Choosing a shutter speed to freeze the subject

Choosing the right shutter speed takes practice to gain the experience. Here are some really rough guidelines that can help you get the shutter speed setting in the ball park to freeze motion for certain situations.

©Trevor Awalt_Shutter Speed Examples

The blue bar in the graphic above shows a range of shutter speeds from 1/4 of a second on the left through to 1/2000 of a second on the right. The 1/4 of a second represents a slow shutter speed and as we move to the right the shutter speeds get faster.

You may remember from our original discussion on how shutter speed affects exposure, as the shutter speed increases there is less light reaching the camera sensor which means, in automatic mode, the camera will adjust the aperture and/or the ISO to allow enough light as we use higher (faster) shutter speeds.

Choosing shutter speeds to freeze motion depends on the movement of the subject. If the subject is not moving we see from the above graphic that a setting of 1/50 would be adequate to photograph a subject who is standing or sitting still. When a boy is jogging with a kite, a setting of 1/400 may be adequate to freeze the motion to achieve a sharp image. As we continue to move up the scale, using faster settings, we see our subjects in faster moving situations and as a result require faster shutter speeds to to achieve a sharp image. At the faster end of the scale, at the 1/2000 setting, we would use that shutter speed setting to capture fast moving wildlife images such as birds in flight.

Sometimes we use a slow shutter speed on purpose to achieve a desired blur in an image, for example at 1/4 of a second it’s possible to show motion in water. In our next lesson we will discuss how to use slow shutter speeds to achieve desired image blur, which is the creative aspect behind the shutter speed setting.

What is “Camera Shake”

When you hand hold your camera and depending on the shutter speed setting, you can cause unwanted “image blur” just from hand and body movement resulting in a “soft image“.

Looking at the image of the girl on the left, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO 200, @ 200mm, notice the image is sharp, versus the image on the right which is what we refer to as a “soft” image. If you were to magnify the image on the right to a 1:1 magnification you would see the blurry edges around the girls eyes, nose, mouth, and hair. Click on the images to view a larger size.

Check out this YouTube resource to help with how to properly hand hold a DSLR or bridge camera. SLR Lounge – 6 Ways to Hold a Camera for Slow Shutter Speeds and Sharp Images (10 min. 58 sec.)

The general rule of thumb when hand holding your camera is to choose a shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length. For the above example image of the girl we used a shutter speed of 1/60 with a focal length of 200mm. Following the general rule the shutter speed should have been at a minimum of 1/200. By not using a fast enough shutter speed it resulted in a number of undesired soft images during the photo shoot. Lens image/optical stabilization or sometimes referred to as vibration reduction can help when using slower shutter speeds which will be discussed in a future article.

Choosing the shutter speed to minimize motion or freeze the subject will be covered in the next lesson.

What is “Focal Length” and it’s effect

In past lessons we mentioned “focal length” from a simplistic point of view as the amount of magnification that a lens optical system provides.

Digging a bit deeper, we learn that “Focal length” (FL) is measured in millimeters (mm) and represents the distance between the lens and the focal plane (the recording medium, in our case a digital sensor).

Focal Length

Consider two lenses; one is 24mm (shown on the left) and the other is 100mm (shown on the right). At a focal length of 24mm, considered a wide angle lens, has a wide field of view of 84.1° which has less magnification than the 100mm lens. At a focal length of 100mm, considered a medium telephoto lens, has a much more narrow field of view of 24.4° which has more magnification than the 24mm lens. A subject will appear closer using a 100mm lens verses using a 24mm lens, what we understand as more magnification.

With aperture we learned that “focal length” plays a role in “depth of field”. In the case of “shutter speed” the “focal length” plays a role with both image sharpness and image blur.

The image of the Kingfisher on the left, f/8, 1/800, ISO 400, @ 600mm, notice the body of the bird and tree limb are sharp, while the bird’s beak and portions of the it’s head are not sharp. This is due to the Kingfisher shaking it’s head while the 1/800 of a second shutter speed used to capture the image was too slow to freeze the action. The result is portions of the image, specifically the bird’s head and beak, are blurred. In this case, although somewhat unconventional, the blur in the image conveys more of a story as the blur is conveying motion to the viewer versus the typical static image of the Kingfisher on the right.

