Photography 101: A Beginner’s Guide – Lesson 3

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light. Before you take a photo the shutter is closed. When you fully press the button and the camera fires, the shutter opens to allow light in. Together, with the f/stop and shutter speed, you can control how much light enters your camera and for how long. Shutter speed is written in a fraction form, most of the time, like 1/250. That means the shutter is open to light for one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second. Very slow shutter speeds can be much longer. Most cameras will go up to a 30 second shot.

Shutter Speed Priority Mode

If your camera has the aperture priority setting mentioned in the previous lesson, it will have a shutter speed priority setting as well, sometimes written as Tv or S in the settings. This shooting mode allows the photographer to set the shutter speed and the camera will automatically set the correct aperture to get a proper exposure. If you are capturing motion, such as races or sports, this is a useful tool. Since I do not find myself in these situations often, I don’t care for this camera setting. I am usually in situations where I want to set the f/stop myself.

That being said, I am going to ask you to use the Tv or S shooting mode when you are learning shutter speed. Why? I want to focus on one aspect of shooting at a time.

Freezing Action

In bright situations, shutter speed is important for two main reasons. If taking landscape photos, you want a shutter speed above 1/250 so that any camera shaking is not noticeable in distant objects. Also, in bright situations, it is much easier to select a very fast shutter speed (like 1/2000 or above) to freeze fast moving subjects.

The bright sunny day allowed me to freeze Brewy in mid run by setting a shutter speed of 1/800.
The bright sunny day allowed me to freeze Brewy in mid-run by setting a shutter speed of 1/800.

How fast of a shutter speed do you need to freeze the action? It depends on the action you are trying to freeze. A good rule of thumb is if it is faster than a person walking, you want to shoot 1/250 or above. A shutter speed of 1/2000 and higher will freeze a bird mid-flight or fast moving object.

Showing Motion Blur

The opposite of freezing action would be allowing the moving object to blur. If you have moved a flashlight across a wall very quickly, you will notice a momentary illusion of a light trail, as if the end of the light were catching up with the main beam. I can assure you, since light travels 671 million miles per hour, your hand is not moving the flashlight faster than light can keep up. Instead, as the photo cells in the back of your eye pick up all the light traveling across the wall, your brain is attempting to catch up. The same effect can be seen when you quickly move your hand side to side in front of your face; your fingers will blur together. Once you stop moving your hand, the blur will go away.

A camera, on the other hand, registers every bit of light that touched it’s sensors while the shutter was open. That blur becomes a permanent part of the image. This method works great for showing motion. it is most effective when you are showing a lot of things moving like a lot of cars or a group of bicyclists.

Motion Blur
This was shot with a shutter speed of 1/40. The scene stayed still while the moving car blurred across the scene, showing motion.
Shutter speed control is what gets that misty effect in waterfalls.
Instead of freezing the waterfall with a high shutter speed, by setting it on a tripod and using a slow shutter speed of say 2 seconds, you get a nice, misty effect.
I used a shutter speed of 1/4 to show the movement of the fire.
I used a shutter speed of 1/4 to show the movement of the fire.

What if you want to show motion and have the subject in focus too? Let’s say someone you know is running in a track meet or race or you would like to capture a bird in flight. How can you show motion yet keep your subject clear? For this, you will need to use panning.

Panning: rotating the camera to keep the subject in the same spot in the frame causing the background to blur.

Let’s take the car photo above, for example. Yes, it shows motion, but the background is boring and the subject (the car) is not all that interesting to look at when it is blurry. Now, look what happens when we use the panning technique.

Use shutter speed to show motion in your photos.
Panning with a slow shutter speed will result in the background being blurred while the subject remains in focus.

As you can see, from the above photo, when you have a singe subject, like a car, it may be better to pan with the object in motion to create a more interesting image. What shutter speed should you use for this technique? It depends on how fast your subject is moving. A good rule of thumb, however, would be to shoot in the 1/20 range for slow moving objects such as birds or cyclists.  Faster shutter speeds can be used for faster objects such as cars. The above shot was  taken at 1/40.


I originally was going to include long exposures and night photography in this lesson, but I have come to the conclusion that long exposures deserve a lesson all their own. Your homework challenge, should you chose to undertake it, will be to show some blur. Find a subject in motion. It could be a bird in flight, a car moving, a rushing river, or a waterfall. Decide weather the subject or the background should be motion blurred and practice taking photos.

  1. Find out in your manual how to set your camera to Shutter Priority mode.
  2. It may be a good idea to use a tripod in order to eliminate camera shake. (If you don’t have a tripod and want one, has them for less than $20 Click here to get one.)
  3. Start out with a shutter speed of 1/20 and adjust it up or down until you are satisfied with the results.

I am interested in seeing your photos. If you feel you have taken an exceptional one, you can email me the photo at You can also post it on our Facebook page at If you are having any trouble with this lesson, feel free to leave a comment or email me and I will do my best to help. Please leave me feedback to let me know if this and previous lessons were helpful or not.

Next Lesson

I am going to get back to shutter speed and night photography at a later time, but for the next lesson, I am going to complete the three pillars of photography and discuss ISO. Once you are familiar with all three, you will be ready to take on some more advanced photography techniques such as night shots, sunsets and more.

See you next time!

Share this post!

Leave a Reply