Building Blocks of Photography – Making Shutter Speed your Friend

Cameras are tricky beasts – you can happily snap away 50 photos of Christmas morning and then take a look at them and see that only 2 or 3 are decent enough to share with family and friends. There are a few different things that you can do to make your photos better, from the technical end of things. First off, you’ll need to find out what your camera can actually do outside of automatic mode. Some cameras can change shutter speed, some can change aperture, some can change ISO, and some can change all three. Use the information below to change what you can, and you should notice a change in the quality of your photos, optimally for the better, of course.

“Shutter speed” means how fast or slow the photo is being taken, and can range, depending on your camera, from 30 seconds (suuuper slow) to 1/4000 of a second (suuuuper fast). Shutter speed works with your “aperture” (also known as f-stop), in tandem to create the perfect lighting for your picture. “Aperture” is how much light is let into your lens, which ranges from f1.2 (verrrry wide, lets in a lot of light) to f32 (verrry narrow, lets in the least amount of light), again depending on your camera. Confused? Here are some examples:

If you’re shooting outside on a sunny day, you’ll have a lot of light coming into your camera. In order to not make everyone and everything look as white as ghosts, you’ll need to speed up your shutter speed (1/125 or higher) and “close down” your aperture, typically to f8, f11 or higher.

See the difference between the top photo and bottom? I adjusted the shutter speed in the lower photo to compensate for the light, so that you can see the detail in the rusted bench sitting in the sunshine. 

If you’re shooting inside, you’ll have significantly less light coming into your camera. You need to compensate by “opening up” the aperture, and by slowing down your shutter speed. Remember that slowing your shutter speed to anything less than 1/50 will likely require a tripod or a flash. Also, if you’re photographing children, you won’t get a clear shot if you shoot under 1/60 or so.

These two images were taken one right after the other; but in the right image you can actually see that there are strawberries in the champagne. The difference is all in the shutter speed, once again. 

One more wrinkle to throw into the mix is ISO – which is the “film speed” that you’re shooting. In the olden days, there was this stuff called “film” that photographers used to record their images. Film came rated with an ISO – 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200. The lower the ISO, the finer the grain of your photo, but the more light you needed to shoot with. The higher the ISO, the less light you needed to shoot in low-light areas without flash, but the grainier the photo would be. Nowadays we still have ISO, but it is now a setting on your camera instead of the film you’re using. You can use ISO to help you when you’re in low light situations, when you have your aperture set to the lowest it will go, and the shutter speed is the lowest it can go without making the photo worthless – choose a higher ISO to help boost the amount of light coming in. Go slowly from 100 to 200 to 400, etc, checking in between each change. Your goal should be to use the lowest ISO as possible for the amount of light you need. If you can do ISO 400 instead of 800, you should; your photo grain will be better, which means your photos will be sharper by default.

These three things are the basic building blocks of photography, and can help you create better photos without the use of a flash. Next time, we’ll talk about composition and framing. Remember, practice is the key to anything you want to be good at, so keep shooting, and experimenting. Take note of all of your settings while you shoot, so that when you get a photo you really like, you can duplicate your results in those same settings.