Looking closely notice the eye is still pretty sharp, this is due to the pivot point of the bird’s head where there is less motion at the pivot point, the center of the bird’s head, verses more motion at the end of the bird’s beak. This motion is also magnified by the 600mm long focal length used to capture the image.

Both Kingfisher images were taken using a tripod and gimbal head, therefore there was no image blur due to camera movement known as “camera shake” to be discussed in our next lesson.

How “shutter speed” plays it’s role in exposure

With a DSLR the “shutter” is a mechanical mechanism. In a compact, bridge or phone camera the shutter is non-mechanical and is achieved by using an electronic method of reading the pixels of the sensor in groups of lines over a period of time. To simplify our discussion we will think of the shutter as a mechanism.

The “shutter” can be imagined as a curtain in front of the camera sensor. This curtain opens for a specific period of time allowing the light to reach the sensor and then closes to block the light from the sensor. The “duration” of time the light is contacting the sensor is referred to as the “shutter speed” and is what contributes to the exposure.

Mechanical Shutter

In the diagram step 1 shows the shutter in it’s normal closed state. When we push the “shutter button” on our camera the shutter opens, as shown in step 2, by the 1st curtain moving to the top and allowing the light to reach the sensor. Once the duration of the shutter speed has been reached the shutter closes, as shown in step 3. Finally the shutter mechanism resets to the normal closed state by the 1st and 2nd curtain moving together back to the bottom as shown back at step 1.

To recap we have learned in previous lessons that “aperture” is a hole in the lens which allows an amount of constant light into the camera based on the size of the hole we set. The “shutter speed” controls the “duration” of time the light is allowed to reach the sensor. The combination of these two settings, aperture and shutter speed in addition to the amplification (iso) of the sensor  determines the “exposure“, or the brightness of our captured image.

To find out how to set the shutter speed on your camera, refer to a previous lesson How to set your Camera’s; Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.

Shutter Speed Typical Values

Shutter speed settings are in fractions of seconds to seconds in duration, which can be from 1/4000 (fast, less light), or 1/8000 on advanced cameras, of a second down to 30 (slow, more light) seconds in duration and depending on the mode you have selected you can control the this speed in full stops, typical values shown in bold, or 1/3 stop increments.

The shutter speed setting can affect sharpness and/or blur in your captured image, which we will discuss in our next lesson.

What is “hyperfocal” distance?

In our last lesson on depth of field we discussed that the aperture, focal length and the distance to the subject (focus point) determines how much of the image is within acceptable focus. With any given camera, aperture setting, and focal length there is an optimum point at which to focus that will maximize the amount of the image that will be within acceptable focus. This optimal focus point is referred to as the “hyperfocal distance“.

Last Signs of Snow_©Trevor Awalt_MG_0329-Edit_s

f/16, 2sec, ISO 100, @24mm

The stream image was shot with an aperture of f/16 at a focal length of 24mm, looking at the table, generated from DoFMaster Depth of Field Table calculator,  we can see that by focusing at 5 feet the whole image from about 2 feet 3 inches to infinity () will be within acceptable sharpness. This worked out well because the foreground rock was about 6 feet away. looking at the table again, you see I could have used f/11 at 1sec focused at 6 feet to achieve the same result. From the table, notice the difference at f/11 and 5 feet which does not achieve infinity and as a result would not have worked.

Hyperfocal Table_5D-24mm

Understand that “acceptably sharp” does not mean that your image will be tack sharp throughout the entire image using the hyperfocal distance technique. It has been suggested by experienced landscape photographers that focusing using 2x the hyperfocal distance will achieve a much improved sharpness to the entire image.

Take a look at the following YouTube video resources on focusing techniques, pay close attention to how each one of these landscape photographers decide on their focus point as it’s important to understand what condition or assumption they are making in any specific case.
Nigel Danson, Mastering Focus, YouTube video (18 min 5 sec)
Thomas Heaton, Where did I focus, YouTube video (17 min 40 sec)
Dave Morrow, My sharp focus camera technique, YouTube video (27 min 5 sec)

Now that we have reviewed the main aspects of aperture, in the next blog post we will move on to our next important camera setting the shutter speed.

