What you need to know about shutter speed in photography

Last week I spoke of openness, depth of field and how to use them to your advantage. Today, it’s the cousin of aperture: shutter speed.

Like aperture, shutter speed controls the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor. It determines how long the sensor is exposed to this light. If you think of the opening as a garden hose in which the amount of water flowing through it depends on the diameter of its opening, shutter speed is the amount of time the water is flowing. It can be as short as a jet or long enough to fill a pool.

For most photos, it is usually measured in fractions of a second, such as 1/60th of a second, 1/1000th, etc. Occasionally, longer exposures, such as for night shots, shutter speeds of up to whole seconds or even minutes are used.

The dreaded “camera shake” results in buried images due to an unstable camera. This is the result of using too slow a shutter speed while holding the camera in your hand.

Runners compete in the girls' 1,600 meters at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Track and Field Final on May 24, 2013, at Elk Grove High School.  A fast shutter speed freezes all the movements of the runners.

One way to solve the problem is to use a tripod. Another way is to use a faster shutter speed. The rule of thumb is to use a speed close to the focal length of your lens.

For example, if you are shooting with a 60mm lens, you should shoot with a 1/60th second shutter to keep the camera still. However, telephoto lenses tend to magnify shake, so if you’re shooting with a 500mm telephoto lens, you should use 1/500th or faster to avoid shaky images. The longer your lens, the faster the shutter you will need.

If you want to freeze the motion of a moving subject, as many sports photographers do, you need to use a fast shutter speed. Typically, to stop something that is moving fast, like an athlete, a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second or faster is needed. It all depends on how fast they move. Shooting a Major League Soccer player will require a faster shutter than your child playing recreational league soccer.

A few notes on motion: First, the appearance of motion will change with distance from the camera. Think of a cyclist riding a few feet away from you, then imagine a jet plane flying 30,000 feet in the sky. The bike will appear to be traveling faster than the plane through the air, but the opposite is true.

Escalon's Blake McGourty (7M) holds off Colten Jones in the heat of the SW Non-Wing class during California Speedweek races July 9, 2015, at the Delta Speedway at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds in Stockton.  A slow shutter speed combined with a panning technique blurs foreground and background motion, but leaves cars looking sharp.

Second, it takes a faster shutter speed to stop motion of something moving perpendicularly, or from one side of the frame to the other, than to stop motion if the subject is moving closer or further from the frame. ‘camera.

Knowing when to use a fast or slow shutter speed is an essential photography skill. It all depends on how you want to convey movement in your images. If you want to freeze a fast moving subject, a fast shutter speed is required. If you want to show more movement, you can use a slower shutter speed, but be aware that you may sacrifice some sharpness in your photos. That might not necessarily be a bad thing. To show slow shutter motion without making it too off-putting, also include something sharp in the photo, such as a still background, which helps give the motion visual context.

(04/30/08) Tracy High Bulldogs' Brett Maddox throws a pitch against the Lodi High Flames during a varsity baseball game at Tracy High.  A slow shutter speed combined with a panning technique blurs the background as well as the extremities of the launcher but leaves his face in focus.  CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD

Another slow shutter technique is panning. This is when you use a slow shutter speed and then “pan” or move the camera and lens around with a moving subject. Suppose you photograph an athlete running in front of you. Panning with them as they pass by will blur the background due to camera movement. Depending on how slow or fast your shutter speed is, the runner’s arms and/or legs may be blurred as they move in different directions than how you’re panning. The runner’s head and torso should be mostly in focus, but everything else should have motion blur. It’s an advanced technique that takes a lot of practice, but when done right, it can give the shot a sense of frenetic energy and movement.

Learning about shutter speeds will also give you knowledge about motion and movement and allow you to convey it in your images.

Record photographer Clifford Oto has photographed Stockton and San Joaquin County for over 37 years. He can be reached at coto@recordnet.com or on Instagram @Recordnet. Follow his blog at recordnet.com/otoblog. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at https://www.recordnet.com/subscribenow.

Stewart C. Hartline