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Photography cheat sheet: Shutter speed stops

Cheat sheet: shutter speed stops infographic
(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

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All but the most basic cameras offer control over shutter speed, and it's one of the key ways in which we determine how our images end up looking. 

But what exactly is is shutter speed? And what do photographers mean when they refer to one stop or two stops? Read on to find out what you need to know.

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed forms one part of the exposure triangle (opens in new tab), the other two parts being aperture (opens in new tab) and ISO (opens in new tab). Whereas aperture controls how large the opening inside the lens is for light to pass through, and ISO how much light is required in order to create the image, shutter speed dictates how long the camera's sensor is exposed to light. The right balance of the three is what every photographer needs to consider if they're to achieve the image they expect.

Read more: Photography cheat sheet: How to understand f-stops (opens in new tab)

The easiest way to control shutter speed precisely is to turn the camera's mode dial or mode setting (assuming it has one) to the the Shutter Priority setting. Depending on which camera you use, this will be marked Tv (which stands for Time Value) or simply S. Once in this mode, you simply turn a command dial on your camera and you should see a figure in the viewfinder and/or the LCD screen jump between values like 1/125, 1/250, 1/500 and so on – and this is your shutter speed.

1/125 is 1/125sec, which means that the shutter inside your camera will be open for one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second. This may be a physical shutter or an electronic one, but the principle is the same and your camera's sensor is exposed to light for this period of time. 

If you then change the shutter speed to 1/250sec, you're allowing half as much light to get through to the sensor. Change it once more to 1/500sec and you're halving this again, and then another halving would be 1/1000sec, and so on. 

Each time you halve it, or go in reverse and double it, you're moving by what's known as one 'stop'. So, a shutter speed of 1/125sec is one stop brighter than 1/250sec, as you're letting in twice as much light.

As you should be able to see when you adjust this, there are other settings in between these. Most mirrorless cameras and digital SLRs tend to move in third-stop increments, so you end up going from 1/125sec to 1/250sec via 1/180sec and 1/200sec options.

Click on the top-right-hand corner to enlarge this cheat sheet (Image credit: Digital Camera World)
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If you ever use the Manual exposure mode, or exposure compensation, you may already be familiar with this idea of stops. Each dot or line on the exposure scale inside your viewfinder (or on your LCD's display) represents a third of a stop, and a more pronounced line indicates a full stop. 

Unless you're using exposure compensation, the marker underneath these shouldn't move in the Shutter Priority mode as your camera will automatically be adjusting the aperture to compensate for whatever changes you make. Aperture also moves in full-stop and third-stop increments, and as you change shutter speed, the aperture either adjusts automatically, or needs to be adjusted, in order to keep the exposure balanced. 

This graphical user interface (GUI) from a Nikon camera shows a shutter speed of 1/100sec on the left-hand side. The exposure scale in the middle of the display has lines to show full-stop increments and dots in between these to show half-stop increments.  (Image credit: Digital Camera World)
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So, if you choose a very fast shutter speed, your aperture will need to be wider in order to let in the same amount of light as if you were using a slower shutter speed (assuming you have your ISO fixed to a certain one setting, rather than left to auto). 

If you want to know more about what kinds of shutter speeds are appropriate for different kinds of images, check out this Cheat sheet to which shutter speed should you be using (opens in new tab)

• More photography cheat sheets (opens in new tab)

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Dictionary of photography terms (opens in new tab)

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Chris George has worked on Digital Camera World since its launch in 2017. He has been writing about photography, mobile phones, video making and technology for over 30 years – and has edited numerous magazines including PhotoPlus, N-Photo, Digital Camera, Video Camera, and Professional Photography. 


His first serious camera was the iconic Olympus OM10, with which he won the title of Young Photographer of the Year - long before the advent of autofocus and memory cards. Today he uses a Nikon D800, a Fujifilm X-T1, a Sony A7, and his iPhone 11 Pro.


He has written about technology for countless publications and websites including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Dorling Kindersley, What Cellphone, T3 and Techradar.