4 Steps to Understanding Shutter Speed

Do you know what the shutter speed function on your camera does? Most of the time your camcorder will do a good job setting the shutter speed for you, but sometimes you may need to manually change it yourself. Why mess with that? Wait, what exactly is shutter speed?

This 4 step do-it-yourself “home workshop” will help you understand what shutter speed is and how it works in practice. Before moving on to the home workshop let’s give a theoretical definition of shutter speed.

Shutter Speed is the effective length of time a camera shutter is open. The total exposure is proportional to this exposure time, or duration of light reaching the film or image sensor. Source: Wikipedia

The definition is rather confusing, but with this home workshop you will get a hands-on chance to learn how shutter speed works and how you can use it to make your videos more interesting. Let’s start with the tools and props you’ll need:

  • Video Camera

Be aware that not all video cameras have manual shutter speed controls. Consumer level camcorders may not offer this feature. Check if your camera has an option for manual shutter speed, either in the LCD menu or a button in the body of the camera.

  • Tripod
  • Lights
  • A fan


  • Sticker to isolate one blade on the fan (I printed the Videomaker logo and taped it to one of the blades.)
  • External Monitor for your camera (highly recommended) so you can see the action better than through your camera’s small LCD viewfinder.

Step 1: Setting Up the “Film Set”

Select a place at your home to set up your film set (I used my garage.) Put your talent (the iconic fan) against a wall with an electric plug. Remove the fan front casing to expose the blades. Try not to have anything distracting in the background. Your fan should sit alone. The fan is the focus of the whole production and you should treat it nicely (meaning that you should clean it from dust and debris first!).

After positioning the fan where you want it, set the camera and the tripod around 2-3 feet away. You need to compose the angle so only the fan blades are seen in the camera’s viewfinder.

Now let’s set up the lights. I’m using two large soft-boxes to light the fan, positioned at 45 degrees from the camera and pointing at the fan. In this test, you don’t want the fan to have any shadows, it needs to be evenly lit.

It may seem like I’m going overboard with the lights, but you will see that they are absolutely essential. So get some powerful ones.

Now, you’re ready with the setup, so it’s time to go behind the camera for “action!” But wait! In this case “action” means your “talent” needs to be running! Turn the fan on at the lowest speed possible, then set your camera’s shutter speed to manual and continue to step 2.

Step 2: Changing the Shutter Speed

When you turn the shutter speed to manual you should see a small number (probably 48 or 60) in the camera’s LCD.

Shutter speed affects how much motion blur is in each frame of your video.  If you want your motion blur to look normal, you should take your frame rate and double it.  So for 30 frames per second, a normal shutter speed would be 1/60th.  For this test, let’s set the shutter speed option to 30. This setting is actually 1/30, which means that you camera shutter is exposing each of your frames for 1/30th of a second.  Shooting at 30 frames per second, this would be impossible with a physical shutter, but electronic shutters on pro camcorders can achieve this.  At this shutter speed, the camera will not be able to identify that there are three blades in the fan, the blur will cause them to appear as one streak.  Now let’s increase the shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/1500.

When you increase the shutter from 30 to 1500 you should start seeing that there are three distinct blades turning, good—but what happened when you increased the shutter speed? The video becomes darker. Every time you increase the shutter speed the image will become darker. Since the shutter is now taking shorter exposures, less light hits the sensor of your camera. That’s why we need to throw in the lights we planned earlier.

Step 3: Lighting the Scene

While the fan is still running, turn on the lights until the image of the fan becomes clear in your viewfinder or monitor. You want to only turn on the amount of lights you need. As you increase the shutter speed you’ll need to add more lights.

Now let’s take the camera’s shutter speed to it’s maximum (in my case, it’s 1/10000.) First, increase the shutter speed to it’s maximum and then light the scene until you can again see the fan blades with proper exposure in the monitor. At the shutter speed I use I could see the three fan blades more clear and I could identify the Videomaker logo in one of the blades.

Step 4: Recording the Footage

Now that your camera is at the highest shutter speed possible and the set is lit correctly, it’s time to hit record. To compare between the different shutter speeds, record around 10 seconds of video with each speed setting. Below is the fan at shutter speeds 1/250, 1/1500 and 1/10000

Congratulations! We’re finished with this “home workshop” and hopefully you now have a better understanding of what shutter speed is and how it works. Basically the higher the shutter speed the less motion blur your image will have, and the darker your exposure will be, so you’ll need more lights.

Shutter speed is mostly use for action-oriented scenes such as skateboarding, golf swings and so on. In most average shooting situations, a normal shutter speed of 1/2x your frame rate is best, but it’s good to know that you have options and how to use them. Now that you know how shutter speed works, it’s time to go test it out. There are endless possibilities, so start shooting and have fun!

SIDENOTE: Slow Motion in Post

All professional editing software has options to manipulate the time of your videos. You can make slow motion video by increasing the footage length. Below is the 1/10000 fan video with a speed set in Adobe Premiere Pro at 10%.  Of course, this is an extreme example for demonstration purposes.  If you wanted crisp frame accurate slow motion, you would shoot at 60 frames per second at a fast shutter speed, then slow that footage down to 40 percent on a 24p timeline, or the 50% on a 30p timeline.

SIDENOTE: More Gain, More Grain

Gain is an option to electronically amplify the amount of light that gets into the camera. The problem is that the more gain you use the more grain  or noise your video will have. Can you use it when you increase the shutter speed? Yes, but you should avoid it unless there are no other options. For better image quality you should set your camera’s gain level at 0dB and get more lights into the scene. This is one of the issues you need to understand if you shoot with your camera set on auto exposure. If there is not enough light, the camera will automatically raise the gain, whether you like it or not. So beware of this setting, too, for the cleanest best lit scene you can create!

Luis Oscar Maymí is a self taught video producer from Puerto Rico with extensive knowledge in video production and editing using Adobe Creative Suite 5.5 Production Premium. Luis also has knowledge in web design and social media marketing. He is also a Hootsuite Certified Profesional 
Luis Maymi Lopez
Luis Maymi Lopezhttps://lomaymi.com
Luis Maymi is a video producer and an Adobe Certified Professional.

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