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Shutter Speed

Shot at 1/500 sec, f/1.8, ISO 160.

Shutter speed = how quickly the “eye” of the camera closes to freeze the action. The faster the shutter = the better it freezes moving objects, but, the less light that gets in. 

As a general rule, my shutter speed is never slower than 1/400 second. This is something I will rarely compromise, in order to get more light. It just isn’t worth it to end up with a blurry/soft photo.

For action, it is at least 1/1250 – faster if I have enough light! Ideally 1250 or 1600!

I usually keep my shutter speed at 1/400 because even Loki, my perfect model, is a living, breathing, moving creature. 1/400 freezes his slight movements, while still letting in as much light as possible. 

What are all these numbers?

Shutter speeds are represented as an amount of time – the time that the shutter is open, gathering light and data from the scene. 

Pick up your camera! Let’s have a look.

How you adjust the shutter speed will depend on your camera, and the setup you’ve chosen. I consistently forget which of the top dials changes my aperture, and which changes the shutter speed! Good thing I rarely need to touch either of them!

Change the shutter speed. See the numbers on the screen changing? 

Let’s make it as slow as it can go. You might end up with it saying: “Bulb”. This is a setting where you trigger the shutter and it stays open until you trigger it again – great for if you need exposures of longer than 30 seconds! Definitely not useful for us as pet photographers!

What shutter speed range your camera has, really depends on your camera.

Eventually, you’ll see something like 1, or 1″. This is a 1 second exposure. The shutter is open and gathering light and information for a whole second.

As you get faster, you’ll begin to see fractions of a second. This may be represented as a decimal at first, and you’ll see this on my Sony as I move up from 1″. For example, you might see 0.8″ (this is 4/5ths of a second) 0.5″ (1/2 a second), and so on.

As you get faster still, those fractions of a second get smaller and smaller – aka, faster and faster. Imagine you have a whole second – that already seems pretty fast! Now break it in half, you have 1/2 a second (0.5″). Seems even faster, right? If, during that 1/2 a second, anything moves – even a little bit – that movement gets captured and results in blur.

Make your shutter speed faster.. Now you’re breaking that one second, into 125 equal pieces, and take a photo in just ONE of those pieces. 

Break it into 500 equal pieces, and take a photo in one of those teeny, tiny moments of time. Now we’re talking about 1/500 of a second. This means there’s much less time for anything to move. 

Perhaps it’s better not to think about shutter speed “freezing motion” so much as it is about having a chance to CAPTURE motion in the first place.

Shutter Speed: Fast and Slow, Light and Dark

With your camera (hopefully) in hand, take off the lens cap. Let’s do some experimenting.

Make your shutter speed very slow again. What happens? If you have a mirrorless camera, you’ll be able to see the exposure already on your screen. If you have a DSLR you may need to take a photo, or turn on Live View. 

The photo should be quite bright. Why? Because it has a lot of time to let light in to the sensor. 

Are there ever times we might want to use a very slow shutter speed? 

Yes, and no.

One of our amazing LJ members does a lot of Astro photography, and for that, one needs extremely slow shutter speeds. Why? Because the camera needs as much time as possible to capture the faint light of the stars! They seem bright to us, but in reality that light is a long, long, LONG way away, and the camera needs time to capture it. Your camera may need between 10-30 seconds for astrophotography. Similarly, any situations where you’re capturing faint light, will be improved by a longer shutter time, as it allows that light to embed itself into the image. 

Another time you MAY want to slow your shutter speed, is if you’re doing “long exposures” – for example, at waterfalls! If you want those magical flowing white waterfalls, this can only be captured with a slow shutter speed, as it’s the constant motion of the white water that creates this effect. 

Taken at 1/10 sec, f/4, ISO 100. Not a composite! My dogs stood perfectly still for the 1/10 sec, which doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but try it for yourself and see how difficult it is!

While the answer MAY have been “to get more detail in the waterfall”, this isn’t the case at all. 

In fact, it would have been because I was already at ISO 100, and because of the very slow shutter speed, my photo would have been EXTREMELY bright, due to all the light coming in for the 1/10th of a second. Since I couldn’t let less light in with my ISO, the only other option I had to get to the correct exposure was to make my aperture narrower, limiting the light that way!

