What shutter speed should I use?

A typical question for a photographer new to the Manual Settings of your camera.

The answer: “It depends what you are trying to do”

There is no right and wrong shutter speed in any given situation, but if you understand what it is you are trying to achieve, then you can work it out for yourself.  You will also have to adjust aperture and ISO as required.

Some General Situations:

  • Sports
  • Landscape
  • Close Up
  • Nature
  • Portrait
  • Night
  • Stars

Sports:

If you are trying to capture a sharp, in-focus shot, then the fastest shutter speed the light will allow (with the smallest aperture (highest number) you can use.

If you want to blur the action (for an artistic looking shot) then you can slow the shutter speed down and open the aperture up (smaller number)

For panning – following a moving object with your camera so that you can keep the object in focus and the background blurred – you will need a fast shutter speed and a very steady hand coupled with lots of practice!

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Landscape:

Depends totally on the light – low light, slower shutter speed, bright daylight, faster shutter speed.

Pre-Dawn: I always like to shoot sunrises at least 30 minutes BEFORE the actual sunrise.  On the east coast of Australia, the actual sunrise happens in a few seconds.  But for at least 30 minutes (more in summer, less in winter) before the sunrise, this is when the colours are gorgeous.  You will need a tripod because you will need very slow shutter speeds and probably wide open aperture (or not – when shooting Sunrises/Sunsets I am very flexible with Aperture – normally wide open (small number) early and gradually stop it down (small increments to big number).  When shooting at distance (like the sun) the depth of field will be massive regardless of what aperture you use.

Dawn: This is when the sun actually starts to peek over the horizon – by this time I will have a fairly well closed aperture (at least f/8 but normally f/11 or even more).  Because you are now shooting directly into the sun, you want a small aperture – there will be a lot of light hitting the sensor, so you want a small aperture (big number) to reduce the amount of light coming through the lense onto the sensor.

Post Dawn: Generally once the sun is up (in Australia anyway) you have a lot of light unless it is rainy or very cloudy.  Assuming fine weather – I will normally shoot landscapes around f/11.  This gives me a good depth of field and allows me to still use fairly high shutter speeds.  Something you need to understand, with any type of photography, is depth of field (DOF) and hyperfocal distance. I will not cover these here in any detail but I will cover them at a later stage. I will give you a brief description here.

    1. DOF: Generally, shooting an object near to the camera lense with a wide open aperture (small number like f/1.2 or f/2.8) will give you a very shallow DOF – so if you are photographing an insect, depending on your lense, you may only get a part of the insect in focus with the background very blurry (bokeh).  The further away the object is, the greater the DOF and the more of your photograph will be in focus.
    2. Hyperfocal distance:  Knowing the make of lens, the aperture and the distance to the subject – you can accurately calculate the hyperfocal distance.  The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lense can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp.

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Close Up:

When doing close up photography, your lens is all important.  For example, with my 70-200 f/2.8 lens, the closest I can focus is 1.2m, but with my 17-40 f/4 I can focus at 900mm (.9m).  If you have a macro lens you can get so close it is not funny!

When photographing an insect or a butterfly, you will want to get as close as you can, with a wide open aperture (small number).  You will have a very shallow DOF and a beautifully blurred background (depending on lenses/camera combination).

If you want to get closer still, without paying for a macro lens, you can buy macro tubes – effectively all these do is move the lense further from the sensor to allow you to get in closer.  There is a good Youtube video you can have a look at by Matt Granger. You can add multiple tubes moving the lense further and further out from the body – you will need to use a tripod and mirror lock-up when using multiple tubes for the best results.  At higher magnifications, vibration is much more noticeable.

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Nature:

Low light, movement – wide open aperture, as high a shutter speed as possible (maybe need to push the ISO up) and a tripod.  High ISO allows you to increase your shutter speed, but it will increase “noise” in your photo.

Low light, no movement – wide open aperture, as high a shutter speed as possible and possibly a tripod.

Good Light, fast movement – whatever aperture will still allow you to use a high shutter speed – depending on camera, 1/4000 or 1/8000 (or whatever your fastest shutter speed is).

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Portrait:

The minimum focal length you want to use for portraiture is 50mm – less than this and you will accentuate features that you don’t want accentuated – like the nose will look large and so on.

Portraiture is often done with flash – then you will sync your shutter speed to the flash – generally around 1/200 or 1/250 sec.

Natural light – use a high enough aperture to get the best DOF and shoot at whatever shutter speed gives you the best shot.

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Night:

Using flash – shutter speed will be synced to the flash at around 1/200 to 1/250 sec.

No flash, with tripod – whatever the highest shutter speed you can manage.  Remember, the slower the shutter speed, the more chance of blur due to the subject moving.

No flash, hand held – high ISO and the highest shutter speed you can.  Your lense will make a big difference here – if you have IS (Image Stabilising) then you will be able to shoot at much lower shutter speeds.
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Stars:

Sharp photos of the stars, a tripod is a must.  Widest aperture possible and shutter speed no more than 20 seconds (otherwise you get blur from the movement of the stars).  Set focus to infinity and then pull back a little (hyperfocal distance).

Star Trails – again, tripod is a must.  Longer than 30 seconds (can be hours) and you will see the trails the stars leave.

The different colours are achieved by manipulating colour temperature, either in camera or post.  The flash was used off camera (in test mode) at quite low settings (1/32 power from memory)
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If you have any photography related questions you would like me to cover in a blog post, you can leave me a comment or email me through the contact page (on the menu at the left) and I will be happy to cover any topic.

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