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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkVallarta Living | Art Talk | May 2009 

Photo Tip of the Week: Shutter Speed
email this pageprint this pageemail usLarry and Linda Bennett - PVNN

Photo Tips of the Week are written by Larry Bennett, a professional photographer living in Puerto Vallarta. To view more of his work, click HERE or visit
For those of you that are just starting to read my column, these are continuation pieces and it maybe in your best interest to check out my previous articles to see what you’ve missed so far. In past discussions we learned about some of the camera basics including F/Stop. For the next two issues, we will be looking at shutter speed.

What is Shutter Speed?

One of the most important and most requested how to tips is shutter speed. What is shutter speed? Shutter speed is one of the most basic but yet most important controls on a camera. Shutter speed controls the amount of time that your digital sensor (or film,) is exposed to light. In other words, the shutter determines what image is captured on your digital sensor.

The shutter is a small plastic or carbon piece that opens and closes allowing light onto the sensor or preventing light from reaching the sensor. The shutter is opened when you press the shutter release button on your camera to take a picture and the shutter speed determines how long the shutter remains open.

In cameras with TTL (through the lens) view finders, the shutter release button also moves a mirror up and out of the way of the digital sensor (or film) and shutter curtain. Ever wonder what that clicking sound is when you take a picture? It is this movement of the shutter curtain and the mirror that gives you that clicking sound.

As you become more knowledgeable about your camera and shutter speed, you will begin noticing the difference in the sound of the "click" based on the speed of the shutter. Also, with time and practice, you will be able to make some pretty educated guesses on what shutter speed any camera in the room is using just by the sound of their shutters.

Remember in the past few weeks, we discussed aperture and the rule of halves. Well, guess what? If you guessed that shutter speed also has the rule of halves you were correct! If you didn’t guess this, well I guess you should just continue reading. Shutter speed is not that difficult to understand or explain and the math really works when trying to explain shutter speed and it really does makes a lot more sense. So let’s look at the basics.

Measuring Shutter Speed

Measuring shutter speed is rather simple. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. A shutter speed setting of "5000" means that the shutter will open for 1/5000th of a second. Yes, it really is that simple. Shutter speeds of 1 second and longer are generally marked with a “ ' ” (or similar mark) after the number.

Using this terminology, a 16' on your camera's display would stand for 16 seconds. The letter "B" (or bulb) is most often times used to indicate that the shutter will remain open as long as you hold down the shutter release button.

If you read my article on Tips for Shooting Fireworks, then you’ll remember my referencing the B setting. At that time our interest was in keeping the shutter open for a certain period of time, depending on how many bursts you were trying to capture in your image.

Slow Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is considered to be "long" or "slow" when it is slower than 1/60th of a second. (Remember, this is marked as 60 on your camera dial or display.) This number comes from the fact that most people can only hold a standard lens (between 35mm and 70mm) steady for 1/60th of a second or less. But since the invention of the IS (Image Stabilized) lenses, it is not uncommon to hand hold down to 1/15th of a second.

This is very different from the term "long exposure" or “fast” shutter speed, which usually refers to shutter speeds of over 1/60th of a second or with an IS lenses 1/15th of a second. In my opinion, if you can’t hand hold your camera and get a prefect image then it is a long exposure. Again, this is just my opinion and what I use in determining the type of exposure that I am working with.

Fast Shutter Speed

When you are talking about fast shutter speeds you are talking about those shutter speeds faster than 1/500th of a second. These shutter speeds can be used to freeze, or stop, motion for a clear image when shooting fast subjects.

Having said that, now I’m going to say that the word “fast” can be very deceiving. I have shot images of moving objects, for example, birds, fighter jets, or a flying football that will require a faster shutter speed.

This is obviously an “in-the-field” call. I have not photographed anything that I could not freeze with a shutter speed setting of 1/1500th. Having a freeze frame image is your goal but it’s also fun to have a little intentional blur at times, the flap of bird’s wing is a good example. While moving your shutter speed around to different settings, shoot the same image with different shutter speeds and you’ll see what I mean. Have fun and be creative with your images

Basic Rule for Shutter Speeds

A basic rule that works for knowing the slowest shutter speed you can use with a specific lens, without using a tripod (or a monopod,) is to use the number of the lens size. For example, a 300mm lens can be hand held at the slowest shutter speed of 1/300th of a second and faster.

The minimum hand held speed should never be below 1/60th of a second without image stabilization assistance from your camera or lens. The size and weight of a professional telephoto lens almost demands some kind of support system. This is just a basic rule that I learned and continue to use; you too can use it as a guide and then experiment from there.

Setting Shutter Speed

A common question for new photographers is, “How do I set the shutter speed?” Setting the shutter speed is really very simple. There is a specific dial on your cameral (you may need to refer to your owner’s manual) that you will need to turn to set your shutter speed.

On the newer cameras, the shutter speed is generally displayed on an LCD screen while you turn a small wheel near the shutter release button (to adjust the speed). The shutter speeds on most of the newer DSLR cameras vary. However, “B” (or bulb) through 1/8000th of a second is typical.

The exact placement of the dial/wheel will vary from camera to camera. On point and shoot cameras, there may not be a control to select specific shutter speeds. Instead, you may need to understand your camera's pre-programmed modes (yes, you may need to read your owner’s manual) to obtain the desired shutter speed. Many DSLR cameras also have these pre-programmed modes as well as a few additional modes of fine control

We will continue discussing shutter speeds next week. Until then, F8 and be there!

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Photo Tips of the week are written by Larry Bennett, a professional photographer living in Puerto Vallarta. These tips are to be just tips, refer to your cameras owner's manual for specifics on your camera. Readers are welcome to enjoy Larry's website at

Click HERE for more Photo Tips from Larry Bennett

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