You may wonder why a post dedicated to controlling the shutter. It’s pretty basic right? You press the shutter, you make the photo. But believe it or not we get questions from amateurs just starting out about things like this, and since there are always brand new people coming to photography every day, we like to cover the basics.
So let’s get into it…
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. Because everything old is new again, there may be a few “retro” cameras you’ve seen that still offer this method. But today, you have an LCD to display the numbers that represent the shutter speed, usually on the top panel of the camera and probably also inside the viewfinder.
On the older cameras, the series of numbers representing the shutter speed went something like this 4, 2, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 500, 1000. Notice in the illustration that the three numbers on the left are red. Ill get to those in a minute.
The rest of these numbers represent time in fractions of a second. Put a one over each. 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)? Youre right its 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.
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 1/500, 1/1000 or faster will do that depending on the subject and a few other things that don’t matter right now. Just try to grasp the concept.
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 stop or freeze movement, using a faster shutter speed, such as 1/1000 second, to capture a slice of time that freezes the action.
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?