A closer look at “Depth of Field”

In a previous post about aperture we learned about depth of field being the creative aspect of the aperture setting. We learned with a smaller aperture, small hole (less light), there is more depth of field than with a larger aperture, large hole (more light).


From the diagram above, we see there is more to consider, not only with the aperture setting but also the focal length, and distance to subject to determine the depth of field around the subject but also how much of the background is in or out of focus based on the distance to background from the point of focus.

Northern Gannet Feather_©Trevor Awalt_IMG_0688

f/8, 1/2000, ISO 640, @400mm

In the Northern Gannet image the subject was about 100ft away with a blue cloudy sky in the background. With an aperture of f/8 and a focal length of 400mm you can see the Gannet head at the bottom is out of focus and the blue cloudy sky in the background also considerably out of focus.

Using a calculator, we find that with a distance to subject of 100ft, the front focus distance is at approximately 95ft 8in and the back focus distance point would be at about 104ft 9in. We can conclude that with a long focal length and a smaller aperture of f/8 the area of acceptable focus is only about 9 feet, which is fairly shallow.

Statue_©Trevor Awalt_IMG_0334

f/11, 1/200, ISO 400, @24mm

The statue depicting one aspect of the life of a fisherman on the Gaspé Peninsula, QC, Canada, we see right away that the focal length is 24mm which is much wider than the focal length used for the image of the Northern Gannets. Notice also that we are using even a smaller aperture of f/11.

Using a calculator, we find out with the subject distance of 10 feet, the front focus distance is at about 3ft 7in with a back focus distance to infinity. This allows all of the image to be within acceptable focus, from 3ft 7in through to the clouds and the sky (infinity).

Notice that even though we are close to the subject, 10ft which is fairly close, we can still achieve a very large depth of field with a small aperture in combination with a shorter focal length (wide angle of view).

The most important thing to take away from this lesson, is that all three aspects; aperture, focal length, and distance to subject combined control the amount of depth of field. From the two examples above, the general rule of focusing 1/3 of the way into a scene to get everything in focus is not true for longer focal lengths and that there is a bit more science into understanding what will be or not be acceptably sharp in your image.

There is one more concept in picking the optimum point of focus that we need to understand called hyperfocal distance as it relates to landscape photography, which we will discuss in the next lesson.

How to set your Camera’s; Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

In the last lesson we talked about aperture and how it controls the amount of light entering the camera and the depth of field. However, we need to stop for a moment and first understand how to change the aperture setting on our camera.

Camera Settings Key

Key describing some of the symbols in the table below

Camera Settings Aperture Shutter Speed ISO

From the table above you see the buttons you would use to change the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings on three different cameras. The modes; manual (M), aperture priority (Av), shutter priority (Tv), and program (P) are the preferred camera modes to allow the user a better method of controlling the exposure. We will learn about these camera modes in a future lesson.

The cameras in the above table were chosen to show a variety from first a DLSR (T6i), then a bridge camera (SX30IS), and finally a compact camera (SX100IS). The intention is to continue to update this table with additional camera models, please leave a note below of the specific camera model you are using and hopefully I can add it to the table.

You can view/download the camera manuals seen in the above table from the following google drive camera manuals folder.

Creative control with aperture


f/4, 1/400, ISO 400, @100mm

In the last lesson we learned that “aperture” controls the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor, by changing the size of the hole in the lens.

As we change the size of the hole in the lens, not only does it change the amount of light but also has an effect on how much of the image is in focus, called “Depth of Field” (DoF).

We can see from the image of the girl on the left that while her face and body are in focus, the trees in the background are completely out of focus. This is the “creative” control that the “aperture” setting provides, which is the ability to control how much of the image is within acceptable focus. Looking at the ground behind the girl’s foot we see the point where the ground goes from being in focus to blurry and then increasingly blurry the further we look toward the trees in the background.


f/16, 1/8, ISO 100, @24mm

Looking at the lighthouse image on the left, we can see with an aperture setting of f/16, all of the image from the puddle reflection through to the lighthouse and then to the sky including the sun are all in focus. By setting our camera to a smaller aperture we can maximize the depth of field.

