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Photography cheat sheet: What is shutter speed?

Future
(Image credit: Future)

Shutter speed is one of the three fundamental pillars of the exposure triangle, (the other two being Aperture and ISO). Shutter speed means exactly what you think it would – the speed that the shutter on your camera is open for.

Even if you're only a beginner in photography, you'll likely know that a fast shutter speed means a shorter exposure (and less light hitting the sensor) while a longer exposure means that the shutter is open for more time, which allows more light to hit the sensor. By changing your shutter speed, you can adapt your exposure for the light levels in your environment, but you can also make creative choices. 

The best professional cameras today are capable of capturing blisteringly fast shutter speeds, and these can be used freeze the motion of subjects such as vehicles, athletes and even wildlife. Conversely, many photographers enjoy using a very slow shutter long exposure to capture blurred motion in a scene – waves in a landscape, for example.

See also: What is exposure?

But how exactly does the shutter work and how do you know what is the best shutter speed to use – particularly when it comes to capturing fast-moving subjects?

Good question! Check out our cheat sheets below which explain how shutter speed works, and how you can change it to capture action!

Here's our cheat sheet, previously formatted for Digital Camera Magazine. Why not download the image and save it to your phone's camera roll? (Image credit: Future)
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When you fire the shutter on your camera, a number of things happen. Firstly, on a DSLR, the mirror that reflects the viewfinder onto the sensor has to move out of the way (of course this doesn't happen on mirrorless cameras). 

Next, the shutter curtains open and close in front of the sensor. The front curtain opens to begin the exposure, which ends as the rear curtain closes.

How to control your shutter speed

Future

(Image credit: Future)

The shutter speed you need to freeze a fast-moving subject

When you're working out which shutter speed to use, there's no one-size-fits-all answer unfortunately. If your aim with the image was to capture your subject pin-sharp, you'd need to consider the speed at which your subject is travelling at, plus its distance and the angle that you're shooting from. Check out the cheat sheet below.

Here's our cheat sheet, previously formatted for Digital Camera Magazine. Why not download the image and save it to your phone's camera roll?

Here's our cheat sheet, previously formatted for Digital Camera Magazine. Why not download the image and save it to your phone's camera roll? (Image credit: Future)

What has flash mode got to do with shutter speed?

Here's our cheat sheet, previously formatted for Digital Camera Magazine. Why not download the image and save it to your phone's camera roll?

Here's our cheat sheet, previously formatted for Digital Camera Magazine. Why not download the image and save it to your phone's camera roll? (Image credit: Future)

Read more:
Photography tips for beginners: 12 things to learn with your camera
(opens in new tab)Cheat sheet: How to understand ISO settings (opens in new tab)
Cheat sheet: How to understand f-stops (opens in new tab)
Cheat sheet: Shutter speed stops (opens in new tab)

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Lauren Scott
Managing Editor

Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 


An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)


In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.