Principles of Photography- Shutter Speed (Controlling Motion)

digital photography with water

In our Principles of Photography Workshop Series we try our best to share what we were able to teach ourselves about photography, in simple, easy-to-understand concepts. These are just some basics to help you get started, there is much more information to learn beyond these basics. But by understanding the most basic principles of photography then building upon them through practice, practice and more practice, you can capture the type of images that you want.

Note: Teaching and understanding photography can be often be complicated and confusing. Of course, there are many ways to explain these concepts & there is no “right” way to teach this. So if  you think you can explain it better, then obviously you don’t need our help. 🙂  Now, everyone grab your camera and let’s start figuring this stuff out together! And have fun!

Our last discussion was about Exposure and reading about exposure first will be really helpful in understanding this whole series!

As mentioned in the previous post, Exposure is about about the total amount of light entering your camera that is used to create the photo.

Shutter Speed is one of the components of Exposure. Exposure= Shutter Speed + Aperture + ISO

digital photography shutter speed

What is the Shutter in your camera?

  • When you take a picture and you hear that “click”, that is the sound of your shutter opening and closing. Imagine the concept like shutters on your window. You open and close the shutters to control the amount of light entering your room. Same idea goes for the camera.

What is Shutter Speed?

  • Shutter speed is  about TIME, the amount of time it takes for light to enter your camera, how long it takes to let light through the camera.

How is Shutter Speed measured?

  • Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions of a second, which will look like these examples:
    • 1/80 – means one eightieth of a second. Most cameras will just show  the number “80”
    • 1/100 – means one one-hundredth of a second. Most cameras will just show the number “100”
    • 1/400- means one four-hundredth of a second. Most cameras will just show the number “400”
    • 1″ – means one full second.  Most cameras will show ” 1″ “
    • Shutter speed can have bigger and smaller numbers, but you got the point, right?
    • Because your camera is usually only showing the bottom part of the fraction, the BIGGER the number, the FASTER the shutter speed, the LESS light enters your camera. This means that your exposure is SHORTER, the image will be DARKER. Imagine this: the faster the shutter opens and closes, then obviously, less light comes through. If you stand in front of your window and open/close the window shutters fast, you have less light entering the room.
    • Fast = less light = big number.
    • The  SMALLER the number, THE SLOWER THE SHUTTER SPEED, the MORE light enters your camera. This means that your exposure is LONGER, the image will be BRIGHTER. Imagine this: the slower the shutter opens and closes, then obviously, the more light comes through. So, if you stand in front of your window and open/close the window shutters slowly, you have more light entering the room.
    • Slow = more light = small number.

How to control Shutter Speed?

Just like controlling the amount of light into your room by opening and closing the window shutters, you can control your shutter speed and how much light enters your camera. Essentially controlling your shutter speed is one part of controlling your total Exposure.

  • Most camera’s will have a “Shutter Priority” function on your camera. You can choose your shutter speed and make it fast or slow by turning the dial. Your camera will automatically adjust the rest of the exposure settings.
  • You can control it on “Manual”, but this will take more practice because you will have the manually control the rest of the exposure components (Aperture and ISO).

Why would I want to understand Shutter Speed? Isn’t it easier to just shoot on “auto” or “program” and let the camera do it all the thinking for me?

  • Certainly on most occasions, letting the camera do all the thinking for you will give you good results.
  • BUT, in order to take your photography to a higher level and more CREATIVE CONTROL, you must learn shutter speed.

OK, so what exactly does this Shutter Speed thing-y do? How will it give me more choices and creative control?

  • Shutter speed controls MOTION and MOVEMENT.
  • By controlling the amount of TIME the shutter is OPEN, you control the amount of TIME you capture the MOTION.
  • When you’re photographing anything that moves, from people to objects to food, there can be some cool stylistic results.

