What Should My Shutter Speed Be?

Gerry van der Walt Gerry Leave a Comment

This is another question that I hear often out in the field and just like with the ISO question we discussed yesterday there really is no easy answer for this question.

Whenever anybody asks me this question there is always a long pause as I wait for them to finish the question.  I wait because ‘what should my shutter speed be?‘ is impossible to answer if you don’t mention what you want to photograph.

If you understand what Shutter Speed does it will be quite obvious that capturing a sharp image of a bird taking off and creating a motion blurred panning shot of a zebra running will require very different shutter speed.

So, in order to answer the question of what should my Shutter Speed be the two questions you really need to answer this question:

  • Do I want to freeze action or show movement in the frame?

Once you know the answer to that question you should have your answer but let’s dig a little deeper.

As a rough rule of thumb you should always try to keep your Shutter Speed to 1 over your focal length which simply means if you are shooting on a 300m lens you should try and keep your shutter speed to at least 1/300 and a 50mm lens will require a Shutter Speed of 1/50.

Remember though that this is purely a guideline in order for you to get crisp, sharp images and there are many other factors that can influence your images which includes movement in the frame, the type of support you are using and things like vibration reduction and image stability.

Most of the time, and especially when you are getting started in photography, you are going to want to create sharp images.   This is where the above guideline and the ISO discussion from yesterday comes in.

When you look at an image on screen you will immediately be able to tell whether it is sharp or not.  If you are not sure whether it is sharp or not it probably isn’t.

By zooming into this RAW image in Lightroom I can see that the areas I want sharp – the eyes – are sharp.

Gerry van der Walt - Sharpness in Wildlife Photography

Shot with a 500mm lens and a Shutter Speed of 1/800 – notice the numbers – the stationary little Baboon wasn’t moving around much.  If he was running around I would have had to push my Shutter Speed up in order to avoid a soft or blurry image.

To do this I would have pushed my ISO up as I shoot in Aperture Mode and ISO then gives me the ability to increase or decrease my Shutter Speed by making my camera more or less sensitive to light.

For most of you this will more than likely be your most common scenario.  Check Shutter Speed and create sharp images.

The other scenario, and one where you can really start making images rather than just taking them is when you start playing with time.  Slow shutter speeds will give you the ability to convey a sense of movement in a frame by using techniques such as motion blur or radial blur.  The difference between a crisp image of a bird taking off and an image of the same bird with the wing tips just slightly blurred is huge and can take good image to great.

That being said, the moment you start experimenting with slow Shutter Speeds you run a risk of not getting the shots.  You stand a chance of fluffing it but man, when you hit that shot it feels great!  In this post Andrew shared some examples of what is possible when you slow things down.

One thing to be honest with yourself about is the difference between making a mistake by using a too slow shutter speed and intentionally making an image by applying a specific slow shutter technique.

The difference is intent.  The focused goal of creating motion blurred images.

This RAW file is just not sharp and there is nothing I can do about it.

Gerry van der Walt - Shutter Speed

The image was shot with a 500mm lens and a 1/125 shutter speed – again notice the numbers – and was just never going to work.

Now this image was created by intentionally using a slow shutter speed.

Gerry van der Walt - Shutter Speed

Created with a Shutter Speed of 1/30 on a 600mm lens I was always going to go for the more abstract motion blurred image.  By focusing on the bottom of the elephant’s foot, keeping it locked on and moving at the same speed rendered the foot sharp with the rest of the frame bing intentionally blurred.

The difference, I am sure you will agree, is huge.

So, let’s recap.

In order to get crisp, sharp images you need to try and keep your Shutter Speed above 1/focal length.  If you are not sure go faster.   To create motion blurred image where you play with time slow down the shutter speed intentionally and play from there.

Next time you want to ask “what should my Shutter Speed be?” stop for a moment, think what your goal is and then rephrase the question to “what should my Shutter Speed be if I want to <insert your photographic goal here>?”

Understanding the technical basics of photography won’t make you a better photographer.

Understanding the basics and then applying your own creative vision to it will.

Until next time.


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About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at www.gerryvanderwalt.com or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

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