Quick Advice on Minimum Shutter Speeds for Sharp Images

Any serious photographer knows the feeling of looking closely at their pictures after a shoot only to realize their favorite image is blurry. Uggghhhh. Awful feeling. That feeling is much worse if it is your fault because you used a shutter speed that was too slow.

This blog will focus on choosing the right minimum shutter speed for sharp images. Having said that, you might want part or all of your image to be blurry. I love pictures that include both sharp and blurry components, such as the image below which combines a sharp landscape with blurred water. However, this blog focuses on minimum shutter speeds for sharp images.

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Fog Over Ponytail Falls : Prints Available

Fog creeps through the trees overlooking Ponytail Falls

There are four things that I can think of that go into choosing a shutter speed. There might be more, but it’s 5:45 am here and my mind isn’t quite functioning yet. I think I’ll say four for now and I can always go back and change it and you’ll never know the difference.

  • Whether elements in your image are moving and how fast they are moving.
  • How still the camera is. This translates into whether you are hand-holding the camera (and how stable you are holding it) or have the camera on a tripod.
  • The distance from the camera to the various components in the image. A person riding a bicycle left-to-right five feet in front of you will move across the frame much faster than if they were off in the distance.
  • The focal length of the lens. If you are holding the camera, longer lenses are generally heavier which is one factor. Additionally, if you are using a 200mm telephoto lens, you have a much narrower perspective than if you are shooting with a wide-angle lens. This narrower perspective means that the same subject moving around or across the frame will take up a greater proportion of the image and be more of a factor.
  • Whether you are using flash and whether flash is lighting all or part of the image.

Okay, so that’s five reasons. The white chocolate mocha must be working. Now, here are some shutter speed guidelines for different shooting situations. As a general rule, if shutter speed is an issue, I like to err on the side of shutter speeds that are too fast rather than too slow. The trade-off is a higher ISO or wider aperture, but I prefer this to risking it with shutter speed.

For stationary subjects, such as a landscape, I almost always select my aperture as the top priority and then use a tripod for the sharpest image. If it is windy out and there are moving trees or grass in the image which might become blurred, then I must decide on whether that is acceptable to me. If not, I can either adjust my aperture or ISO for a faster shutter speed OR take two images – including one with a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement – and then blend the images in Photoshop. For the image below, because I used a tripod, I used ISO 100 (for image quality), f/13 (for depth of field) which resulted in 1/25 as my shutter speed.

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Late evening light strikes a tree in the middle of a lavender field

For stationary subjects in cases where I am hand-holding the camera, I will generally use the “reciprocal rule” and then often increase shutter speed a bit. What does that mean? If I am shooting at 200mm, I would use a 1/200 shutter speed or faster (so, 1/250 at minimum) to avoid the effects of camera shake. However, if I am using a wide angle lens (say 14mm), I would still not shoot below 1/40. For slower shutter speeds, I will turn on image stabilization and, if possible, lean against something to increase my stability. I’ll hold my breath and fire off 3 rapid shots by holding down the shutter button (in continuous firing mode). Then, later I can choose the sharpest image.

For slower moving elements (such as a person walking), you have two things to keep in mind… first, camera shake and, second, the moving elements in the image. However, the moving elements will be more of a factor here unless you are taking a picture of a sloth. Generally, for slower moving objects, such as a person walking, I use at least 1/125 and prefer 1/250 at minimum.

For somewhat fast moving elements, such as a person running, I prefer 1/500 or faster. A little bit of blur looks good sometimes, but this blog is about creating sharp images.

For fast moving objects, such as a moving car or running water, I generally prefer about 1/800 or 1/1000. For very fast objects, such as a bird in flight, 1/2000 is often recommended as a minimum. For the image below, I used 1/1600 as my shutter speed. I then had to use a slightly higher ISO than I would otherwise have used.

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Caracaol (lynx) jumping to catch a piece of food

Now, if you are using flash, things get more complicated. I will only touch on the topic here. First, you will want to know your camera’s maximum sync speed and not exceed it. My camera (in theory) has a maximum sync speed of 1/250, although you really need to use 1/200 or slower. The “speed” (or duration) of the flash depends on the settings and the flash itself. However, the flash will be “faster” (a quicker burst of light) than your shutter speed. If your settings are such that the flash is providing the vast majority or all of the light in the image, then the duration of the flash is the key factor in freezing movement. However, it is very common for photographers to blend flash and natural light. In the picture below, the flash generally lit up the model while natural light lit the background. So, the duration of the flash was the key factor in freezing any movement of the model (so, not a real issue here) while the shutter speed was the factor for the background (and therefore I needed to pay attention to shutter speed to keep the background sharp… I used 1/160).

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Beautiful girl carrying a pot of water on a beach at sunrise

There is a lot more to say on the topic, but I better stop here. I hope these quick guidelines are helpful.

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