Shutter Speed: How Slow is Too Slow?

Photo of a bee at a fast shutter speed

By now, you probably know a thing or two about shutter speed. This is the control on your camera that determines how long the shutter will be open and allow light onto your digital sensor to expose a picture. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second and, for particularly long exposures, in whole seconds.

The primary danger you will run into as it relates to shutter speed is making the shutter speed too slow. A slow shutter speed has two consequences on your photography:

  • Your subject may move, causing the subject to be blurry in the picture, or
  • You may move causing everything in your picture to be blurry.

The problem is that there is no Photoshop technique that will cure this blur. Sure, you can increase sharpness and clarity for very, very minor blur, but any significant blur is unfixable.

So you can see that it is important that you not use too slow of a shutter speed. But how slow is too slow?

As usual, that depends on a lot of factors. So there is no one right answer. But in this article I will take you through a few scenarios you are likely to encounter in your photography to show you what is too slow and certain circumstances.

When Hand-holding Your Camera

If you are not using a tripod or other means of stabilizing your camera – meaning that you are holding the camera in your hands as you take the picture – you are moving the camera during the exposure. You cannot help it. You will obviously stand as still as possible and attempt to hold the camera perfectly still, but you are moving the camera nonetheless. The effect on your pictures is called “camera shake.”

There are few different ways to ensure that you shutter speed is not so slow as to introduce camera shake into your picutres. What I’m about to tell you is not a rule per se, but as a general matter be very suspect about using shutter speeds slower than 1/60th of a second. Anything slower than that is a danger zone for me, no matter what camera or lens I am using.

But the camera and lens do matter to how slow you can take your shutter speed without introducing blur into the picture. We will talk about each in turn now.

Lenses and the Reciprocal Rule

The lens you are using matters when it comes to shutter speed because camera shake sets in more quickly if you are zoomed in on something.

This will probably make intuitive sense to you if you have ever fired a gun. Imagine you are looking through the scope of a rifle. Small changes in the position of the rifle (due to your own instability) may not make as much difference at short range, but they will make a huge difference at long range. The effect of the change in position gets magnified over distance.

Similarly, in photography when you are zoomed in on something that is far away, the effect of the camera shake is compounded.

Therefore, a rule has been developed by photographers to ensure that you are using fast enough a shutter speed to eliminate camera shake. It is called the “Reciprocal Rule.” It states that your minimum shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your focal length. It is easier to understand by applying it, so consider the following examples

  • if your focal length is 60 mm, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/60th of a second.
  • if your focal length is 200 mm, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200 of a second.

In other words, to use the Receiprocal Rule, just look at your focal length and put a 1 on top of it to get your minimum shutter speed.

The Impact of Image Stabilization

Your minimum shutter speed is also affected by relatively recent improvements in camera and lens technology that will either be called image stabilization or vibration reduction. This effect is sometimes done in-camera, and sometimes done in the lens, depending on the manufacturer. In any event, image stabilization allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds without camera shake setting in.

Image stabilization is measured in stops. You will sometimes hear of 2-stop image stabilization or even 5-stop vibration reduction. An example will help you understand this:

Let’s say you are photographing something with the focal length of your lens set at 60 mm, and you use the Reciprocal Rule to determine your minimum shutter speed is 1/60th of a second.  You are using a camera with 2-stop image stabilization. That means you can generally go 2 stops slower than you otherwise would, without introducing camera shake into the picture. In this particular case it would mean your minimum shutter speed is now 1/15th of a second (one stop down from 1/60 is 1/30; and going another stop down gets you to 1/15).

There have been very dramatic improvements in this technology in recent years. Some cameras now have 5-stop image stabilization! In our example above, that means you would theoretically be able to shoot as slow as 1/2 a second without camera shake setting in (starting at 1/60th of a second, we go down in stops as follows: 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, and finally 1/2. In most cameras, a shutter speed of 1/2 of a second would result in a picture far to blurry to use for anything.

Tripods Won’t Always Save You

Even if you are shooting with a tripod, you need to think about how slow of a shutter speed you can use. For example, if you are shooting outdoors, any grass in your picture (particularly tall grass) will blow in the wind. So will branches and leaves of trees. If you use too slow of a shutter speed, that movement will show up as blur.

So while the use of a tripod is in many ways a “get out of jail free” card, there are still shutter speed considerations for you to worry about when shooting outdoors.

What To Do When You Just Cannot Get Your Shutter Speed Fast Enough

There are times when you just cannot get your shutter speed fast enough to comply with the guidelines set forth here.  Sometimes you will have made all the adjustments you can to your ISO and Aperture to get as much light into the camera, and the proper exposure level still requires too slow of a shutter speed for you to hand-hold your camera without risking a lot of camera shake. You are left with a choice between taking the shot anyway, or just forgetting about it. In that case, take the shot anyway!

When you do so, there are a few hacks you can use to try to get a sharp picture. These tips can get you a few stops of light. Give them a try:

Use Proper Positioning: Keep your elbows tucked in against your chest. That will result in your whole body supporting the camera, not just your arms.

Take Many Pictures: If you rattle off 6 shots, it might be that one of them is sharp.  Remember that all you need is 1 good one. Digital capture is free, so take several.

Lean Against Something: Use a tree or a doorway or just a wall to support yourself and avoid sway.

Crouch Down and Put Your Elbows on Your Knees: By having your elbows on your knees as you are in a crouching position, you are adding additional stability. Keep your feet apart.

Carry a Poor-Man’s Tripod: The tripod connector at the bottom of your camera is a 1/4″ thread. You can buy a hook at the hardware store that will screw into that hole, and then tie some twine to it. Make it long enough to reach the ground. When you are taking a picture, step on the twine to create tension in the line as you hold the camera to your face.  You will hold the camera a little bit steadier (I don’t really know why, but it works!).

None of these is a perfect solution, but they will help keep the camera as steady as possible.

Shutter Speeds for a Moving Subject

So far we have assumed that we are photographing a static scene. But many times your subject will be moving. So the issue with shutter speed is not just holding the camera steady. In such a case, image stabilization may not help either.

If you want to avoid blur in your subject, you will need to use a fast enough shutter speed to keep your subject from moving through the frame while the camera’s shutter is open.

There are no rules here. I will simply give you my own rules of thumb based on my experience with moving subjects. They are as follows:

  • A person moving slowly: use at least 1/60th of a second
  • General sports: use at least 1/200th of a second
  • Stopping fast action:  use at least 1/500th of a second

Of course, you can be dealing with superfast subjects such as race cars, airplanes, etc., that require even faster shutter speeds. But these are my general rules of thumb.

Remember: These Are Minimums

As you work with shutter speed and consider how slow you can go using these rules, always, always, always remember that these are minimums. Very often I will find myself using shutter speeds that are twice as fast as what the rule requires just so I can make my picture as sharp as possible. My own practice is to use the shortest shutter speed possible unless I am trying to create blur.

Hopefully this article gives you a general sense of some different shutter speeds to use in different contexts. Over time, you will develop your own guidelines for using shutter speed in situations you commonly face. Until then, use these to get you started.