Shutter Speed Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

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When you think of shutter speed, you should think of two things.

One, it's one of the primary elements of exposure, and two, it controls the appearance of motion in your photos.

When you shoot in full auto mode, your camera decides what the shutter speed is. And though that's convenient, it doesn't really help you expand your skills as a photographer, at least not after a while.

In the pursuit of learning a little bit more about your camera, let's go over a few shutter speed situations, the mistakes that are commonly made, and what you can do to fix them.

Freezing Movement

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Sometimes you have a fast-moving subject that you'll want to freeze in time.

Perhaps it's your kid running on the soccer field. Maybe it's a bird flying around at a local nature preserve.

Whatever the case, there are two problems that commonly arise in this situation:

  • Images look too static - that is, the subject looks "stuck" like in the image above. There's no excitement in the shot.
  • Images are blurry - that is, the subject is either moving too fast for the shutter speed you've selected or the subject is simply out of focus.

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In the case of static images, you can try to change the perspective from which you shoot to get a more dynamic shot. A better option is to pan with the moving subject.

Essentially, panning means that as the subject moves across your field of view, you track the subject with your camera. The result - if done right - looks like the image above, in which the subject is more or less sharp and the background is gorgeously blurred.

The reason why panning is a great solution to the problem of a static image is that you can freeze the movement of your subject but in a far more dynamic way. Learn how to perfect the panning technique in the video below from Mark Wallace and Adorama TV:

If you find that your action shots are blurry, get them in focus by checking to see if your active autofocus point is still on the subject. If not, use your camera's menu system to select a more appropriate AF point.

If the autofocus is spot on and you still get blurry images, the culprit is more than likely a shutter speed that's too slow for the motion you wish to freeze. In that case, it's a simple matter of selecting a faster shutter speed.

Sample Shutter Speeds to Freeze Motion

Though every situation is different, there are a few suggestions to make for common movement situations. Use these settings as a starting point and do some trial and error from there:

  • A bird in flight: 1/1000-1/2000 seconds
  • Fast-moving vehicles: 1/2000 seconds
  • Animals running: 1/1000 seconds
  • People running: 1/500 seconds
  • Fast-moving water: 1/250 seconds

Quick Tip: Instead of taking as many photos as possible for an extended period of time, focus on taking shorter bursts of photos, especially when there is a lot of action. Not only will this help you zero in on the most active moments, but it also gives your camera the time it needs to write the files to the memory card without starting to lag.

Blurring Movement with Panning

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When trying to blur the movement of a subject, the problems that arise are on opposite sides of the spectrum.

On the one hand, everything in the shot might be blurred, giving the photo the appearance that there's simply too much movement, like in the image above.

On the other hand, there might not be enough movement in the shot - a similar situation to the "static" looking images discussed in the previous section.

In the case of a shot that's too blurry, try using a faster shutter speed and panning with the subject. Just don't use too fast of a shutter speed otherwise you'll end up with the opposite problem and a subject that looks static.

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In the case of a static subject, you need to dial in a slower shutter speed.

Of course, this is all easier said than done...

It's simple enough to say to speed up the shutter if the subject is too blurry and slow the shutter down if the subject is too static.

But in practice, the real difficulty is making those adjustments quickly such that you can resume trying to blur the movement of your subject.

Shooting in shutter priority mode will help you in this endeavor, as it allows you to make changes to the shutter speed and the camera makes corresponding changes to the aperture to keep the image well-exposed. If you're not familiar with shutter priority mode, check out this comprehensive guide.

Sample Shutter Speeds to Blur Motion

To get blurred motion, use the panning technique discussed earlier with the following shutter speeds:

  • Birds in flight: 1/250 seconds
  • Fast-moving animals: 1/125 seconds
  • Cars passing by: 1/125 seconds
  • Bicyclists, animals, or runners: 1/30 seconds

Using Creative Blur

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Creative blur is a great way to add additional interest to scenes in which there is a lot of movement.

An ideal example is a landscape such as a beach where there is a lot of movement in the water that can be slowed down to create the smooth water effects seen in the image above.

The issue, though, is that when you slow the shutter down, you're allowing the camera's sensor to be exposed to light for a longer period of time. This makes overexposure more likely.

When overexposure occurs, you need to make adjustments to aperture or ISO to bring the level of exposure down.

For example, if you're shooting a waterfall in manual mode at 1/8 seconds with an aperture of f/11 and an ISO of 200 and the image is too bright, you can change the aperture to f/16 or f/22, or reduce the ISO to 100 or 50, or a combination thereof.

When you make adjustments, check your camera's histogram to look for clipped highlights, making additional adjustments to your settings to bring those highlights down. If you aren't sure how to read your camera's histogram, check the video below by Professional Photography Tips:

Of course, a simpler solution is to shoot in shutter priority mode, dial in 1/8 seconds shutter speed, and let the camera determine the appropriate aperture. But as we'll discuss in a moment, relying on your camera to get a good exposure isn't always possible.

Sample Shutter Speeds for Creative Blur

  • Fast-moving water: 1/8 seconds
  • Slow-moving water: 1/30 seconds

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Blurring water is all about picking a starting shutter speed, taking a sample image, and adjusting the shutter speed to get the desired effect. Naturally, if the water isn't blurred enough, slow down the shutter. If the water is too blurry, speed up the shutter.

Quick Tip: Typically, shooting with a slow shutter during the daytime will necessitate the use of a neutral density filter. These filters block out light, allowing you to use a slow enough shutter speed to blur movement but without the worry of an overexposed image. This is important because in some cases, even with a minimal ISO and aperture opening, the image will still be overexposed. A neutral density filter helps you get around that issue.

With that, you have a quick guide for overcoming some common mistakes with shutter speed. Now all that's left is to take your newfound knowledge, head out, and practice!

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