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The definition of ‘shutter speed’ means how quickly the shutter inside your camera opens and closes. This is integral to controlling exposure as it literally times how long your film or digital sensor is exposed to light. When you hear your camera ‘click’ what you are really hearing is the accurately controlled timing of the shutter opening and closing.

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Shutter speed is measured in fractions of time, and is controlled by selecting incremental fractions of seconds on your camera body. There are two main aspects shutter speed controls: 1) how much light enters your camera, and 2) motion and blur. Let’s talk about controlling light first.

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Imagine light as if it were a hose of water pointed right at your lens. If your shutter were open for a full 5 seconds, you’d be letting a LOT of water enter your camera. But if your shutter speed was set to a 1/500th of a second, you’d only let in a little water. This is how shutter speed controls exposure. If you are photographing a dark scene, probably inside with very little window light, you’d need to tell your camera to let in a good deal of light for a brighter exposure. You can do this by using a long shutter speed, which is considered anything over a 30th of a second. But if you are outside in bright mid day sun, you hardly need much light at all entering your camera so use a very fast shutter speed like 1/1000th.

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Aside from timing the fractions of seconds of light that enters your camera, shutter speed also controls the camera’s ability to capture or blur motion. For sports photographers, a fast shutter speed is crucial. At shutter speeds like 1/2000th and higher the camera is literally moving at the same speed as the action, and results in freeze-frame imagery. A runner on the field is caught perfectly mid-stride, a raindrop is caught crisply in the air mid-fall, etc. It’s exciting to see action frozen in time, which is why fast shutter speeds are so fun to use.

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Equally fun are slow shutter speeds. If you want to accentuate the motion of a dancer, a slow shutter speed like 1/30th of a second will allow part of the subject to stay in focus, yet create a blur where some of their body was moving. Put your camera on a tripod to diminish camera-shake, and use even longer exposures like 1 full second to capture a scene with action, where what ever is still is in focus and the rest becomes a blur of frenetic energy and motion. Even longer shutter speeds like 60 seconds up to a full hour can be used for night photography- a creative and challenging art where the camera’s shutter is kept open for long periods of time in very dark scenarios, creating magical, ethereal imagery. Night photography takes practice, as calculating exposures is fairly difficult. But the result can be surreal, colorful and totally worth the experiment.

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