Take better photos: Understanding Shutter Speed

Do you want to start taking better photos? Today?!? It’s not as hard as you think. There are a few key things to learn to help you begin taking photos that will have greater impact. One of those is your camera’s shutter speed and how that affects the photos you take.


Your camera has a shutter that will open to allow light in. While it is open your camera records all of the light coming in.

The setting on your camera that will allow you to control the shutter speed is the “TV” setting which you can think of as “Time Value” meaning that you can control the time the shutter is open.


Controlling your shutter speed allows you to either freeze or show motion. If the shutter opens and closes really fast, then things will be frozen in time. But if it’s open for a long time it will show motion either in your subjects or from the motion in your hands if you’re shooting hand held (not on a tripod).


In any given situation, freezing the scene or showing motion in the scene will create a very different effect. As a photographer you can use the different effects to create the impact you want. 


Let’s look at a couple of examples to explain how to use the TV setting to create the impact you want.

TV set at 1/1250

For the image above, I was running in front of my son who was being chased by my mother. I needed a fast shutter speed in order to freeze their motion and to ensure that my own motion wasn't going to ruin the image. So I set the TV to 1/1250.

TV set at 1/800

For the girl on the swing I liked how her hair was swishing as the momentum of the swingwas changing directions. I thought that freezing the motion created an interesting drama in the image so I picked a fast shutter speed of 1/800 of a second.

TV set at 1/80

In the image of my son spinning around I wanted to show the motion but I did not want him to be blurry. So I had to pick a shutter speed that would capture him clearly while being slow enough to show the motion of the spinning merry go round. I also used a panning technique meaning I moved the camera to match the motion of my son. I tried a couple of shutter speeds and found that 1/80th was just right for the effect I wanted.

TV set at 20 seconds

Using a slow shutter speed turns running water falls into soft and serene images. For this shot I set the shutter speed for 20 seconds.


As a general rule, when you are hand holding your camera you want your shutter speed equal to or higher than the focal length of your lens. For example if you are shooting with a 50mm lens then you would want 1/50th of a second. If you are shooting with a 200mm lease you want 1/200th of a second. Any slower and you will likely record the shake from your hands resulting in a blurry image. 

To freeze motion in slow moving subject you probably want to shoot at 1/250th or faster. 

To freeze motion in fast moving subject you probably want to shoot at 1/1000th or faster.

If you are using slower shutter speeds to show motion you will likely want to put your camera on a tripod.


Reading this will do very little to help you improve the power and impact of your own photographs unless you go and put this to practice! Let me give you one simple assignment to try to begin to understand how your TV influences the final photograph.
Pick a moving object that you can take multiple pictures of. Each time you take a picture, change the shutter speed. Try fast and slow shutter speeds and see how it changes the effect of the image. When shooting with slower shutter speeds, try using a tripod so that the camera is still and only records the motion of the subject. Then try moving your camera along with the subject (a technique called panning).

Do you see how the different shutter speeds change the look and effect of your photos? You are on your way to understanding how you can control your shutter speed to shape the impact you want your photos to have. Happy shooting!