Composition: Shutter Speed

Shutter speed. The make it or break it in a lot of photography. Too slow and it could blur action, too fast and your subject may look unnatural.

Shutter speed is a measurement of time between the mirror flipping down, blacking out your viewfinder for a moment. It can range from hours (though not recommended as it can damage your sensor), to 1/8000 of a second on most high end point and shoots through dSLRs.

This paragraph will address primarily skateboarding photography. Looking at your subject, what are you trying to do? If you want to keep your guy and the whole image sharp, go with a faster shutter speed, 1/800 and above. If you want to show movement, try 1/250 and below, and pan with the action. Your guy will stay sharp, and the background will blur out, effectively separating him from a potentially distracting background. You can use a flash, on camera or off, to further this effect.

In landscape photography, most of your subjects will be still, besides the wind blowing your subject, and flowing water. If you are trying to keep a moving object sharp, just make sure your shutter speed is fast enough.

Water deserves its own paragraph. When I first started shooting photos, I went out after it had rained, and experimented with 1/8000 of a second. I shot the water coming out of the gutters on my house, and got a shot with a super sharp stream of water, separated into blobs. Had I used a slow speed of 1/50 and below, the water would have blurred nicely into a wispy continuous stream.


Shutter speed of 1/800 at least. Another factor of using shutter speed to freeze action is how much of the frame your moving subject takes up. Here it’s not super close, so I could get away with a slower shutter speed.


Here, I was using flashes to freeze the action. I’ll go into this on another post, but no panning was necessary to achieve this shot. The shutter speed was 1/200, but the flash duration was approximately 1/2000, from two Vivitars.


In this shot of Aramis getting a backside carve on the wave, I wanted the water spray tack sharp, so I used a shutter speed of 1/2000, maybe more.

Shooting at Potrero one day, this dude came hauling ass frontside through the air, and I had my Lumedyne out, so I decided to show how fucking fast he was going. Shutter speed of 1/100, I panned with him, the Lumedyne at 1/4000 and a Vivitar at 1/2000.


I actually was running next to Colin, and shot this. Little blurred, but I like it. Had my fill flash on camera to help light his face. Shutter speed was 1/200, Vivitar at 1/2000.


Aramis slashing frontside on the Wave at The Black Pearl Skatepark, I wanted all the spray sharp like in the above surf shot, so my shutter was set to 1/2500.


I took this right after the 2012 Pirates Week fireworks show. I was on the dock, and the water was choppy, so I thought it would be cool to show the chaotic flow of it. The exposure was a few seconds long.


It was late at night, and the stars were magnificent at this state park in Northern California. I didn’t want them sharp, which a shutter speed of 30 seconds (depending on focal length) would be good for, but I wanted them to trail, so I left the shutter open for a couple minutes. Trees stay sharp, stars trail nicely.

P.S. I realize this post was technical, but almost every camera you pick up can control shutter speed, or at least it shows you. On those frustrating automatic point and shoots, just put it on Sports. “Why is my action blurry??!”…”Just put it on Sports…”

The next post: Contrast and Tone…