Shutter Speed and Landscape Photography

January 18, 2024

What is the Shutter of "Shutter Speed"

I think the best way to start off this conversation of shutter speed is to actually see a shutter in action. So with that, let me introduce you to a 10 minute video of the Slow Mo Guys recording the inside of a camera as it takes an image. This is of course is a DSLR so you will see a little mirror pop up revealing the actual "shutter" of the phrase shutter speed. If you look close you will notice it kind of looks like the little slats of a window. After a second you will see these rise up, reveal the sensor and then close again. The time that the shutter is open and then close is what we refer to as shutter speed.

Shutter Speed and your Photography

Now generally speaking if you are on a tripod as I am, shutter speed is actually one of the least important things you think about when photographing most situations. Many subjects and many moments are often slow or moving at a pace where it doesn't matter what the shutter speed is. But since this is a bit of a talk about shutter speed lets dive into the topic.

Shutter Speed and How it Functions

When the shutter opens within your camera it exposes the sensor to the light of the world. For that moment, the camera records all information that is being brought into it. If the camera moves while this occurs you get blur because the camera is recording the movement. If there is no movement you record the static world around you. When the shutter closes the camera reads the information captured and records that to the SD card and you get an image.

Quick shutter speeds only record a short amount of time. If subjects are not moving fast enough to be be recorded over multiple pixels then they come out clean and sharp. If subjects are moving fast enough to be recorded across multiple different pixels then you get motion blur. For example, if you look at the bubbles below, they were moving during the exposure, thus they were recorded across multiple pixels and you get a blur of bubbles. The rock on the side didn't move so it is crisp and clear.

A small cascade in death hollow escalante utah. A deep canyon wall blocks views into the sky.

I certifiably love this canyon. I photographed this canyon while on a work trip looking for fish in these backwaters of the state. We found some if you want to know and lots of big ones, just not the ones you particularly care to catch. Sorry anglers. But photographically, this canyon is full of treats, wonders and calming conditions.

Now how to improve sharpness of moving subjects? Increase your shutter speed. If you want your bubbles to be perfectly sharp, you must increase the speed in which you are recording the information. The less time subjects have to move during your image taking, the clearer they will be.

This of course will require adjusting your ISO and your f-stop in order to get proper exposure.

Some Rules of Thumb

Waterfalls

If you want smooth waterfalls, photograph for at least 1/2 second in length. Anything after 15 seconds the waterfall looses all texture and can be too smooth depending on what you are trying to accomplish. If you want to freeze the waterfall, focus just on the waterfall, drop your f-stop and increase your iso and freeze the waterfall. Blend the waterfall back into the rest of the image that has lower ISO for best results.

Moving Flowers

Moving flowers are a pain in the butt. The best way to deal with moving flowers is to increase your shutter speed until they are frozen, then adjust your f-stop and your iso until you get the proper exposure. Adjusting your f-stop to between f8-f11 then cranking your iso should put you in a good ball park depending on the conditions.

Light Beams

Two seconds or so is pretty good for light beams in slot canyons. But this is one you have to play with as every slot canyon is different.

A crimson orange slot canyon with a light beam located in southern Utah


Moving Animals/Hand Holding

The general rule of thumb that sort of applies is take your focal length and make that your shutter speed. So if you are shooting at 200mm have a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second. With high megapixel cameras is should probably be about 1.5x your focal length to actually get a clear image but that is dependent on a few factors. If you do not have image stabilization then the higher the better for your shutter speed. If you have a tripod you might have better luck.

Beaches

Beaches are usually hard to photograph with longer exposure speeds due to how much reflected light is bouncing around. An ND filter can help. But once again, about .5 seconds should be good enough. If you want to freeze the waves, increase your shutter speed until waves are frozen then adjust your iso and f stop to get the right exposure.

Closing Thoughts

As mentioned for most of landscape photography, shutter speed is kind of an after thought. I don't worry about it unless an issue presents itself within my image that requires me to address it. I wouldn't worry too much about shutter speed for most of your photographic journey unless you are photographing water. At that point you need to think about it.

A panoramic image of Calf Creek Falls with a dollop of fall colors.
Tranquility Desert Falls

A panoramic image of Calf Creek Falls with a dollop of fall colors.