Examples of Shutter Speed controlling motion:

WATERFALL: Shutter Speed freezing water movement and pretty blurred water shots:

  • The fast shutter speed at 1/800 (bigger bottom number), freeze the water motions. But as you slow the shutter speed (decrease the bottom number) , you start to blur the motion of the water. Finally, the slowest shutter speed (at one full second) gives that magical, dreamy look, kinda like the shots you see in gorgeous nature photography
  • So, you selectively choose your style: freeze the motion of the water for a detailed, sharp shot. Or blurr the water, for a pretty shot.

freezing water photograph shutter speed

photograph of freezing waterfall


FREEWAY: Shutter speed freezing car lights and artistic night shots:

  • The faster shutter speed (1/13 seconds) freezes the motion of the cars and lights. Giving a look that you would normally see with the naked eye.
  • As you slow down the shutter speed (to full seconds), the motion of the car’s headlights start to blur and lengthen.
  • The slowest shutter speed at 10 full seconds gives full blur to the headlights, creating that long stream of lights on the freeway.

freeway shutter speed photogaraphy

SS side by side (3)


digital photography with water


This strawberry photograph was shot at 1/8 second, which is a slow shutter speed. We wanted the water to be blurred and soft looking when it splashed on the strawberries.

Camera Shake: Shooting on such a slow shutter speed required camera stability on a tripod to still keep the hand and strawberries in focus. As you photograph on slower shutter speeds, the camera will pick up on the most tiny of movements and cause the whole photograph to be blurry. The tripod kept the hand and fruit in focus and allowed only the motion of the water to blurr.


shutter speed

(above) Both of these wine photographs were shot at 1/800 second, which is a very fast shutter speed. We wanted to freeze the wine motion as it entered the bowl of the wine glass. You can see the stream of wine frozen in the right photograph.


There are Two Main Purposes of Controlling Shutter Speed

  • The primary reason – To Capture Motion. Either by freezing motion with a fast shutter speed (bigger number 600, 1000, etc.) or by allowing continued motion with a slow shutter speed (30, 10, 1″ etc.).
  • To adjust the Exposure when shooting in Manual.  A faster shutter speed (bigger number) will let in less light, the image will be darker.  A slower shutter speed (smaller number) and the image will be brighter.

Final Thoughts on Shutter Speed: In order to really start understanding, you have to practice.  Reading about it will only allow your brain to get so far.

  • Find the Shutter Priority Mode on your camera (some point & shoots may not have this option).
  • In Shutter Priority, you will be telling the camera what shutter speed you want to shoot at, and it will adjust the rest to get what it thinks is the correct exposure (usually this will at least get you close to a decent exposure.)
  • POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Reminder, beware, slower shutter speeds will also pick up small movements of the camera (the dreaded Camera Shake). The slower the shutter speed is, the more you have to focus on being steady.  Eventually it slows to the point where you’ll need a tri-pod or something to rest the camera on to get a clear picture.

Now go shoot something moving.  Water flowing. Kids running.  Dogs chasing butterflies.  Whatever.  Change the shutter speeds and see how it changes the image.

Whew!! Time for a drink, pass the bottle, please….


Photography Series: Understanding these concepts one step at a time will help you capture the images that you want.

1. Exposure

2. Shutter-Speed – “Controlling Motion”

3. Aperture – “Controlling Depth of Field”

4. ISO

5. White Balance – Up Next!

6. Flash Your Food Photography #1- Using Built-in Camera Flash for DSLR and Point & Shoot. Includes some tips to making your own accessories.

7. Flash Your Food Photography #2- Using Speedlight Flashes ON the camera

8. Flash Your Food Photography #3 – Using Speedlight Flashes  OFF the camera with remotes, sync cords, triggers and commander mode. (Cool cocktail shots will be highlighted here! )

9. Flash Your Food Photography #4 – Using multiple Speedlight Flashes or Strobes OFF the camera. Short discussion of Dedicated vs. Non-Dedicated flash mounts.

10. Natural light Food Photography

11. Photography inside restaurants, kitchens and capturing Chefs in action.

12. Editing


{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }
  1. RaaQesh

    The article on shutter speed is explained in easy to understand way for beginnerz.

  2. Aipou

    this was quite insightful, Thanks

  3. Kristin Gould

    Wow – what a terrific overview and examples. I have been intimidated by my camera thus far and am just starting to play around with it. I am excited with this new knowledge to get going!

  4. Sally

    Todd & Diane. You explain this so beautifully and simply. Thanks. I think this is why I have been so hesitant for so long to pick up a camera and shoot. It’s confusing, and I feel stupid! Which has made me think I can’t do it. But I can. I must. Be brave. And read every single post you have on photography. And put it in to practice so that it sticks. Thanks again. Following and reading the entire trail, as I am sure I will multiple times, to get it.

