. Chang­ing the angle of view alters the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of the air­craft. How does this affect shut­ter speed and motion?

The speed of your sub­ject with­in the frame is the car­di­nal prin­ci­ple for deter­min­ing the appro­pri­ate shut­ter speed nec­es­sary to freeze move­ment or show motion blur. Imag­ine an object (with an unknown dis­tance and veloc­i­ty) that takes pre­cise­ly one sec­ond to move across your frame. In one-half a sec­ond, it trav­els across half of the frame. In 1/50 sec­ond, it moves across two per­cent of the frame. Now, assume your shut­ter speed is 1/100 sec­ond, and your camera’s image sen­sor is 6000 pix­els wide. At that shut­ter speed, light from the mov­ing object would pass across 60 addi­tion­al pix­els dur­ing the peri­od of expo­sure, result­ing in 60 pix­els of motion blur.

The “right” shutter speed

This guide intends to empow­er you with a sol­id foun­da­tion of pho­to­graph­ic knowl­edge and con­cepts that you can turn into heuris­tic expe­ri­ences of tri­al, error, and dis­cov­ery. Accord­ing­ly, there’s no sin­gle uni­ver­sal pre­scrip­tion or rule-of-thumb for deter­min­ing the right shut­ter speed for every con­ceiv­able sit­u­a­tion. Not only are there too many vari­ables, but the most crit­i­cal variable—your cre­ative intent—is high­ly sub­jec­tive. An effec­tive way to become intu­itive­ly famil­iar with the effects that dif­fer­ent shut­ters speeds have on var­i­ous types of motion is to exper­i­ment. Set your cam­era into shut­ter pri­or­i­ty mode, select a shut­ter speed that you think is suit­able for your sub­ject mat­ter, and snap away. Check your results peri­od­i­cal­ly and pay atten­tion to the expo­sure set­tings of the pic­tures you appre­ci­ate. If the results aren’t sat­is­fac­to­ry, change the shut­ter speed in the appro­pri­ate direc­tion for the desired effect: increas­ing shut­ter speed until it freezes motion or decreas­ing shut­ter speed to increase motion blur.