To summarize, “Depth of Field“, (DoF) is defined as the area of an image that is within acceptable sharpness, in front of and behind the focus point. The larger the aperture, for example f/4 (the image of the girl), the less DoF. Conversely the smaller the aperture, for example f/16 (the image of the lighthouse), the more DoF in an image.

In the next lesson we will learn how to change the aperture setting on your camera.

How “aperture” plays a role in exposure

In my last post I talked about setting a foundation, by first learning about the important aspects of your camera’s controls; aperture, shutter speed, and iso which are the settings that control exposure. “Exposure” is simply the brightness of the photo captured. However, we need to learn about these three controls individually before we can completely understand exposure.

Your camera records light. “Aperture” is simply the diameter of a “hole” in the camera’s lens, that you can control , which determines the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor (a component in the camera that records the image).

Aperture sizes 50mm

In the diagram above, notice that “Aperture” is shown in the form of “f/n” where “n” represents the aperture setting on your camera (example; 2.8, 4, 5.6 etc…). Also notice that the lower the aperture setting, the larger the hole. This is because “f/n” represents the inverse of the aperture setting. For example if we take 50/2.8 = 17.9 we see it is a larger number than 50/4 = 12.5.

The “Aperture” setting is referred to as an f-stop meaning full stop. The diagram above shows aperture settings in full stop values. Notice the size of the hole at f/4 is half the size, or half the amount of light, of the hole at f/2.8 and f/5.6 would be half the amount of light of the hole at f/4 reaching the camera sensor etc… Also consider that the amount of light at f/4 is double the amount of light at f/5.6, because the size of the hole at f/4 is double the size of the hole at f/5.6.

For the above discussion think of the amount of light let into the camera by the aperture setting is one of the controls that has an effect on the brightness of your photo.

In the next article we will uncover the creative control behind aperture.

What is “You Can Learn Photography” all about?

Introduction_2016-08-12_MG_8385I know there are many photography training web sites out there, but there are also many beginner to intermediate photographers who really just want to get to making better images right away.

By first learning the basics it establishes a solid foundation so you can move up to actually creating better images. The intention behind “You Can Learn Photography” is to help you by sharing what I wish I knew when I first started in Photography.

Some of us get into Photography because it’s a form of relaxation that gives us internal joy to help us recover from some life changing event or a hobby we turn to giving us some form of stress relief. Like getting close and intimate to this chipmunk, along the journey we realize what we have been missing as we discover things we had never really noticed before, as we become more appreciative of mother nature feeling excited about the new discoveries we experience each new day brings.

As we look at our pictures we realize that they do not show what we saw or felt and just hope as we take more and more pictures that magically they will eventually get better. Yes it does take practice but we soon discover we need to learn many things to get there. So we start seeking out information through searching online, watching YouTube, reading magazines, looking at our camera manual, and realize it’s overwhelming all the time asking ourselves why is it so hard to create good looking images.

It’s like learning anything, like how to play baseball, ride a bike, or drive a car we need to know some things that need to become second nature so we can actually get down to the business of not just taking pictures but creating images.

My formula for making a good image requires; a good Exposure, Creative technique, good Composition, interesting Subject(s), a decisive Moment, and Light.

To help you get there, I will take you on a journey starting with the camera settings to help you get to a good exposure, this is creating a solid foundation for your photography by knowing your camera. We will break down aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so that you can understand not only how to get a good exposure but also the creative aspects with the setting choices you make. This is like learning the rules of the road before you actually get to drive a car.

We will go on a journey together through many blog articles to come. I will help get you to a point where you are comfortable with your camera, camera settings, and compositional guidelines, to where you are not just taking pictures but making better images.

If you are new to the Blog please start with the “Articles” page which is basically a Table of Contents for the Blog Posts on learning photography.

Keep an eye out for the “Explore Life” Fall 2019 program for our next time frame to offer the Introduction to Digital Photography course.

If you are looking for detailed information on any of our course offerings please visit our courses page.