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Many a potential great shot has found its way into the trash due to the use of an incorrect shutter speed. Shutter speed times are measured in fractions of a second. The difference in real time between 1/250 of a second and 1/8 of a second may not seem long, but when measured in photographic time, it’s an eternity. It means the difference between freezing the motion of someone walking or getting a blur. It means the difference between getting a sharp or blurry image that’s hand held with a 200mm lens. It means the difference between capturing individual water drops of a wave or winding up with little blurs that streak across the photo. Learning how shutter speeds impact a capture is necessary to portray the look you desire if you want to become a better photographer.
If you’ve been plagued with soft images, there’s a way to diagnose the cause. If a moving subject is blurry but the rest of the image is sharp, the shutter speed was too slow to halt its action. This is evidenced by the fact that where movement occurred, there is softness. On the other hand, if the entire image is soft, it substantiates the shutter speed was too slow to stop the motion of the camera when the shutter was pressed. It could also be caused by focusing the lens incorrectly, but I will assume this is not the case. Camera shake can be remedied using a tripod or other stable platform onto which the camera can be placed. Subject motion is halted using faster speeds at the time of capture. This means bumping up the ISO, shooting when there is more light, or using a faster lens.
The longer the lens, the more you’ll need to use fast shutter speeds to prevent camera motion. Conversely, the wider the lens, a slower speed is adequate to freeze the motion. For instance, if you’re shooting a 200mm lens hand held, the slowest shutter speed you should use to help guarantee you get a sharp image is 1/250. If you’re using a 28mm lens, 1/30 should do the trick. Basically, the shutter speed with which you shoot should be the closest reciprocal to the focal length of the lens. This would mean a 100mm lens would be safe to shoot at 1/125.
In the images that accompany this article, the shot of the great egret striking the water was made at 1/6400. I wanted to make sure the entire bird in addition to all the drops of water would be sharp and show the speed and power of its darting head. For the shot of the waterfall, I used a shutter speed of four seconds to intentionally blur the water and give it the cotton candy effect. I was lucky there was no wind. If there was, the shot wouldn’t be successful as the flowers on the right side would have been blurry due to subject movement.