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Basics: Aperture and Shutter Speeds for Beginning Photographers

Bakari Chavanu 02-12-2009

_MG_6322 (1)When you have an advanced compact or 35mm digital camera, the only way you can take full advantage of its advance features is to practice taking shots beyond the camera”˜s automatic mode.


When you shoot in automatic mode, you’re telling the camera that you want it to figure out everything out for you. And in most cases, if you’re shooting in automatic mode, the camera locks down most controls and features and makes all the exposure decisions for you.

But with digital photography, there’s absolutely no reason to shoot automatic mode.  You can shoot and delete as many images as you like and it won’t cost you a penny more. So grab your camera and let’s learn some of the basics of aperture and shutter speeds.

What Is Aperture and Shutter Speed?

First off, what is shutter speed? It’s an exposure setting for how long your camera’s shutter will remain open when you click the shutter button. It’s almost like blinking your eyes really fast. You can leave them wide open for like an entire minute, or you can open and close them in a second or less.

Most advanced cameras come with a wide range of shutter speeds, from 1/2500th of a second to as long as 15 seconds. The longer the shutter remains open, the more light that hits the camera”˜s sensor. If it’s not open long enough, your image may be underexposed””fairly dark. If it’s opened too long, your image may be overexposed””too bright. Open too long without a stable tripod to hold the camera steady, and the shots will probably be too blurry.

Shutter speed works in conjunction with the aperture and ISO settings to determine the appropriate exposure based on the lighting conditions images are captured in. When using shutter priority, it means that you’re going to manually set the shutter speed, and the camera will automatically set the appropriate aperture needed for a good exposure.


The above easy enough for most shooters, but there are times when you want to have more control of the shutter speed for a few reasons. The reasons might include:

1. You’re shooting in a low light situation and you need to leave the shutter open long enough to allow in more light. This is especially the case when doing night photography.

2. You”˜re taking action shots and you want to freeze the action or show motion in your shot.

3. You’re using flash in your shot and you want to get more detail in the ambient light of the shot.


Quick Lessons About Shutter Speed

The following basic exercises were written to help beginning photographers understand the basics of shutter speed.

Exercise 1: Understanding shutter speed

Set your camera to Program mode, not Automatic mode. Set your ISO to 400. Make sure the flash is turned off. Now go outside, during the day, and take a shot of anything, such as your front door.

Next, take another shot with the same settings as above (including turning the flash off), but this time take the shot in a room with less light. It can be the inside of your front door.

View both photos on your camera”˜s LCD screen or on your computer and make note of the different shutters speeds in the two different lighting conditions. In my example, the camera set the shutter speed at 1/250th of a second for the outdoor shot. Detecting less light in the indoor shot, the camera chose a slower shutter speed of 1/15th of a second.


basics of aperture and shutter speeds

This little exercise should give you an understanding of how taking photos is primarily about the amount of light coming into the camera. Sometimes when you need more light to get a good image, it calls for a longer shutter speed. Likewise, if your image is overexposed, you may need to reduce the shutter speed, to say 1/15th of a second.

Another lesson to learn from this exercise is that when you’re taking photos beyond Automatic mode you want to keep an eye on the shutter speed. If the shutter speed (rather automatically or manually set) is set at 1/60th of a second or slower, your shots might not come out too sharp. It is possible to hand-hold a camera at a shutter speed as low as 1/15th of a second, but you typically run the risk of blurring some detail in the shot.

Three Fixes

Higher ISO


If your shutter speed is too low for shooting without a flash, you can try a couple of things. You can raise the ISO, from say 100 to 400 or above. A higher ISO increases your camera’s sensor to light. It’s like letting more light into the camera. Some professional photographers use high ISOs for shooting in low light conditions, such as weddings held in a church, where flash might not be appropriate. If you’re shooting a concern and you need more light to come into you camera, you might try setting a high ISO. The problem with  a high ISO, however, is that it might cause your images to be grainy, creating what is called noise in the image. You can often fix the problem with noise reduction software.

Wider Aperture

You can also try opening the aperture from say f/5.6 to f/1.4, if your camera”˜s lens can open that wide. The aperture works sorta like the shutter speed. When you open it up, you let in more light. When you close it down, less light is let in.

Use a Tripod

Lastly, you can and should use a tripod when you need to use a slow shutter speed. By using a tripod, you’re not only able to shoot in low light situations, but you can also use a low ISO, thus bringing more clarity to your images. You might also try using your camera’s self-timer to set off the shutter and take the photo. When shooting in a low shutter speed, sometimes even the trigger of your finger can cause camera shake, and thus a little blur in the image. (Note: the image below of the camera dial was taken at a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second, hand held. I should have used a tripod, because the image is not as sharp as it could be. I did however use the camera”˜s self-timer to help stead the shot some.)

Exercise 2: Capturing Action

Grab your camera and go out and take action shots. It could be of your children playing outdoors, a sports game, a fountain of water, or moving cars. Just make sure that the subject(s) is moving. Before you start taking shots, set your camera to Shutter Priority. There should be a dial on your camera where you set it Tv, which means shutter priority.

basics of aperture and shutter speeds

When you use shutter priority, the camera expects you to set the shutter speed, and it will automatically set the aperture to correspond to that shutter speed you set. If there’s a problem between the two settings, you will get a warning signal that one setting needs to be increased or decreased to get an appropriate exposure.

Shoot the moving subject using different shutter speeds; from say a fast speeds of 1/250th of a second or higher, to a much slower speeds of 1/60th to 1/15th of a second.  Don’t think about composition in these shots. Just focus on using shutter priority and manually setting the shutter speeds yourself. When you arrive back home, import your images into your image software, and compare the results.

basics of aperture and shutter speeds

You should notice that images shot at a higher shutter speed tend to freeze the subject, while images shot a slower speed blur the action.

When you learn how to manually control the shutter speeds of your camera, you can get more creative with action photography, as well learn how to get useful images without the need of a flash.

If you try out these exercises, let me know how they work for you.

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  1. Sharon Holkey
    January 31, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    1-31-15 thank you...I'm going to try your suggestions today.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 2, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Awesome, Sharon. Let me know how it works out.

  2. Vampie
    February 5, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Great tips. :-)

    I'm going on holiday soon (ski vacation) and i'll try some of the tips in here :-).

    Hope i have some nice results.

    Tnx for the info.

  3. Guilherme Baroli
    January 6, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Hi, tks a million for your tips. Just a question: I have a Sony A200 and there is no TV option in its dial. Which symbol could be the correspond of it?

    tks again

  4. Kelvin Hu
    December 7, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Very helpful article for the beginners. Thanks!

    One typo though ;) - the word "concern" should be "concert".

  5. Ritwic Saikia
    December 4, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Thanx I'm just starting out in digital photography...Hope to use these tips.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      December 4, 2009 at 1:35 pm

      Let me know how these exercises work for you.

  6. Aibek
    December 3, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Bakari, great tips, going to experiment with them.

    • Bakari
      December 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

      Thanks, let me know how the exercises work for you.