The quality of a photo depends on the quantity and type of light that hits the camera sensor or film. As we mentioned in our previous photography blog, there are a few different variables that enable us to control this. And if you know how to manage these variables, you can take amazing photos, even in difficult conditions, and have more creative control over your images.

In this post, we’ll be looking at what is arguably the most important of these standard control variables: shutter speed.

What is a camera shutter?

A camera shutter is a mechanism that rapidly opens and closes when you take a photo, so this allows a certain amount of light to hit the sensor or film. Different cameras have different shutter mechanisms. Smartphones, for example, have a digital one rather than a physical device, and this command tells the sensor how long to record the scene. But all shutters ultimately serve the same purpose. They give a range of open intervals and let in different amounts of light, depending on your exposure needs or the conditions of the scene you’re shooting.

How to control shutter speed to improve exposure

Getting exposure right is an integral part of photography. It’s making sure that light elements of your shot, like the sky or heavily lit areas, are not too bright, and that darker areas are not too dark.

Underexposure creates very dark photos while overexposure creates an overblown image with very little colour, where skies can often look completely white in a picture. But controlling your camera’s shutter speed can massively increase your chances of taking correctly exposed shots because it regulates the time the shutter will stay open. So, if your image needs less light, go for shorter exposure time, and if it needs more, use a longer exposure time.

Most cameras have a range of shutter speeds that go from a fraction of a second to a few seconds long or more. When light conditions are adverse, and your photos are coming out too dark for your liking, you can set a longer exposure time to let in more light and brighten your images. Or if conditions are too bright, you can limit the amount of light entering your camera with a fast shutter speed to darken your shot.

Changing your shutter speed setting alone, however, doesn’t always guarantee good photos and it has some limitations. So, here’s a couple of things to think about when you’re shooting more challenging shots.

If you’re shooting directly into light or snapping an extremely bright scene, a fast shutter speed alone may not expose your image evenly. Instead, it could darken any shadowy areas to black while dimming bright areas.

Extremely slow shutter speeds can cause your image to be slightly blurred. This happens if the camera moves during the time your shutter is open. But you can keep your camera steady by using a tripod to shoot at very low shutter speeds.

How to freeze action or create motion blur

Controlling shutter speed also gives you more creative options to experiment with. You can either freeze movement or create motion blur. These are both great ways of conveying action in a photo. Whichever technique you choose will depend on the type of image you want to capture, and also the quality of lighting in your setting.

In a well-lit setting, a fast shutter speed will allow you to freeze movement in action. Think of it as like a frame from a movie. This technique is perfect for showing drama or power in sport. You could also use it to capture a candid moment when a friend or family member laughs or turns to the camera.

In low light, a slow shutter speed will blur a moving subject while the rest of the image stays sharp. This is ideal for showing the flow of people on a busy street or a car driving by. And if you want to experiment by creating shots that aren’t perfectly sharp, then this is a great technique to try.

If you are giving slow shutter speeds a go, a top tip of ours would be to use a tripod. This can go a long way in improving the quality of your shots.

Start experimenting with shutter speeds

Not all cameras have the same range of shutter speed options. But most cameras, from smartphones to DSLRs, will give you some form of control over the shutter. Find out where these controls are, then why not have some fun experimenting with different settings, lighting conditions and subjects to create your next images?

You’ll soon get a feel for the settings you like best and which work better in certain situations. Then you’ll be able to take well-exposed photos that fit your creative style.

But as with most things creative, these techniques are not set in stone. Just think of them as a starting point to help you improve your photography skills and unlock new opportunities.

Look out for our next photography tips post, where we’ll run through some practical exercises, settings to try and new situations where shutter speed controls can improve your snaps.

And make sure you share your new photography skills with us on Instagram and Facebook. We’d love to see your photos.