A camera’s shutter speed is a key player in the exposure of pictures. Not knowing what it is and what to do with it can result in disastrous photos. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there.
On the other hand, if you understand shutter speed and use it to your advantage, you can capture some truly amazing photographs with your phone.
This article will look at what a mobile camera shutter is and how it works in smartphone cameras, as well as how shutter speed affects the outcome of the photos you take.
What is a camera shutter?
In a traditional camera, a shutter is a curtain-like mechanical device that is positioned in front of the sensor and blocks any light that comes through the lens from reaching the sensor.
Slow-mo shot of DSLR camera shutter in action. Source: gfycat.com
When a photo is taken, the shutter opens up for a certain amount of time before closing again, thus allowing light to reach the sensor and create an image. It is what makes the clicking sound when you take a photo with a camera such as a DSLR.
Smartphones, on the other hand, use a different kind of shutter known as an electronic shutter.
This type of shutter is perfect for smartphone cameras because it doesn’t involve any moving mechanical parts which would bulk up the size of the phone’s camera quite a bit.
How does a smartphone camera shutter work?
An electronic shutter works by switching the mobile camera’s sensor on and off for a period of exposure.
The lack of mechanical parts makes this sensor completely silent. The clicking sound your phone’s camera makes when taking a picture is just a sound effect that doesn’t come from the shutter.
The downside is that smartphone cameras are commonly equipped with CMOS sensors, which use a rolling shutter technique to expose the sensor to light. This means instead of the sensor capturing the scene entirely at once, it captures it row by row from the top left all the way down to the bottom right.
To better understand this and how mobile camera sensors work, check out this simple guide to phone camera sensors.
The CMOS sensor rolling shutter issue is problematic because if you’re trying to take a picture of a subject that moves very quickly while you’re capturing the photo, the final image will be distorted.
This is an even bigger issue when you’re doing smartphone filmmaking and video work because of the wobbly jelly effect.
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open and allows light to reach the sensor. This time is measured and expressed in seconds and fractions of a second.
A shutter speed of 1/30 means that the sensor will capture the image for 1 thirtieth of a second, which is pretty quick. A shutter speed of 1/3200 is even quicker! So, the larger the denominator, the faster the shutter speed.
The smaller the denominator, the slower the shutter speed. As the shutter speed slows down, the fractions of a second start becoming full seconds. This means the sensor is exposed to light for longer.
Some smartphone cameras can have shutter speeds as slow as 30s, meaning the image is captured for a full 30 seconds.
The measurement of shutter speed in seconds or fractions of a second is listed by marks that increase or decrease the light-gathering time by 2x, otherwise known as “stops”.
In other words, a 1/60s shutter speed is a full stop brighter than a 1/120s shutter speed, or twice as bright. Similarly, 1/30s is a full stop brighter than 1/60s.
How does shutter speed affect your images?
The shutter speed setting can be anything from very fast to really slow. Each end of this spectrum affects the outcome of the image in its own way.
Slow shutter speed
A slow shutter speed means the camera sensor is activated and exposed to light for an extended period. This prolonged exposure results in brighter pictures.
There is one catch, however. You and the subject have to be absolutely still. One slight move when using slow shutter speeds and the photo becomes blurry.
Inanimate objects and landscapes are easier to shoot at slow shutter speeds than moving objects. This is because even though using a tripod will keep your camera still and avoid blurry photos, whatever moves in front of the camera will have a “ghosty” effect from the motion blur. Therefore, consider your subject when dealing with shutter speed.
But this is not to say you can’t use motion blur creatively to your advantage. Long exposure photography and light painting rely primarily on using slow shutter speeds. With it, you can capture beautiful shots of things like waterfalls and streams.
The picture above was taken using a slow shutter speed, thus exposing the camera to moving images for an extended period. This results in light trails.
Most importantly, the camera needs to be absolutely still so as to capture only the light trails and avoid having the entire picture look blurry.
Fast shutter speed
Fast shutter speeds mean that the sensor is exposed to light in a fraction of a second. This means that the faster the shutter speed, the less likely you are to experience any motion blur.
If you want to take a picture of fast-moving action such as someone jumping in the air or running, you should use a fast shutter speed.
The lack of motion blur will result in photos that are sharp and look like moments of action perfectly frozen in time.
The downside to using fast shutter speeds is that it limits the amount of time the sensor is exposed to light.
Therefore, photos taken with a fast shutter speed tend to come out darker. Extra lighting might be required when working with fast shutter speeds.
Where to find the shutter speed setting?
To find and adjust the shutter speed, you need to be in the manual mode of your camera app. Some apps have it as ‘Pro mode’.
In this mode, the shutter speed setting is usually identifiable with an “S” icon for seconds. In some cases, you can spot it by looking for a setting with numbers and fractions accompanied by an ‘s’.
A smartphone camera app's manual mode. In the above example, shutter speed is set to 1/10s (one tenth of a second)
If your camera app does not have a manual mode, then consider downloading one that does. There are plenty of good camera apps to choose from that can give you manual control of the shutter speed and other settings.
If you’re not familiar with manual mode and all the settings in there, then check out this complete and comprehensive guide to manual mode.
Balancing exposure with the shutter speed
As I have already explained, adjusting the shutter speed has an effect on the brightness of an image. This would make it a challenge to take long-exposure photographs that are not overexposed or actions shots that aren’t underexposed.
To help with that, you can adjust the ISO value, also found in the manual mode. By increasing the ISO, you can add brightness to the image. This is especially useful when shooting with fast shutter speeds. Decreasing the ISO brings down the brightness so you can do long exposure without overexposing the shot.
In traditional photography, the balance between shutter speed and ISO includes the aperture, and is known as the exposure triangle. In mobile photography, things are different because of the aperture on smartphone cameras.
You can read more about how to use shutter speed in the smartphone’s exposure triangle to your advantage here.
Armed with the knowledge of how a smartphone’s shutter works and how the shutter speed affects the outcome of photos, you can go out and use it to take some amazing photos with your phone.
Experiment with different shutter speeds and practice photography techniques such as long exposure photography and light painting with your smartphone camera.
If you want to learn about how to improve your smartphone photography, download the 5 Ways To Improve Your Smartphone Photography ebook by clicking on the banner above or by clicking here. There’s a lot to learn in its 22 pages of content and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!
Otherwise, for some quick tips on how to capture great photos, check out these 15 Tips on How To Take Amazing Photos With Your Phone to avoid making some basic mobile photography mistakes.