Photography is tricky. Whether you’re playing around with your first DSLR camera 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. 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, 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, 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, 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 are so great for long exposure shots and even smartphone selfies.
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 — 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, taking photos in the dark, and snapping photos of the night sky. 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. 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 where you can freely play around with shutter speed.
We’ve also given lots of newbie photography advice before, so be sure to check them out. Notable articles include these essential rules for framing your shot as well as these simple but everyday photography tips. But most of all, be sure to constantly get feedback on your shots!
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!