Depending on what it is you’re trying to capture, shutter speed can be a tricky thing. Sometimes you’ll get blurred images when you didn’t want to and other times you’ll want to show movement and end up with a sharp image.

Why? Well, learning how shutter speed works will help you understand and control the outcome of your photos.

Here are a few of the common mistakes we make when choosing shutter speeds.

Too blurry? How shutter speed affects motion

Likely our images are too blurry due to our choice of shutter speed. Intentional camera movement is great, except when you didn’t mean for that to be how your image turned out. It’s a fine line between showing motion and images that are too blurry.

shutter speed

When showing motion or movement be sure to focus on your subject first. Or, focus on the general area that your subject will be going through.

For example, if you are photographing a bike race and know the racers will be coming around a certain corner, set your focus for that corner area so you’re ready for the rider when they come through. Then, follow your subject — in this case, the rider — and pan along with them as they come through that turn. 

Be sure to use a slow enough shutter speed to capture the movement but not so slow that the rider is also blurred. It’s important to try to keep your subject in focus.

Too in focus and sharp? 

Again, our shutter speed controls how our subject looks once we photograph it/them. 

If your intention was to show the movement or motion of your subject and they are sharp and in focus, then you’ve chosen a shutter speed that is too high. Faster shutter speeds freeze the movement and then you lose all sense of motion in your shot.

Like anything, it takes practice, lots of practice changing your shutter speed to figure out and get it dialed in to create the outcome you want. Experiment. Use a very slow shutter speed and each image or two, increase it until you see the amount of blur and motion you want.

There is not enough movement depicted in the image

We don’t want to overdo it so we don’t adjust our shutter speed quite far enough to show the movement we want. In this case, instead of showing motion, we end up with images that just look blurry and out of focus. Completely not intentional looking. It’s a fine line and balance that takes time and practice to learn. Be patient and keep taking images, making adjustments and trying until you get the process down.

Did I mention practice? Practice, practice, practice. Continue to change your shutter speed until you see the results you had imagined. Use small increments and notice the differences in each shot. If you can’t quite see it on your display screen, wait until you get home to view the results on a larger monitor so it’s obvious. Write down the settings you use for each frame if it helps to write things.

Of course, EXIF data is super helpful after the fact, but if you want to remember it as you’re photographing it, writing it down (or making notes in your phone) isn’t a bad idea.

How does shutter speed causes my images to be overexposed?

Overexposed images can be so easy to end up with. Thankfully, it’s a pretty easy fix once we know the reason behind it. The use of slower shutter speeds means that we are letting more light in to expose the sensor (film). The longer your shutter is open (slower speed) the more light is let in.

shutter speed

Usually, this is remedied by increasing your shutter speed. When deliberately creating intentional blur images or when showing movement and motion, slower shutter speeds may not work for us though.

There are other ways you can still keep motion in your image without overexposing the shot. Lowering your ISO will allow less light to come in and reducing your aperture will do the same. (Remember lowering your aperture means a smaller opening for your shutter and a higher number — like f/22 — is a small aperture that lets in less light.)

Play and experiment

Two of my favorite words in photography. Keep practicing and experimenting. Watch what your settings are and how they affect the outcome of your shots. Sure, you’ll end up with a lot of throwaway images but it’s all part of the learning process. Soon you’ll master shutter speed enough to avoid these common mistakes altogether.