Fast Shutter Speed Explained: Capturing Sharp Photos, Repeatedly

Do you struggle to understand when and how you should use fast shutter speed?

It’s a common problem. Shutter speed can be a tough concept to grasp, especially when you’re faced with choosing a shutter speed in the field.

Fortunately, as long as it’s presented in the right way, shutter speed can actually be quite simple. That’s what this article is about–explaining fast shutter speeds in a way that makes it accessible to all.

Fast Shutter Speed Explained: Capturing Sharp Photos, Repeatedly

Let’s get started.

Understanding Shutter Speed

First things first:

The shutter is the mechanical part of the camera, which opens when you take a photo and closes when the photo is captured.

The shutter speed, then, is the amount of time the shutter stays open. So as soon as you press the shutter button, the shutter springs open–and stays open for a length of time called the shutter speed. Then the shutter shuts, leaving you with an exposed image.

Generally, shutter speed is measured in seconds, like this:

1/2s, 1s, 1/20s, 1/200s, 1/500s, 1/1000s, 1/4000s, etc.

However, you should note that most shutter speeds are written as fractions of a second because shutter speeds are very, very fast. So while plenty of cameras have the ability to shoot from shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds, it’s much more common to use shutter speeds around 1/50s or above.

Often the scene you intend to photograph has both static and moving objects. Shutter Speed helps us to control them.

Minimum Shutter Speed

Now, while most cameras allow you to shoot with a shutter speed of 30s or faster, the minimum shutter speed varies from camera to camera.

Another thing to be aware of regarding shutter speeds:

Electronic Shutter vs Mechanical Shutter

These days, many cameras can take photos without a mechanical shutter (think mirrorless and Live View photos). There’s no shutter opening and closing when you press the shutter button. There’s no snap from the camera as the shutter moves.

Instead, electronic shutters activate the camera sensor up for a certain amount of time (the shutter speed!), before shutting it back down.

This is advantageous if you want to keep your shooting as quiet as possible. It also helps minimize vibrations. On the other hand, electronic shutters don’t do well with flash shooting (and, on some cameras, you cannot shoot with an electronic shutter and flash at the same time).

What Is a Fast Shutter Speed?

So what actually counts as a fast shutter speed? A shutter speed of around 1/400s-1/500s. These shutter speeds aren’t extraordinarily fast, but they do bring some serious power to the table.

Faster Shutter Speed vs Slow Shutter Speed

Why does shutter speed actually matter?

For two reasons.

1. Shutter Speed Controls Exposure

First, the slower your shutter speed, the longer the sensor is exposed to the light. And the longer the sensor is exposed to the light…

…the brighter the resulting photo.

So shutter speed helps determine exposure. If your scene is dark, you can brighten it up with longer shutter speed. If your scene is too light, you can darken it with shorter shutter speed.

I had to use a shutter speed of the 30s to compensate for lack of light

2. Shutter Speed Controls Motion

Second, the faster your shutter speed, the more likely it is that you’ll freeze movement in your photos. Fast shutter speeds stop motion; slow shutter speeds show motion by creating blur.

Here’s how a fast shutter speed captured a bird in flight:

This is because a slow shutter speed will give you a motion blur effect, one that can sometimes look beautiful.

In fact, the longer the shutter speed, the more interesting your photos become. Slow shutter speeds can give you a silky look when it comes to running water, like this:

Creating a long exposure effect with the long shutter speed

You can also use longer shutter speed for creative effects, such as intentional camera movement.

But remember:

Shutter speed is also linked with exposure. And a poor exposure makes for a poor photo! So carefully choose your shutter speed, making sure to think about both exposure and freezing/blurring motion.

When to Use Fast Shutter Speeds

There’s one main time when you’ll want to use a fast shutter speed:

When you need to freeze motion.

This can happen in a number of scenarios:

1. Action Sport Photography

If you’re shooting action sports, you’ll undoubtedly need a fast shutter speed. The precise value depends on the sport, but I recommend working with a shutter speed of at least 1/1000s for fast moving people, and even faster (e.g., 1/2000s) when photographing people on vehicles such as mountain bikes.

Freezing fast-moving water and the surfer with a fast shutter speed

2. Wildlife Photography

But if the wildlife is moving quickly and you want to freeze it in motion, I recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/1000s, and probably 1/2000s for anything leaping, falling, or in flight.

Bird in flight requires a shutter speed of 1/1000s or faster

3. Macro Photography (Water Droplets)

If you want to photograph water droplets, you’ll be working at high magnifications–which means you need a correspondingly high shutter speed to compensate.

That’s why I recommend using a shutter speed of around 1/1000s for photographing water droplets (just to be safe).

4. Street Photography

If you’re photographing street scenes, I recommend using a shutter speed between 1/500s and 1/1000s. And if you’re photographing street scenes with fast-moving cars, trains, busses then I recommend an even higher shutter speed of around 1/1600s or 1/2000s. This will ensure you freeze the cars, without ending up with any blur at all.

5. Family Photography (Running Kids)

When it comes to photographing families, you have to be careful. If your kids are running around, you might end up with a blurry photo–which absolutely nobody will appreciate.

So you use fast shutter speed.

1/1000s is a good starting point, and will generally ensure the kids are completely frozen.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now have a sense of fast shutter speeds, their purpose, and how to deal with them in the field.

After all, choosing the right shutter speed is one of the main keys to a sharp image.

So make sure you think about your shutter speed–and start shooting!

Some amazing photos await.

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

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