4 Common Shutter Speed Mistakes That’ll Ruin Your Photos

Joel Lee 18-03-2016

Photography is tricky. Whether you’re playing around with your first DSLR camera The Best Entry-Level DSLRs For New Photographers If you want to take your photography skills to the next level, or you know someone else who does, then there's no better way than to enter the world of DSLR cameras. Read More  or you’ve been a hobbyist for a few years now, the fundamentals can and will trip you up over and over. There’s a lot to learn and mistakes are easy to make.


One of the first things you should really nail down, however, are the essential rules of exposure 7 Key Photography Tips for Absolute Beginners These photography tips will help you take better photos, whether you're a beginner or have some practice already. Read More . That means understanding how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed come together and determine what your shot will look like. And depending on who you ask, some might say that shutter speed is the toughest of the three.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to pick up. And unlike aperture, shutter speed is only indirectly related to lenses and focal lengths Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses: What's the Difference? After graduating from a kit lens, you’ll need to decide between a prime lens and a zoom lens. But what exactly is the difference? Which one is better for you? Read More , so there aren’t as many factors to juggle. So here are some common mistakes and how to overcome them.

1. The Image Is Blurry

If your image is blurry and you aren’t doing it on purpose 5 Tips to Help You Take Really Unique Photographs Taking a photo is easy - it's making it stand out that's hard. Every great photo has something special about it, and that's what makes you stop and take notice. Read More , there’s a 95% chance that your problem is the shutter speed. In fact, if you aren’t shooting through a translucent material and you know your lenses are clean, then it’s pretty much a guarantee that the issue is related to the shutter speed.

The first question to ask yourself is whether you’re handholding the camera. If you are, then you have to realize that no human being — no matter how much control they have over their limbs — is capable of being perfectly still. There’s always going to be a little bit of sway and stutter.

Which is why photographers have come up with a general rule of thumb to mitigate blurriness from handheld shots: take your focal length, turn it into a fraction under one, and that’s the slowest shutter speed you should use. Any slower and you’re likely to see blur.



In other words, if your focal length is 30mm, then you shouldn’t shoot any slower than 1/30 second. If your focal length is 60mm, then no slower than 1/60 second. Higher focal lengths — about 200mm and beyond — are more sensitive to motion, so you may have to use slightly faster shutter speeds.

If you absolutely need a slow shutter speed and can’t get rid of the blur, then you’ll need to use a tripod (or set your camera on a platform, such as a book). But before you go out and buy one for yourself The Camera Tripod Buying Guide For Beginners Tired of camera shake ruining your photos? Want to take time-lapse shots or long exposure photos? Tripods allow for all of these, so if you don't have one, why not? Read More , beware that flimsy tripods can still cause minor blurring due to vibrations and such.

Something else to consider: the blur may be caused by how you’re pressing the shutter button. If you aren’t gentle, you’ll move the camera as it takes the shot, thus causing blur. That’s why remote shutter releases Make Your Own DSLR Remote Shutter Release One accessory you'll no doubt be after is a remote shutter; this allows you to place the camera on a tripod or rest it somewhere and trigger the shutter without the chance of shake that... Read More  are so great for long exposure shots and even smartphone selfies 5 Ways to Avoid Blur with a Smartphone Camera I think it's safe to assume most people take their smartphone cameras for granted, despite the leaps and bounds made in pocketable picture-taking technology. Unfortunately a lot of the time our smartphones produce overly blurry... Read More .


2. The Image Is Frozen

All photographs are still images, but the funny thing is that an image can sometimes appear to be too still. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, the difference between a “normal” shot and a “freeze-frame” shot. If your shot feels frozen in time, look at your shutter speed.

In general, the faster your shutter speed, the more it will freeze motion — and the degree of frozen motion will depend on how fast your subject is moving. For example, a walking dog can be frozen at 1/100 second while a running dog might need 1/800 second or faster. Want less freezing? Slow down the shutter.


These types of shots are actually really good for high-motion, action-heavy subjects like cars, motorcycles, swimmers, runners, and all kinds of stunt performers. Most of the time, however, you’ll want to avoid too fast of a shutter speed because it can look unnatural.


If you absolutely want to go with a frozen shot but also want to make it seem more natural, try going for a panning shot (normal shutter speed but follow the subject, causing it to look frozen while the background is blurred) or play with your composition (diagonals are great for this).

3. The Image Is Over-Exposed

The slower your shutter speed, the longer the sensor is exposed to light — which means, all other factors being equal, a brighter photo. Too bright and you’ll veer into over-exposure territory, and it’s hard to recover an image that’s been blown out like that.


