Shutter Speed & Aperture


Well-Known Member
Mar 24, 2005
Waterford, ?ire
'06 BMW 320 M Sport
This is definitely one of those articles that you'll want to print and bring your camera outside to try out afterwards.

Understanding both shutter speed and aperture individually is easy enough but understanding how they affect each other is vital to finally getting to know your camera. If you can master this now, it will never be a problem again.

First, we start with shutter speed. Shutter speed refers to the amount of time your film or digital sensor is exposed to light. It can never really be too fast, as the faster the shutter speed the more you can stop motion, which is often critical for a sharp photograph. A lot of people blame a photograph for being out of focus when often enough it is in focus but the shutter speed was not fast enough to stop the movement, causing the image to blur.


The shutter speed here was fast enough to keep the guitar sharp, but slow enough to blur the guitarists hand. A more advanced technique was also used here called rear curtain flash, where a pop of flash was fired just before the shutter closed, to capture the hand stationery for a split second during its movement

Start high, work low.
A very fast shutter speed (1/1000th and up) will stop pretty much anything dead. This is fine for some forms of photography, i.e. music, street acts, portraits etc but for motorsport it does need to be avoided as it does give the impression that the car is stopped or parked up rather than moving very fast. However, shooting with a high shutter speed increases your chance of having a good sharp picture. It also increase the likelihood of safely capturing a dramatic event such as a crash or trip to the gravel. But shooting at this high a shutter speed reduces your creativity levels and presents the viewer with a very matter of fact image, rather than something that may make them go 'wow'


This image of Glen Maher was taken using too fast a shutter speed (1/1250th of a second) The car looks boring and motionless, look at the tire smoke, it should be soft and foggy, not hard and tufty.

You need to work it slower. You cant just drop to 1/60th of a second and expect instant results. You need to hone your technique and be a good judge of situation and light to determine your shutter speed. Using your cameras Tv Mode (Also 'S' on some cameras) this is called 'Shutter Priority', You determine the shutter speed and the camera will automatically adjust all other settings to give a correct exposure. This is something you can only get good at with time and practice. As a general rule of thumb, you can only handhold a camera at 1/60th of a second to photograph a stationary object to achieve a sharp image. Below this shutter speed you may need to use a tripod or to rest the camera on something to keep it steady. If the object is moving, the chances of the image being blurred become very high, regardless of how steady the camera is. Ever seen a photograph of a city with no cars and just trails of light ? This is an extreme case of a very slow shutter speed, of possibly a full second or more.


This is an example of a slow but well chosen shutter speed. The back wheels are spinning, the smoke and water spray appear as a fog as opposed to individual drops of water and the car itself is pin sharp from front to back. Getting the shutter speed just right like this takes time, knowing your light and most importantly practicing beforehand.

Aperture is how much light is exposed onto the film or digital sensor. Unlike shutter speed, there is a side effect to Aperture settings, known as depth of field. Depth of Field refers to the distance within a photograph from where the image goes from blur to sharp to blur again. A very narrow depth of field uses a wide aperture, measured in F numbers. An example of a narrow depth of field would be f2.8. F2.8 allows the most amount of light through the lens. People often refer to this as a 'wide aperture' or if it is the lenses smallest f number, it is refered to as 'wide open'


This diagram from Wikipedia shows the differing sizes and an approximate corresponding f number


An example of a small f number, small depth of field and wide aperture. You can see along the barrier where the image becomes sharp, then loses focus again.

Wide apertures, which need fast shutter speeds, are great for shooting portraits of people as it gives you a high shutter speed and it should blur any distracting backgrounds. You need to be careful though, as shooting 'wide open' can give such a narrow depth of field that you may have the tip of a nose pin sharp, but the eyes and rest of face could be out of focus !

Narrow apertures, which require the slowest shutter speeds, are ideal for photographing a large enviroment, where you want to have as much of the photograph in focus as possible. A large depth of field, requires a narrow aperture and big f number i.e. f/22



Notice in the first shot how clear the image is from foreground to background. In the second shot notice how the water is ghosted, this was because of slow shutter speed that was obtained by using a big f number, big depth of field and a small aperture.​

Now, lets see if you can imagine in your minds eye now, how aperture and shutter speed work together. A photograph needs X amount of light to burn an image onto film or a digital sensor. X is variable depending on the amount of natural light available. Too much light and you get white, blown out image. Too little, you get a black, dark image.

If you set the camera to a wide aperture, it is leaving in a massive amount of light that will burn the film / sensor VERY quickly, so to compensate it only needs to leave in the light for an absolute minimal amount of time, resulting in a fast shutter speed. Do you remember what the effects of a fast shutter speed are ? Do you remember what the effects of a wide aperture is ?

