f Picture This: The Need for Speed|January 2018| TPW magazine
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Picture This: The Need for Speed

Correct shutter speed makes the difference in capturing action.

By Earl Nottingham

There’s a good chance that most of us have some type of camera with us right now. Whether it’s a simple smartphone or a full-size DSLR, cameras have become an integral part of the way we document our lives. We capture those special moments and share them via social media, put them in a scrapbook or hang them on the wall.

Capturing that spontaneity is made easier thanks to the fully automatic features of most cameras, allowing us to just “point and shoot.” The camera’s automatic features figure out all the settings behind the scenes and under the hood — typically a combination
of shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Those three determinants of proper exposure are usually referred to as the “exposure triangle.”

Of those three points of the exposure triangle, proper shutter speed is one of the most important, yet it’s also one of the least understood and misused. Using it correctly will get you closer to that great photo. Most of the time, we assume that the camera knows the best shutter speed and exposure. However, the camera doesn’t know what type of subject you are shooting and, more importantly, the motion of that subject — whether it is fast, slow or stationary. This is where the photographer steps in by manually controlling the shutter speed to ensure that any motion is completely stopped — or intentionally blurred to artistically convey the feeling of motion by choosing a much slower shutter speed.

A typical camera shutter is basically two curtains made of cloth or metal that cover the sensor (or film) and block out any light. Once the shutter button is pressed, the curtains or blades open momentarily, allowing light to accumulate onto the sensor. It is the duration that the shutter is open that we refer to as shutter speed, and this can range in length from hours to around 1/8000th of a second. The longest shutter speed on most DSLRs is typically 30 seconds unless an electronic cable release is used. It’s common to confuse fractions of seconds with full seconds on some camera LED screens — .4 second vs. 4 seconds.

The key to selecting a proper shutter speed is knowing which speed is ideal for your particular subject and creative purpose. All too often, we are disappointed that the bird in flight or the animal running is blurred in the photo because of a shutter speed that was too slow. Many automatic cameras address that situation by adding a “sports” icon to the dial, which simply means that the camera will prioritize a faster shutter speed for exposure. Alternately, that silky effect on a waterfall we envisioned might be too sharp because the shutter speed was too fast. It’s often a matter of trial and error to learn just how fast or slow you need to shoot.

More Info:

Here is a rough guide for some typical outdoor subjects and the shutter speeds needed when using available light (no flash). Use the guides to manually set your shutter speed or, if using auto-exposure, to cross-check the speed that the camera has selected. Also, when using longer zoom lenses you will need to increase shutter speed to minimize camera movement.

  • Bird in flight or mammal running
    1/1000th of a second minimum
  • Bird or mammal stationary
    1/250th of a second minimum
  • Hummingbird in flight
    1/2500th of a second minimum
  • Stopping moving water
    1/500th of a second minimum
  • Blurring water for silky effect
    1/30th of a second or slower (requires tripod)
  • Sports
    1/500th of a second minimum (depends on sport)
  • Portrait of person
    1/125th of a second minimum




Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at www.tpwmagazine.com/photography.


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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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