This article is dedicated to controlling the shutter.

On older cameras, the shutter speed dial is engraved with numbers. You’d turn the dial and line up a number with a mark on the camera body. Today, you have an LCD to display the numbers, usually on the top panel of the camera and inside the viewfinder.

On the older cameras, the series of numbers went something like this 4, 2, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 500, 1000. Notice that the three numbers on the left are red. I’ll get to those in a minute.

The rest of these numbers represent time in fractions of a second. Put a one over each. Two becomes ½, four becomes 1/4, 60 becomes 1/60, and so on. As the numbers on the dial get bigger, the time becomes shorter. Remember the pie analogy from school? A half (1/2) piece of pie is bigger than a quarter (1/4) of the pie.

The numbers in red represent whole seconds. Cameras with LCD readouts represent whole seconds with what looks like a quotation mark following the number. So 2” equals two seconds.

Do you notice anything special about this series of numbers? What would come after 1000 (1/1000 second)? You’re right it’s 2000. Each setting represents either twice the time or one-half the time of the setting next to it. For example, in the series 8, 15, and 30, 15 (1/15 second) is half the time of 1/8 second and twice the time of 1/30 second. This means the 1/15 second setting lets in half the light of 1/8 second and twice the light of 1/30 second.
Remember this doubling and halving of the light. You’ll see it pop up again.

On newer cameras, not only will you have the series of shutter speeds shown above, you’ll have in between values too. A typical series of numbers (remember, these are really fractions) will be 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 20, 25, 30, and so on. Your camera may be different, so check your manual.

Now we’ve established that the shutter controls exposure by setting how long the light is striking film or sensor. What else can it do for you? Well, the shutter controls the apparent motion recorded on film or sensor. This means we can use the shutter in creative ways.

To stop motion, use faster shutter speeds. To show motion, use slower speeds. A wildlife or sports photographer may want to freeze the action. A shutter speed of 1/250, 1/500 or faster will do that.

A landscape photographer may want to create a silky waterfall and show the flow of water by using a longer shutter speed such as 1/2 second or longer.

On the other hand, the wildlife or sports photographer may wish to convey the power of movement, using a slower shutter speed, such as 1/15 second, to capture a bit of blur that will suggest that movement. A landscape photographer might want to show the power of Yellowstone Falls by using a fast shutter speed, such as 1/60 or 1/125 to stop the motion of water and capture that sense of power.

Get out your camera and use the manual mode to go through the range of shutter speeds. Which direction do you need to turn the dial for a faster shutter speed?

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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 22 Comments

  1. I think that with the emergence of easy to change ISO in digital cameras, and the availability of well performing high ISO cameras like the ones from Nikon, that ISO is/is becoming a primary control. As I tell people I instruct.. think ISO, exposure and shutter speed as three legs of a tripod working in concert to get a well “balanced” photo.

    Reply
  2. I think that with the emergence of easy to change ISO in digital cameras, and the availability of well performing high ISO cameras like the ones from Nikon, that ISO is/is becoming a primary control. As I tell people I instruct.. think ISO, exposure and shutter speed as three legs of a tripod working in concert to get a well “balanced” photo.

    Reply
  3. @Sean I deleted the first sentence of my post since I realized it was something that would take this post off topic. The post is about shutter speed. Thanks for alerting me to the fact that mentioning any other aspect of exposure would cause the thread to go off topic.

    Reply
  4. @Sean I deleted the first sentence of my post since I realized it was something that would take this post off topic. The post is about shutter speed. Thanks for alerting me to the fact that mentioning any other aspect of exposure would cause the thread to go off topic.

    Reply
  5. Can a camera really measure a 1/1000 of a second? And if so a 1/4000? Wow, that is really short.

    Reply
  6. Can a camera really measure a 1/1000 of a second? And if so a 1/4000? Wow, that is really short.

    Reply
  7. Question on Shutter Speed: Is there a general rule on setting shutter speed on long lenses (hand holding and tripod)? For example, if I am hand holding a 300 mm lens shooting wildlife, should one be shooting at 3x focal length. Does anyone have a good general rule?

    Cheers,

    Reply
  8. Question on Shutter Speed: Is there a general rule on setting shutter speed on long lenses (hand holding and tripod)? For example, if I am hand holding a 300 mm lens shooting wildlife, should one be shooting at 3x focal length. Does anyone have a good general rule?