If you set the camera to a narrow aperture, it is leaving in a tiny amount of light that will take longer to burn the film / sensor. To ensure that the image is exposed correctly, it will need a longer shutter speed to allow the light time to burn the image onto the film / sensor. Do you remember what the effects of a slow shutter speed are ? Do you remember what the effects of a narrow aperture is ?

I hope this is of some help, please don't be afraid to ask anything for clarity or any 'What if' situations. Now, get out their and shoot !
How about ISO speeds? I know higher ISO speeds require less exposure time but have higher levels of grain/noise, correct? How would one go about choosing the right ISO film or setting? I usually leave my camera on Auto ISO, but would like your advise on this matter. BTW, great tutorial.
Great tutorial. Shutter speed was something I'm familiar with but aperture always seem to not get completely in my head. Thx!
Although I was about to figure out the meanings of aperture and shutter speed before the tutorial I hope that many more are up to come because they're described in a very understandable way. I especially like that you've got a pool of example photos to choose from with which the reader can easily visualise what he just read and re-check if he understood everything correctly.

Well done!

(Let's see, I might collect those tutorials and print them as the finalgear book of photography or something similar! :D )
Great job on the tutorial!!!! granted I didn't really gain much knowledge from it but for newbies, it's perfect! I like how you used examples too... great choice of colors from the different examples as well.

thumbs way up for this!

Next we need a tutorial on composition and "photographer's eye"
Awesome job man, you just made my job of explaining aperture and shutter speed relation to my novice "pupils" so much easier. Thanks!
sorry i didnt get the aperture and f numbers thing :p

please clarify:

LARGE f number = low depth of field = narrow aperture?

SMALL f number = high depth of field = wide aperture?

and what is the lens being wide open?

sorry, i just bought a new Canon 400d with a 17-85 EF-S IS USM 1:4-5.6

can u explain to me what that 1:4-5.6 means? what is it being wide open or narrow?

thanks a lot and sorry to be a bother. new to this but would LOVE to learn :p
sorry i didnt get the aperture and f numbers thing :p

please clarify:

LARGE f number = low depth of field = narrow aperture?

SMALL f number = high depth of field = wide aperture?

You got DOF wrong. DOF simply means how big is the area that is in focus. And f-numbers are ratios of focal distance and an aperture.
So small f-number = big aperture = small DOF.

It's always a tradeoff, big aperture opening is good because more light gets through, so you want as small f-number as possible. But if your scene is deep, not everything will be in focus. On other hand if it's not deep, it will create a nice background blur like Cosworth demonstrated.

But smaller f-number is generally better :)

I try not to use word "wide" here, not to confuse it with the lens "zoom" level, which ranges from wide to tele.

and what is the lens being wide open?

That's about aperture. Wide open = biggest aperture opening (big hole in the lense) = small f-number.

sorry, i just bought a new Canon 400d with a 17-85 EF-S IS USM 1:4-5.6

can u explain to me what that 1:4-5.6 means? what is it being wide open or narrow?

This is a zoom lense with 17mm focal distance in wide-end and 85mm in tele-end. 1:4-5.6 is another way of writing f/4 - f/5.6 basically, and that shows what is the smallest f-number (=biggest aperture opening) you can achieve in both focal-distance ends. So for 17mm it's f/4 or higer, and for 85mm it's f/5.6 or higer.

Hope I didn't confuse you even more...
Thankyou for the excellent tutorial. I just got a digital SLR today and the last time I used an SLR it was film and in high school so my camera theory is fuzzy at best, but this was a great refresher.
You might want to add that the minimum shutter speed also depends on the focal length. If you make a very wide shot at 18mm or less, you can get away with a slow shutter speed (up to 1/25s for my experience) and still get a sharp image. If you zoom in heavily to let's say 200mm, small camera movements will result in much more shake at your object, so you need to shorten the shutter speed severely to get a sharp image, maybe to even more than 1/60s.
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Regarding shutter speed and focal lenghts, to get rid of camera shake, it is often used as a rule of thumb to have the shutter speed set to 1/focal lenght.

Which means, if you have a 50mm lens, you can get away with 1/50th shutter to get shaky free images and if you shoot at 200mm, use minimum of 1/200 shutter. If i remember correctly this was however meant for 35mm cameras (full frame) so for crop cameras, you might want to set it higher, like 1/250 for 200mm because of the multiplier (1.5 for Nikon and 1.6 or 1.3 for Canon).

This is however irrelevent when you have a lens with vibration reduction as it allows for much slower speeds without getting shake.