• Paolo Ferraris

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time when the digital sensor of our camera is exposed to light.

Image taken with slow shutter speed

What is shutter speed on camera?


Before talking about shutter speed, let's talk about what a shutter is.

A shutter is a device that allows light to pass for a determined period of time, exposing photographic film or a photosensitive digital sensor in order to capture an image. In modern cameras, we almost exclusively refer to focal plane shutters. The shutter is positioned right in front of the film or the sensor.

Shutter speed examples


In the film age of photography, all shutters were mechanical. They were curtains made of plastic or metallic thin plates. Each shutter usually had two curtains.

A mechanism would pull the first curtain, exposing the film and after a set amount of time, the second curtain would close the gap, bringing the film back into darkness.

The newest generation of cameras, the mirrorless ones, uses a hybrid system. The sensor is always exposed to light and the shutter is activated only when we are taking, when we are recording a picture. Some models use a single curtain mechanical shutter paired with the electronic shutter. All mirrorless cameras now offer the option to shoot activating exclusively the electronic shutter thus eliminating the noise and the vibration caused by the mechanical shutter but in some situations that leads to image, to exposure problems, especially with artificial lighting.

My prediction is that in the future mechanical shutters will disappear from professional cameras. Most if not all cameras will be shutterless, as they already are in phones and point and shoot models. Cameras in our phones don't have a mechanical shutter. They only operate with the electronic one. The electronic shutter operates internally. It works synching the charge and discharge of the electronic signal in the circuit attached to the sensor.

The electronic shutter doesn’t have any mechanical parts. And that is great to avoid a series of problems affecting traditional shutters, which are shutter shock, camera vibration produced by the movement of the shutter curtains, and shutter noise.

Shutter speed chart. Shutter speeds lists


Let's take a look at the chart with shutter speed numbers.

1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1" 2" 4" 8" 15" and 30"

As we've seen previously shutter speed is expressed in seconds, mostly fractions of a second. Mechanical shutters top speed is usually 1/8000 for most models. Some mechanical shutters and electronic shutters go up to 1/16000 or faster. Going in the opposite direction in one-stop increments we get to entire seconds of exposure.

Most models cap the longest exposure setting at 30 seconds. Then we have the B, or bulb mode. This setting allows the camera shutter to stay open and therefore the film or the sensor to be exposed to light for an undetermined period of time. In some models the shutter stays open as long as the shutter button stays pressed, in others pressing the button opens the shutter and you have to press the button again to close it.

Fast and slow shutter speed photography


Long exposure photography (slow shutter speed) is a fascinating section of traditional photography and it has many interesting uses: dealing with low light conditions (capturing night skies, stars, fireworks,) capturing extreme fast events, like lightning, and also getting creative as in capturing the streaks from cars at night or light painting. Fast shutter speeds are used to freeze the action in a shot.

Shutter speed and aperture


Exposure Value is the combination of Aperture and Shutter Speed appropriate for a specific lighting condition. It is the combination of the F number and the shutter speed in seconds (or fractions of a second) that will give us the correct exposure.


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