How to Use the Shutter Speed on Your Digital SLR

In an ideal photography world, you could set your dSLR shutter speed to 1/4000 or 1/8000 second and never worry about camera shake or motion blur again. You’d only need to slow it down when you wanted a special effect.

In the real world, being able to set the right exposure and choose a fast shutter speed without raising the ISO too far is often a real challenge, even when you’re using a fast lens. The exception is when you're shooting outside on bright days.

  • It's cloudy outside or you're inside under bright lights: Fast shutter speeds are more of a problem. If you’re shooting action, you'll probably have to push your lens by using a very wide aperture. Expect to raise ISO if you want 1/1000 second or faster.

  • You’re inside in dimmer light: Prepare for an even bigger challenge. You'll need a fast lens and will surely have to raise the ISO. If the lighting is poor, even a professional-level lens will have problems if you don’t significantly raise the ISO.

Crisp photos

Always be on the lookout to shoot crisp photos, regardless of your subject. If your subject’s moving or you’re moving, pay attention to shutter speed and closely review your photos for blurring.

What you can't tell from this photo is that the groundhog was scurrying to and fro rather quickly. He stopped and sniffed the air for a moment when the shot was taken. The shutter speed was 1/1000 second. That's overkill for many situations, but animals move unpredictably.

Complicating matters, the camera was only a hand-held with a telephoto lens. Thankfully, the light was bright, so the shot was taken with a fast shutter speed and low ISO, ensuring a crisp, noise-free photo.

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You won't have bright light for every photo. This shot was taken during a concert. The trouble was twofold. First, the band members were moving, which required a fast shutter speed. Second, the light wasn't the best and the lens had a maximum aperture of only f/5.6. The lens was opened up, the ISO pushed to 1600, and 1/125 second shutter speed was set. This photo is borderline crisp.

When you’re shooting in low-light conditions, you need a faster lens or the willingness to raise the ISO even more. The good news about high ISO is that you can often fix its noisy effects in software. It's harder to correct a blurry photo.

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Fast action

Faster action requires faster shutter speeds. There is no compromising. You must dial in the speed you need to avoid blurring. Set your shutter speed high and don’t worry about ISO or aperture. Maximize them, in fact.

Aside from the lens, what’s the secret to capturing fast action shots? Dialing in a fast shutter speed.

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Freeze-frame for effect

You can have fun with fast shutter speeds. Freeze-frame moments often produce very distinctive photos. This photo was taken while testing a new lens and looking to capture the kids in action. For this shot, an external flash with high-speed sync was turned on. That lit her face and let the shutter speed climb to an amazing 1/1600 second.

Had the shutter speed been much slower, she wouldn’t have been frozen mid-leap, which is one of the elements that makes this photo so interesting.

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This photo has a very high shutter speed: 1/2000 second. The liquid is captured in mid-pour and the splashes and bubbles are frozen in mid-sploosh. A few small drops are escaping up and to the right. Shutter speed. Say it loud: shutter speed.

This shot took some planning and extra gizmos. An off-camera flash was used literally off-camera. The camera was fooled into thinking the flash was mounted on top (when it wasn't) by connecting the flash to the camera with a coiled off-camera flash cord (Nikon SC-29 TTL Coiled Remote Cord).

The flash was held low and to the left by hand and pointed it at the center glass. There was an additional attachment of the Gary Fong PowerSnoot spotlight to concentrate the light from the flash directly at the glass and candles and not the background. The rest of the lights were dimmed and shot entirely with the flash. The aperture was f/1.4 and the ISO 100.

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Slow shutter speeds

Using slow shutter speeds can be practically and artistically effective.

Try shooting water, fog, or clouds with slow shutter speeds. The movement is smoothed and look very dreamy. While you can often shoot fast action hand-held, slow shutter speeds require a tripod or other stable support.

This is a shot over the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Bridge. The camera was set up on a tripod and turned away from the oncoming traffic so the vehicles’ tail lights were caught as they travelled over the bridge. The shot was timed to the traffic flow and the photographer experimented with different shutter speeds. This one, at 5 seconds, is spot on.

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Bulb mode

Here’s an homage to your camera's Bulb shooting mode. This mode is great for shooting fireworks or lightning.

  1. Set up your camera on a tripod with a remote shutter release.

  2. Set the shutter speed or shooting mode to Bulb.

  3. Open the shutter and wait for the flash, then close it.

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