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Breaking out of the mold of auto mode and diving into manual mode can be invigorating and exciting for new photographers. It can also be a bit confusing — filled with an array of numbers and terms.

In your photography, there are three main areas you can choose to control manually — the ISO, the aperture and the shutter speed.

Let’s break down the latter of the three: shutter speed.

What Is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is the amount of time your shutter is open — and how long your image sensor has to see the scene you are choosing to capture. Whether that’s rolling green hills, the happy face of your sibling, or a close up shot of a bowl of plump, purple grapes, shutter speed is a crucial element to snapping your shots.

How is It Measured?

Shutter speed is measured in seconds (typically, fractions of seconds). The larger the denominator, the faster the speed. For example, a shutter speed of 1/200 is faster than a shutter speed of 1/100. 

What Number Should I Use?

Generally, to avoid camera shake, you’ll want to use shutter speeds that are 1/60th of a second or faster. If you use a shutter speed that is slower than this, your camera will move with your shutter open (which will account for blur in your images).

What About a Tripod?

If you’re looking to use a shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second, use a camera with image stabilization — or a tripod — to say bye-bye to blur. 

When Do I Use Slow Shutter Speeds?

You’ll find that some cameras offer shutter speeds of 10 seconds, 30 seconds, etc. These are used in low light situations or when the photographer is attempting to capture special effects or movements.

How Does Shutter Speed Work With Movement?

Shutter speed works with movement in two ways. You can either freeze movement in your photos (such as if a child is running towards you, moving their arms) or you can let that movement become blurry if you’d rather have that aesthetic in your shot (such as if that same child is running towards you, and you want to capture their moving arms).

To freeze movement in an image, choose a faster shutter speed. To let the movement blur, use a slower shutter speed. What shutter speed you choose will depend upon the speed of your subject and how much you want it to blur.

When Would I Show Movement?

You might find yourself in certain photography situations where showing movement can add intrigue and creativity to your photo. For example, water flowing down the side of a mountain, a jet skier spraying up droplets behind him, or cars as they move down the highway can be fun to capture. In these situations, you’ll want to stabilize your camera with a tripod and use a long shutter speed. 

What About Focal Length?

Another thing you’ll want to take into account with shutter speed is the focal length of your lens. Unless your lens has image stabilization, a good general rule to follow is to make sure the denominator of your shutter speed is larger than the focal length of your lens (i.e. if your lens is 50mm, 1/60th is a good choice). 

The journey into exploring shutter speeds can be empowering — especially for new photographers with a thirst to experiment.