My mum never used to be particularly good at Latin – she has a degree in Maths and worked in IT and teaching for a long time. I can’t remember what she got in her O-level, but I don’t think it was great. While I was studying Latin and Ancient History from scratch at A-level, she was (re)learning it at the same time and helping me through it. Thanks to her I did very well, but after that I focused on other, crazier things. My mum, on the other hand, went on to do another degree, an MA, and now a PhD – all on classics-related subjects. She has a blog about the PhD.
The reason I’m mentioning all this is that my mum recently did a course with the open university in digital photography. I have no doubt that in a few years she’ll have surpassed me at photography too, but in the meantime I’m going to write these tutorials to help her get there. She’s going to help me a lot with knowing exactly what I need to cover, and we’re going to use some of her photos as examples (not necessarily always bad examples) of real practical things that most beginner photographers face. Rather than jumping straight into discussions of focal length, we’re going to start with how to take pictures that aren't blurry and go from there.
Shutter Speed: How to Take Non-Blurry Photos
Shutter speed is one of the three things known as the ‘exposure triangle’ (the others are aperture and ISO, which we will get to later). At their most basic, these three things affect how much light your camera captures. To take a good photograph, you want to let just the right amount of light into the camera. Too much light and the picture would be completely white, too little and it would be completely black. The shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter is open, letting the light in. It’s usually described in fractions of a second. When you see 1/60 on your camera, that means it’s 1/60th of a second. 1/60th is faster than 1/30th, which is faster than 1/15 and so on. Depending on the camera, it's possible that it will just show the bottom half of the fraction - so '60' for '1/60'.
Most cameras have a ‘shutter priority’ mode, which lets you just choose the shutter speed and let the camera do everything else for you. It’s called ‘Tv’ on Canon, Pentax and Leica (really silly, I know), and I think it’s just ‘S’ on Nikon and others (more sensible). Let’s use this for now so we can just worry about shutter speed before we look at the other two important bits. Take some pictures of a still subject – like a particularly inspiring table or door – choose something simple and keep it consistent. Try a few different shutter speeds in this mode; you’ll probably find that your photos start to look blurry if you make the shutter speed too slow – at 1/15 of a second you should definitely start to see some blur. If your camera has image stabilisation (lots of modern cameras have this) then you might be able to go to 1/30th or even 1/20th as long as what you’re taking pictures of doesn’t move.
This is all because it’s difficult to hold the camera perfectly still, even for a second. The slowest shutter speed you can use depends on you, and your camera, so it’s a great idea to do some tests with it yourself and work out how slow you can make the shutter speed before the images are too blurry. For example, I try to keep mine at at least 1/60. Here are some useful charts with examples of different shutter speeds:
Put the Camera Down
Now try putting your camera down on something flat – or if you have a tripod, use that. Now, see what happens if you make your shutter speed even slower. Say two or three seconds. At this point your camera will stop showing fractions, and start showing something like 1", 2" for one second and two seconds. Don't be alarmed. Providing the thing you’re photographing is inanimate or dead, you should get nice non-blurry images. Try taking a picture of a slow and sedentary, but still breathing person in the same way. You’ll find that however much they try to sit still, they still look a bit blurry. So while a slower shutter speed and a tripod is great for some things – like landscapes and still objects – it’s best to avoid it in most situations.
Shooting a Moving Target
This is where shutter speed gets really important. If you want to capture something that isn’t ‘posed,’ it will almost certainly mean shooting at a higher shutter speed. This is when you really can’t leave it up to your camera to decide everything for you. As a rule, let’s say that the faster something is moving, the higher shutter speed you should choose so you can get a sharp picture of it. There are a lot of exceptions, but it’s a good place to start. Let’s say you’re taking photos of people around a table – they’re moving and not posing for the camera and you want to take a natural-looking but sharp photo. Maybe you can get away with 1/80. What if they’re walking around? 1/125? Or running? Or throwing things in the air? Increase the shutter speed and check what you’re getting. In most cases, blurry-looking people and animals are caused by having your shutter speed set too slow.
Deliberate Motion Blur?
Once you get a feeling for the shutter speeds you need to use to freeze moving things, you can think about experimenting with getting some motion blur intentionally – but make sure you know how to freeze them first so you’re not doing it by accident! It can look great to have the shutter just fast enough to freeze someone’s face, but see a bit of blur from movement in the rest of their body. Check out the examples at the end.
One thing to watch out for is that as you zoom in more, your shutter speed will need to be faster. When you’re zoomed in really far, notice how difficult it is to hold the camera steady. That’s because a small movement of the camera makes a much bigger difference when you zoom in. Like holding a very long stick vs. a very short stick. Making a small movement with a big stick makes a big difference at the other end – much less with a short stick. Try this out with your camera – zoom in as far as it will go and see what happens at 1/30. Then at 1/60. Keep increasing the shutter speed until you can get a consistently sharp image. Again, this will be different for different cameras and different people, so find what works for you.
Click through the examples from my mum's photos below and read the descriptions at the bottom for a discussion of how the shutter speed affects the photo:
Next time we're going to look at the other things that affect exposure so we can move towards shooting in manual mode. All you need to know for now is that a faster shutter speed means less light coming into your camera, so the camera compensates for it in other ways. A slower shutter speed lets in more light. We'll see how this all fits together in getting a balanced exposure once we know what the other two things do.
Edit: see my mum's response with some photos