The Pros and Cons of Higher Shutter Speeds

The shutter-speed switch is far and away the least-used control on any video camera. Some videographers never even learn where it is unless it is accidentally turned on and a warning pops up in the viewfinder. Others might shoot thousands of hours of footage and never once use this somewhat arcane feature.

The normal shutter speed when shooting 30 fps is 1/60th of a second – the time necessary to scan a single field of an interlaced video image – which is fine for general videography but there are a couple of situations where shooting at a faster shutter speed can be desirable.

If you’ve ever shot stills, edited in a freeze-frame, or created a slow-motion effect from fast-paced action, you already know that a shutter speed of 1/60th is too slow to capture sharp images of objects in motion. Increase the shutter speed to 1/250th or higher and you'll have individual frames that will stand up well under slo-mo playback. Sound like a good deal? Sometimes it is.

But sharper images come at a cost. Action shot at faster than normal shutter speeds tends to look jumpy when viewed at 30 fps. And since increasing the speed of the shutter causes a decrease in the amount of light available to form the image, the iris must be opened to maintain proper exposure. In other words: Don’t shoot at high shutter speeds unless you plan to edit freeze frames or slo-mo—and don’t try this technique when shooting in low light.

There is another oft-overlooked benefit. By dialing in a higher shutter speed – which requires that the iris be set at a wider aperture – the creative videographer can achieve the shallow depth-of-field necessary to throw the background out of focus. This is especially useful for interviews and standups in locations where the background would otherwise be a distraction.

One final word of caution. Stick to 1/60th when shooting under fluorescents or you're likely to end up with flickering video.