  5. Jennie.H

    very helpful!

  6. Cristina

    Hi guys! I just started a photography course and also just discovered your blog. Your tutorials are fantastic! Easy to understand, so clear and well writte, saved in my Favourites, of course. Can’t wait to come to San Francisco this summer from Canada and spend hours at the Ferry Market…
    Cristina from Vancouver, BC.

  7. eatingRD

    Thank you for your tips, that was extremely helpful! I want to try the frozen in action water or . . . er I mean wine shots 🙂

  8. Sara {CaffeIna}

    This was the best tutorial on shutter I have ever read! Thank you for all this wonderful stuff. I hope now I will be able to get bettter pics on my blog 🙂

  9. Nebojsac

    Thanks! This is exactly what I needed!
    And you explained it in a way that makes it a lot easier to remember.
    Great post!

  10. Mary Elizabeth

    Most grateful for your clear explanation. Thanks for taking the time and sharing with us!

  11. Aparna

    Thank you, once again. Am following your series its great to have such a detailed post.

  12. The Cook's Atelier

    Thank you for taking the time to post this wonderful photography series. It’s very informative and helpful. Can’t wait for the next post.

  13. kitchenMage

    Great info. Like others, I particularly like the photos w/variations. Now to play with various liquids, er, I mean practice my technique. I’d try the berries, but I’d have to do it alone with a remote clenched between my teeth.

  14. Kris

    Thank you! This is awesome. I especially love, and appreciate, the photo examples to really portray what can happen when you change shutter speed. I have a great camera. I definitely need to start using all that it has to offer. Thanks for the tips.

  15. Kasey

    Wow, this is the clearest explanation I’ve seen of shutter speed, anywhere–including photo books (which I think are extremely confusing). Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Kasey- thank you! We try to explain it the way we learned it: in small, simple steps. Otherwise, learning all this technical stuff can be so overwhelming and complicated.

  16. krysta

    that was one of the best and easiest posts about shutter speed i have ever read. good job but you knew that already.

  17. Lucy Vaserfirer

    This is fantastically informational! Thank you!

  18. Elizabeth

    hi there – thanks for sharing your knowledge; I really like the way you’ve presented the information, very practical! I, too, avoid using much post processing so I try to make sure I understand the principles of photography and my cameras settings & capabilities to get the shot as close to right as possible – this helps a lot!

  19. matt

    incredible work. Really building on your last photography tips post. Clear, informative, easy to follow and understand, yet handing over a lot of information in a very digestible format. LOVE IT.

  20. Fuji Mama

    Another fantastic post! I love the way you describe how everything works. It makes it so much clearer!

  21. Peter

    A wonderful series, White Rice Duo, and I’m carefully reading this series. My simple Canon goes from 80 to 800 so I am limited but I do have a better understanding of speed.

    I look forward to each and every chapter.

  22. The Little Teochew

    Can you hear me clapping??? This is a fantastic post and it is extremely generous of you to share your expertise. Bravo for the stunning photography and bravo again for your gorgeous blog. You’re in a class of your own.

  23. Jessica@FoodMayhem

    The pictures with varying shutter speeds really help illustrate the differences. Thank You!

  24. Clare

    Such valuable information, especially for someone like me who uses only the “Automatic” settings. 🙁 This is motivating me to get to know my camera much better…

  25. on the rocks

    I really appreciate you doing this whole series on photography. it’s extremely helpful.

  26. deeba

    You guys are fab. I’m sitting here with my P & S (Canon G9) in manual mode trying to take this a day at a time. What shutter speed (as against 1/800) was the frozen wine picture taken with?

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Both of those had a shutter speed of 1/800, which will usually be listed as 800 on a camera.

  27. Manggy

    Great tutorial, guys! I’m trying to figure out how the rocks on the waterfall shot weren’t overexposed to death at one second (did you adjust the aperture too or was the window for overexposure not that wide?)

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Aperture is the key. As the shutter speed got slower, letting in more light, we increased the aperture number so it would balance against the shutter speed to get the correct exposure (we’ll explain all that stuff in the next post in the series.)

  28. Gaby

    This is sooooo helpful and informative! You guys are the best!

