A dirt-bike speeds through a puddle, creating a spray of water.

SHUTTER SPEED

How to master shutter speed

Changing your camera's shutter speed is one way to adjust the overall exposure of an image. But it also has creative uses, allowing you to control the amount of blur (or lack of it) in your images.

Here are five tips to help you get to grips with shutter speed and take more control over your action photography, whether you're shooting a school sports day with an EOS M mirrorless camera or motorsports with an EOS DSLR.

1. Control the shutter speed

The screen of the Canon EOS 90D showing the Tv (Time Value) settings.
To take direct control of the shutter speed, set your camera to Shutter Priority (or Tv, which stands for Time Value).

The majority of EOS cameras have a 'Sports' Special Scene Mode that will automatically set up the camera's exposure and focusing settings for shooting moving subjects. This will give you great results, but you can take more control when you want to get creative, produce a particular effect or adjust for the specific circumstances, such as when you're shooting a fast-moving subject handheld from a distance.

To take direct control of the shutter speed, set your camera to Shutter Priority (or Tv, which stands for Time Value). You can then set the shutter speed by rotating the camera's main dial, or by using the touchscreen that's available on many EOS cameras, including the Canon EOS M6 Mark II and Canon EOS 90D. Your camera will automatically adjust the aperture to produce a standard exposure. The top shutter speed on an EOS camera is either 1/4000 sec or 1/8000 sec, and the longest automatically-set shutter speed is 30 seconds.

2. Avoid camera shake

A zoomed-in shot of a surfer blurred by camera shake
Taken with
  • f/20
  • 1/50
  • 100
The more you zoom in on a subject, the more noticeable any camera shake becomes, so you'll need a faster shutter speed to minimise it. The image above, taken at 1/50 sec, shows clear camera shake. The one below shows frozen action and was taken at 1/640 sec.
A sharp shot of a surfer in action.
Taken with
  • f/5.6
  • 1/640
  • 100

There are two things to think about when you're choosing the shutter speed: whether it is fast enough to avoid blur due to camera movement when you're shooting handheld – also known as 'camera shake' – and how quickly the subject is moving.

The shutter speed you need to avoid camera shake depends on a number of things, including whether you are using a lens with a built-in IS (Image Stabilizer) and how windy it is. But the focal length of the lens is the most important factor. The more you zoom in, the more noticeable any shake becomes.

A general rule to eliminate this problem is to try to use a shutter speed that's equivalent to the effective focal length or faster. So with a 50mm lens setting, use 1/50 sec or faster, and with a 200mm lens use 1/200 sec or faster. Then you need to factor in the speed of the subject – read on!

3. Capture action with fast shutter speeds

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While a shutter speed of 1/250 sec will freeze a slow-moving subject, such as a person walking, you'll need faster shutter speeds to get a sharp shot of a person running.

The shutter speed required to freeze a moving subject depends on the distance it is from the camera, the direction it's moving and its speed, but you'll probably need a shutter speed faster than you might think. A shutter speed of 1/250 sec will freeze a slow-moving subject, such as a person walking, while shutter speeds in the region of 1/500 to 1/1000 sec may be needed to freeze a person running. You'll have to go as high as 1/1000 or even 1/4000 sec for sharp shots of faster subjects such as flying birds and speeding cars.

Compare these shots of a moving motorbike. You can see that the bike and rider are blurred at a shutter speed of 1/200 sec, giving a great general impression of motion but not capturing detail, while all the details are sharp and the action is frozen at 1/1000 sec.

A blurred shot of a rider on a dirt-bike, the background in focus.
Taken with
  • f/14.0
  • 1/200
  • 1250
At a shutter speed you'd think is pretty fast, 1/200 sec (above), this shot creates a great impression of the moving subject speeding past without capturing the detail of the bike or rider. At 1/1000 sec (below), this shot freezes the action.
A sharp shot of a rider on a dirt-bike in motion, the background and rider in focus.
Taken with
  • f/5.6
  • 1/1000
  • 1250

Be prepared to increase the ISO setting so that you can use faster shutter speeds, especially when you're photographing sports and wildlife.

4. Get creative with panning

The downside of freezing the action can be that it doesn't look like action any more. Pictures of moving subjects often look more dynamic if the subject is sharp but the background is blurred. To achieve this effect, make sure the shutter speed is slow enough to give you some blur, then move the camera with the subject, at the same speed as it's moving. This is called panning.

A sharp rider on a dirt-bike, with foreground branches and background scenery both blurred.
Taken with
  • f/8
  • 1/100
  • 1600
Panning your camera to follow moving subjects produces a blurred background, making the action look more dynamic.

The shutter speed you need to use will depend on how fast the subject is moving and how much blur you want. To improve your chances of getting the subject sharp, set the AF mode to AI Servo or Servo, as this will allow the camera to constantly adjust to keep the moving subject in focus. A lens with a built-in optical Image Stabilizer will compensate for any vertical 'shake' as you pan the camera horizontally and vice versa. If your lens has an IS mode switch, set this to position 2 for panning shots – in this setting, it will stabilise vertical motion but allow blur caused by horizontal motion.

5. Use slow shutter speeds to blur motion

A man stands on rocks by the coast, with the moving waves blurred and softened by a long exposure.
With the camera on a tripod to keep it still, using a long exposure (slow shutter speed) means anything in motion – such as the waves – will be blurred.

You can use a relatively long exposure – longer than a second, say – to intentionally blur a picture. To prevent this overexposing the shot, though, you’ll need to use a narrower aperture setting (higher f-number, such as f/16 or f/22), a lower ISO setting, or an ND filter to limit the amount of light entering the camera. Now you can either move the camera during the exposure (which will blur the whole photo) or use a tripod to keep the camera stationary so that only the moving parts of a scene are blurred. Try the latter technique to soften waves and flowing water in a landscape, or to blur moving vehicles and crowds of people in a city scene.

For exposures longer than 30 seconds, use Bulb mode. Some Canon cameras have a 'B' setting on their mode dial, while others need to be set to 'M' (Manual) before you can scroll through the shutter speeds until 'BULB' is displayed. A remote timer or wired remote can be useful, to eliminate the risk of jarring caused by pressing the shutter button. You could also consider using the Canon Camera Connect App to control your camera remotely from your smartphone.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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