I have decided to write a few articles on the most basic aspects of photography, which will become natural as you start mastering this art. However, I remember struggling with them when I first started – and I guess that most of us have a similar experience.
This series is called: ‘Photography Basics’ and will be divided into four main parts: shutter speed, aperture, ISO and composition. I will try to cover the fundamental concepts and see how they can be applied to street photography especially.
Today, I am going to talk about the shutter speed, which is a fundamental variable to master and can open up to many artistic opportunities.
First of all, the shutter is a curtain placed just in front of the sensor – or film. Depending on the time it stays opened, it will let more or less light come through and hit the sensor or film. Therefore, the longer the shutter speed, the brighter the photograph and vice versa. Unfortunately, the longer the shutter speed, the more the chances of motion blur, which might ruin your pictures by showing your subjects moving and losing their sharpness. On the other hand, a shorter shutter speed will allow you to freeze the movement of your subject and increase its sharpness substantially.
What do longer – and shorter – shutter speed mean?
Shutter speeds are normally expressed in relation to a second. On most cameras – entry-level, amateur and pro DSLRs and CSCs – you will notice a dial or a numeric figure, which generally varies from 8000 to 30”. Well, 8000 stands for 1/8000th of a second, which means that the time between the opening and the closure of the shutter is infinitesimal – precisely 1/8000th of a second. While 30” shows that the shutter speed is set to 30 seconds and much more light will reach the sensor.
If you photograph handheld, you can follow an easy rule of humble to minimise motion blur. Just take the focal length you are using and use the reciprocal of that as the minimum shutter speed. If you are using a 50mm lens, for instance, every shutter speed shorter than 1/50th of a second should be adequate to avoid motion blur. Bear in mind that if you are using a crop sensor camera, you should first calculate the equivalent focal length, which depends on your sensor crop factor – do not worry you can easily find it on the internet! For instance, I know that my crop sensor Nikon has a crop factor of x1.5. Thus, if I use a full frame 50mm on that camera, the equivalent focal length will be 50 x 1.5= 75mm. Thus, I should use a shutter speed quicker than 1/75th of a second to avoid motion blur.
If you are using a tripod, then you do not have to worry about losing sharpness as long as your tripod is sturdy enough and you can minimise vibrations during the exposure time.
Shutter Speed in Street Photography
Normally, I like to make sharp and crisp street photographs, which involves setting a shutter speed to minimise motion blur. Usually, I use a 35mm lens, which means that i am safe using any shutter speed quicker than 1/35th of a second. On the other hand, if you see that a scene is evolving quickly and some sudden action is going on, you might be better off increasing your shutter speed. This should allow you to freeze the quick action that you want to photograph.
On the other hand, sometimes I like to be more artistic. I enjoy bringing a tripod along – or use a sturdy surface, such as a wall – to shoot longer exposures. To me a long exposure is any time longer than 1 second. If you are able to avoid vibrations, you can capture the blur of moving objects, while everything that was still in that time frame will be sharp. By using this technique, you can capture light trials and even transform water into ‘mirrors’ or milky surfaces.
My suggestion is to experiment with the shutter speed and see how changing this variable affects your photographs. You could also use a sturdy surface to capture some motion blur and be more artistic. This is especially great to photograph cityscape in a completely different way. Experiment! Experiement! Experiment!
Shutter Speed Basics Summary
Quick shutter speed: darker image, less/no motion blur, action is frozen.
Long shutter speed: brighter image, motion blur, requires sturdy surface.