Let’s continue with our experiment!

Now start to make your shutter speed faster – don’t change any other settings! Again, with a mirrorless camera, you can see what’s happening to the exposure. It’s going to be getting darker and darker.


Because there will be less time for light to get to the sensor, as we chop that fraction of time into smaller and smaller teeny tiny pieces!

Is there a time to use VERY FAST shutter speeds?!

Of course! But only when necessary!

You will want to use faster shutter speeds for action photos. Anything over 1/1250 is great. If you’re photographing a dog sport on a very sunny, bright day, and your shutter speed is 1/2000, your ISO is already at 100, and you’re happy with your aperture where it is, but the image is still to bright…. then by all means, put the shutter speed faster! 

Shot at 1/1250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 1600. This could (and probably should) have had a faster shutter speed in order to really freeze the water-drops! 1/1250 is generally enough to capture most of a dog’s motion, unless they’re very close to the camera…. but not water droplets. They need 1/2000 or so to make them sharp and defined. If you click to enlarge this image, you’ll see the motion blur on all the small droplets especially in the front splash.

Also, if I’m doing portrait photos on a very bright day. Let’s say my aperture is at f/1.8 because I want a nice, soft blurry background. That’s letting in a lot of light. My ISO is at 100 – that means, it’s as low as it can go, which means it’s as “dark” as it can be. I COULD change my aperture to let in less light… but that will change the look of my photo too. So, the most logical option for me would be to make the shutter speed faster, to let in less light!

This photo is a great example of the above. It was quite bright out (though not harsh sun). Usually I would take this kind of portrait on 1/500 second, f/1.8 and ISO whatever was needed. 

However on this day, because of all the extra light, I was already on f/1.8 and ISO 100 (as low as it can go, so letting in the least amount of light), and it was still EXTREMELY bright. My options would have been to narrow the aperture – meaning there would have been a lot more detail in the foreground, and in that soft creamy background…. or to increase the shutter speed, which would just freeze any small motions Journey made even better.

As a result, the settings were: 1/1250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 100. 

IF, on the other hand, I was in a location, and I turned on my camera to find that my settings were: 1/500 sec, f/1.8, ISO 800 and it was still too bright… my first step would NOT be to make my shutter speed faster! FIRST, I would drop my ISO. If it got as low as it could go and it was still too bright… THEN I would make my shutter speed faster.

Common Shutter Speed Mistakes

A too-slow shutter speed, of about 1/125 second, is the MAIN mistake I see beginners making when they’re wondering why their images aren’t very sharp. 

This photo (click to enlarge), as well as having a lot else wrong with it, was probably taken at 1/125 second. Everything is slightly soft and blurry because of this slow shutter speed. 

Here you can se what motion blur looks like! It looks like everything is a bit “shaken”. Everything is a bit out of focus. It seems like the eyes SHOULD be in focus, but they’re not really. Nothing is! This is one way we can tell it’s motion blur.

Below: the motion blur vs. a faster shutter speed without blur.

Below are 3 very similar pictures.

One shows motion blur, one has missed focus, and one is perfect. Check them out and see if you can tell which is which. I’ll give you a cropped-in version too

The other common mistake I see in critiques, are overly fast shutter speeds for situations that don’t need it.

Often I’ll see shutter speeds of 1/6400, for a dog lying in some grass.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1/6400!! Except that in these photos, the ISO has been pushed WAY up: ISO 800, or ISO 2000 or ISO 4000…. which results in a lot of noise, an a lack of image quality that is totally unnecessary! If the shutter speed had been set at its slowest for the situation, then the ISO could have been brought down as low as possible. 

Quick Guide

  • Normal portraits: no slower than 1/400 sec
  • Trundling around/some slight movement: 1/800 sec
  • Action/running: 1/1250 sec or faster
  • If already at ISO 100, but still too bright? Make the shutter speed faster.
  • If at a high ISO and shutter speed already at 1/400? YOU need to determine if it’s worth risking motion blur by going slower, OR better to get more noise by increasing ISO