Now, there are many possible ways to fix over-exposure — reduced ISO, smaller aperture, and sometimes even using a different metering mode What Are Metering Modes and How Do They Affect Your Photos? Metering is one of the things that beginner photographers often don't understand very well, but which can make a huge difference to your photos. It's worth taking some time to explore. Read More  — but unless you’re specifically aiming for a shutter-related effect (e.g. creative blur or motion freezing) then it’s best to start by increasing the shutter speed.


But sometimes a slow shutter speed is necessary, such as when you’re doing low light photography An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Read More taking photos in the dark An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Read More , and snapping photos of the night sky Take Better Night Sky Photographs By Getting The Basics Right Tired of taking night-time photos that come out dark, empty, and boring? Read More . It’s still possible to over-expose those kinds of shots, but it’s less common. Either way, the solution is the same: faster shutter speed.

4. The Image Is Partly Black

This last common shutter speed mistake involves external flashes and speedlights 5 Flash Tips for Speedlight Newbies At its core, the camera flash is a simple piece of technology that's deceptively hard to use well. Read More . If you think that flashes are so fast that it doesn’t matter what shutter speed you use, then you’d be correct — for the most part. As it turns out, there’s one situation where flashes and shutters do not play well together.

That situation is when your shutter speed is too fast. Every modern camera has a “Flash Sync Speed” spec that states the fastest shutter speed you can have while using flash. For example, the Nikon D5500 has a flash sync speed of 1/200 second while the Nikon D5 has a flash sync speed of 1/250 second. Slightly faster.


What happens when you flash with a faster shutter speed? You get partially-black images like the one above. This is due to the way that shutters work.

A shutter is two curtains: a top curtain and a bottom curtain. When you snap a shot, the top curtain opens (which exposes the sensor), and then when the shutter speed duration is over, the bottom curtain closes after it.

But when the shutter speed is too fast, the bottom starts closing before the top is done closing, so the flash doesn’t hit the entire sensor. Here’s a great visual explanation of how it all works:

There are ways to use flash with higher shutter speeds, the most common solution being the “High Sync Speed” feature that you can find on mid-tier and upper-tier DSLRs. If your images are being blacked out and your camera doesn’t have HSS, then you’ll have to resort to a slower shutter speed.

How to Improve Your Photography

If you feel overwhelmed, don’t worry. Shutter speed can be confusing at first, but give it time and it’ll sink in. If you want to get better, we recommend some hands-on experience with one of these virtual DSLR tools 3 Steps To Learning The Basics Of Photography With A Virtual DSLR Rather than learning your photography from books and tutorials, this web application from Canon Canada is the most fun yet. Outside of Auto from Canon is a gentle introduction to the basics of photography. Read More  where you can freely play around with shutter speed.

We’ve also given lots of newbie photography advice 13 Tips to Quickly Improve Your Photos Good photos and bad photos aren't determined by cameras but by photographers. Here are 13 tips that will quickly improve your photos. Read More  before, so be sure to check them out. Notable articles include these essential rules for framing your shot How to Compose a Photograph: 5 Essential Rules to Follow If you want to get really good at photography, there are some vital rules around image composition that you should consider. Here are five of the most important. Read More  as well as these simple but everyday photography tips 13 Tips to Quickly Improve Your Photos Good photos and bad photos aren't determined by cameras but by photographers. Here are 13 tips that will quickly improve your photos. Read More . But most of all, be sure to constantly get feedback on your shots 8 Places to Get Feedback on Your Photos One of the best ways to improve your photography skills is to gather genuine feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. These eight sites are where you can do just that. Read More !

Did this help? Are there any other shutter speed mistakes we missed? What kind of tips and advice would you give to a newbie struggling with this? Share your thoughts with us down in the comments below!

Image Credits: Blurry Bike by Christian Weidinger via Flickr, Coffee Mug by Vida Dimovska via Flickr, Flowers by Liz West via Flickr, Flash Sync by Frank Black Noir via Flickr

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  1. James
    March 19, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    Agree with hpchavaz.

    Based on the content, I'm not sure the author understands shutter speed.

  2. hpchavaz
    March 19, 2016 at 10:57 am

    In the 'The Image Is Blurry' section, there is no distinction between motion blur and shake blur. That is not satisfactory, and more so that the picture of the motorcycle refers more to motion blur while the rule matches shake blur.

    Moreover, this rule only applies when there is no stabilizer, which is rarely the case, and the result needs to be amended to take account of the crop factor.