    Cheers,

    Reply
  9. I thinks it’s worth noting for the technical nitpickers it the group, the numerical values of the stops were set up for ease of calculation, not for 100% accuracy. For example, 1/125 sec is not precisely half of 1/60s. That would be 1/120 sec. But, since the difference is only 1/3000 of a second, most classic manual cameras probably would never realize the difference.

    Reply
  10. I thinks it’s worth noting for the technical nitpickers it the group, the numerical values of the stops were set up for ease of calculation, not for 100% accuracy. For example, 1/125 sec is not precisely half of 1/60s. That would be 1/120 sec. But, since the difference is only 1/3000 of a second, most classic manual cameras probably would never realize the difference.

    Reply
  11. Am I correct in the assumption that most classic cameras used different sized springs to control the variety of shutter speeds? If so, that could be why some of the speeds are not perfectly half or perfectly double the adjacent speed.

    It should be said that the 1/3000 or so of a second that is gained or lost in these instances makes no difference in most instances.

    Reply
  12. Am I correct in the assumption that most classic cameras used different sized springs to control the variety of shutter speeds? If so, that could be why some of the speeds are not perfectly half or perfectly double the adjacent speed.

    It should be said that the 1/3000 or so of a second that is gained or lost in these instances makes no difference in most instances.

    Reply
  13. Great Article Scott!
    Man it stinks getting …older doesn’t it! I actually just updated part of my blog Bio page and touched on doing things “in-camera”, oh I’d say even 20 years ago? When we really needed to understand our cameras and it’s controls. Even though I can see where my settings are in the viewfinder on today’s cameras, I sit there thinking loudly in my head as I’m shooting: “OK, which way do I turn the knob to open up my shutter?”

    Funny coincidence you posted a striking shot of the Grand Teton mountains today! Early this morning I put up a new blog post with a pano shot of the very same thing, just in color. So just what tool/add-on of choice did you use to cross this over into the B&W world? Being an Aperture fan did you do it all there, or in Photoshop? Any Nix software there?
    Gonna try some more Pano’s in February at a Winter Wonderland III workshop by Great American Photography Workshops. (http://gaphotoworks.com/site/home/winter-wonderland-iii.html#more-248) Should be quite interesting I think with all that Snow!

    —Cheers!

    Reply
  14. Great Article Scott!
    Man it stinks getting …older doesn’t it! I actually just updated part of my blog Bio page and touched on doing things “in-camera”, oh I’d say even 20 years ago? When we really needed to understand our cameras and it’s controls. Even though I can see where my settings are in the viewfinder on today’s cameras, I sit there thinking loudly in my head as I’m shooting: “OK, which way do I turn the knob to open up my shutter?”

    Funny coincidence you posted a striking shot of the Grand Teton mountains today! Early this morning I put up a new blog post with a pano shot of the very same thing, just in color. So just what tool/add-on of choice did you use to cross this over into the B&W world? Being an Aperture fan did you do it all there, or in Photoshop? Any Nix software there?
    Gonna try some more Pano’s in February at a Winter Wonderland III workshop by Great American Photography Workshops. (http://gaphotoworks.com/site/home/winter-wonderland-iii.html#more-248) Should be quite interesting I think with all that Snow!

    —Cheers!

    Reply
  15. @merlyn9 I used Nik Silver Efex Pro. Enjoy time with Tom Bol.

    Reply
  16. @merlyn9 I used Nik Silver Efex Pro. Enjoy time with Tom Bol.

    Reply
  17. This is good stuff Scott….

    I learned Photoshop first and got the camera later…

    so my early photos were more about getting an image into photoshop that I could make the image I want and less about taking that image to begin with.

    I don’t think I’m alone and my photo mechanical skills have improved a LOT but I still don’t know enough.

    Posts like this help a lot

    Going out and shooting only in Manual help a lot too

    Reply
  18. This is good stuff Scott….

    I learned Photoshop first and got the camera later…

    so my early photos were more about getting an image into photoshop that I could make the image I want and less about taking that image to begin with.

    I don’t think I’m alone and my photo mechanical skills have improved a LOT but I still don’t know enough.

    Posts like this help a lot

    Going out and shooting only in Manual help a lot too

    Reply
  19. @Nick Yes they can and even faster. I have several Nikon bodies that capture at 1/8000th and 1/16000th.

    Reply
  20. @Nick Yes they can and even faster. I have several Nikon bodies that capture at 1/8000th and 1/16000th.

    Reply
  21. [...] Exposure & Basic Camera Controls – The Shutter – TWIP [...]

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  22. [...] Exposure & Basic Camera Controls – The Shutter – TWIP [...]

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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