  29. The Italian Dish

    You guys totally rock. Thanks for such a great post – I know how much time that takes to do that. For people who might be new to SLR photography, you guys explain things very well.

  30. Lauren

    This is a great post! Thanks! We are going to food blogger camp in January and can’t wait to learn more from you!


    I am totally enjoying (and learning) this serious. I have a nice point and shoot and I only take manual photos, and I have a ton to learn. Love how you are breaking it down.

  32. michelle

    Thank you for this post. I really enjoy your photographs — they are beautiful and well-composed. I also just started taking a photography class so this post is helpful and to the point — it actually clarified some of the things I am going over in class. I am curious, do you use Photoshop?

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Michelle – glad to know that this was able to clarify the shutter speed concept further for you. Yes, we do use some photoshop for graphics, but very little for editing. We try to edit as little as possible and focus on capturing the best photograph as possible during the moment. All of our editing is on Mac Aperture.

  33. Debi (Table Talk)

    So helpful—this was a lot of work! Thank you for taking time out to share your tips/knowledge with us—I have it bookmarked and know I will refer back often.

  34. Divina

    I’m still having a hard time understanding this. This post will be printed and reread again and again.

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Divina- yeah, the concept can be confusing. That’s why we tried our best to illustrate and write it as clear as possible. But definitely take your time and try to understand it at your own pace. Leave your comments here if you have any further questions.

  35. Tuty

    Gosh… you guys are great teachers! Thanks for your generosity in sharing the knowledge. Food photography book must be in the works *wink*

  36. Jamie

    Awesome post, so helpful! Thanks so much!

  37. Caitlin

    Fantastic! I love getting all this information now, in addition to your talk in SF. And I definitely can’t wait for all the remaining posts in the series!

  38. Joan Nova

    Very informative series. Thanks for doing this.

  39. Rasa Malaysia

    I love it that you use really simple concept to explain something so technical. Love the shutter metaphor and for the first time, this makes sense to me!!!


    1. White on Rice Couple

      Rasa Malaysia- thanks! With winter approaching and limited daylight, we decided to write about flash first because there are so many folks wanting to learn flash. We’ve gotten so much request for food flash photography.
      Matt Wright from has great tutorials on natural light photography!

  40. Lisa@The Cutting Edge of Ordinary

    Great series guys! I’m loving it.

  41. Hélène

    You know how I love your photography tutorial series. Would drink that wine 🙂 Thanks, this is awesome.

  42. Cheryl

    Awesome. Your lessons are descriptive and clear, and you deliver them without talking down to your audience. Another one for me to bookmark.

    Now excuse me while I go make my kids pour milk or splash water at each other.

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Cheryl- lol! Make sure you have a tripod ready to catch those shots and plenty of time to clean after the shoot.

  43. Cynthia

    Diane & Todd, thanks for this series! Can’t wait to learn more.

  44. Haley J.

    I am loving this series. You explain the concepts in concise, easy-to-grasp language. I have been playing with my camera on manual mode for a while, but I already feel renewed confidence reading these first two installments. Looking forward to the next!

  45. Jacqueline Church

    Hey you two – this is perfect. I’m trying to figure exactly this out on my new camera. Pretty sure I ought to be able to do it. It’s crazy that I feel the camera outsmarts me! Soon enough I’ll learn to work with it. Good thing about digital is no cost to practicing once you make the initial investment.

    Thanks again,

  46. veron

    Can’t wait for your next photography lesson! 🙂

  47. Kristina

    Fantastic! Thanks for explaining it all, and including examples, in such great detail.

  48. Maria

    I love your posts! Thanks so much!

  49. Carrie Oliver

    This is incredibly helpful, esp. since my notes from BlogherFood are sketchy at best. Thank you!

    1. White on Rice Couple

      Carrie- we tried too hard to cover so much in the 75 minutes at BlogHer! This is a great opportunity for us to really break it down and take our time to really teach this series the way we wanted to. Thanks for reading!

  50. Kamran Siddiqi

    What a beautiful post and awesome series! I am definitely bookmarking each and every single one of your posts on photography. Just by reading this post, I’ve found a lot of it helpful, and you’ve answered a few of my questions when I am taking my photos.

    Great post you two! 🙂

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