What’s Old is New — Or, the Global Shutter Hype

There’s a lot of hype around a camera that Sony just announced: the a9 III (such an inspiring name, right? When will camera makers come up with more memorable—and, in turn, marketable—names?). What’s special about this camera is that it’s the world’s first full-frame stacked CMOS global shutter camera.

Global shutter? What’s that? Specifically, we’re talking electronic shutter, and not mechanical. Typically, CMOS sensors are read line-by-line, and not every line at once, which can cause problems like rolling shutter effect. This makes the electronic shutter less useful, as it’s more limited than the mechanical shutter; however, there are also several advantages to an electronic shutter, so sometimes it is preferable. With a global shutter, all the light sensitive sensor elements are read at the same time (not line-by-line), eliminating the disadvantages of the electronic shutter.

This is a significant step forward in camera technology, and I don’t want to diminish that, but at the same time the hype is a bit overhyped. Let me explain why.

One of the big advantages touted by those who are especially excited for this new technology is that it eliminates the need for flash sync speed. Use whatever shutter speed you desire for flash, including ultra-fast. Interestingly enough, this limitation doesn’t exist for leaf shutters, which are a mechanical shutter type found in some cameras, namely the Fujifilm X100-series. If you have a Fujifilm X100V and you are using the mechanical shutter, there’s no need to worry about flash sync speed. Granted, most cameras don’t have a leaf shutter, and leaf shutters are mechanical and not electronic; however, I found it interesting nonetheless that the global shutter solves a problem that isn’t always a problem, depending on your camera. If you don’t have $6,000 to shell out for a new camera, but you already own an X100-series model, you don’t have to worry about missing out, and you can let the FOMO rest for awhile.

Fujifilm X100F — Shutter 1/2000 — flash on

Did you notice all of the qualifiers for the “world’s first” designation? Specifically, full frame and stacked CMOS global shutter. Why do you think those needed to be added? Well, the first full frame camera with a global shutter was the Contax N, way back in 2002 (it was developed in 2000, but it took awhile to come to market). The first camera with a global shutter, in theory, was developed by Kodak in the 1970’s. You see, CCD sensors, which were common before CMOS, were technically global shutter sensors. They became outdated before advancements in camera technology allowed photographers to take advantage of that aspect of them, but, technically speaking, global shutters are far from new, they’re only new to CMOS. Actually, Panasonic made a global shutter CMOS sensor back in 2018; however, the technology is newly coming to the market just now.

The promise of the global shutter is that the disadvantages of the electronic shutter are eliminated, and the need for a mechanical shutter is reduced or eliminated. The mechanical shutter has served photography pretty well over the last 150-ish years, so it’s not exactly a high-priority item to replace (in my humble opinion), but perhaps having fewer moving parts in future camera models will extend the life of those bodies (maybe). If you have a leaf shutter camera, the advantages of a global shutter is much less significant, but if you don’t, it’s a bigger deal for sure. Of course, global shutters bring their own disadvantages (most namely, it takes more processing power to read and store everything all at once). I think it’s just a matter of time before global shutter sensors are common, and perhaps as a result mechanical shutters will be much less common in future cameras.

I’m not saying that the need for improved electronic shutters doesn’t exist, or that significant advancements in the technology shouldn’t be celebrated. I’m simply stating that what’s old is new. That the hype is a little overhyped. For most people, the Sony A9 III won’t be a game-changer, or a milestone model remembered for decades and decades to come (as some are suggesting). I’m certain it will be a great camera that many will love and it will sell quite well for Sony, but for the majority of people, the differences between global and non-global electronic shutters will make little or no practical difference to them and their photography. For some, however, it will be a big deal, and for those folks, it’s worth noting and celebrating. Don’t be surprised if the X-H3 or X-T6 has this technology (I have no idea, I’m just speculating). If you have a leaf shutter camera, such as the X100V, you’re already enjoying the benefits, at least when it comes to flash sync speed and (nearly) silent operation.

See also: Getting that ’90’s Film Look with Fujifilm Cameras

Camera Basics: Shutter Speed

Fujifilm X-T30 & Rokinon 12mm – 0.4 Second Shutter Speed

Let’s talk about shutter speed! What is it? What does it do to your pictures? How do you control it to get the images that you want? For many of you, this is something you already know very well, but for others this will be helpful information.

The quick and simple definition of shutter speed is this: the amount of time that the camera’s shutter curtain is open, allowing light to reach the camera’s sensor or film. A fast shutter speed allows very little light to expose the sensor or film, while a slow shutter speed allows a lot of light to expose the sensor or film. Shutter speed is one of three elements of the exposure triangle, with aperture and ISO being the other two.

Some examples of common shutter speeds are 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 and 1/500. There are, of course, many other shutter speeds, this is far from a comprehensive list. 1/15 is an example of a slow shutter speed, and 1/500 is an example of a quick shutter speed. You’ll note that these are fractions, as in fractions of a second. You’ll also note that they’re half or twice as long as the shutter speed on either side, which means that 1/60 lets in half as much light as 1/30, and 1/15 lets in twice as much light as as 1/30.

If the shutter speed is too slow, you’ll have blur from camera shake, unless you’re using a tripod. A rule of thumb for the slowest hand-held shutter speed (without the help of image stabilization) is this: whatever the focal-length of the lens is (or in the case of Fujifilm X, the 35mm-equivalent focal-length), the shutter speed should be a similar number. For example, if the lens is 12mm, which has a 35mm-equivalent focal-length of about 18mm, the slowest hand-held shutter speed is around 1/15 or 1/20. If the lens is 90mm, which has a 35mm-equivalent focal-length of 135mm, the slowest hand-held shutter speed is around 1/125. With good techniques, you can often get a sharp picture with even slower shutter speeds, but that takes practice. Otherwise, you’ll have to use a tripod.

Shutter speed is about motion, either freezing it or showing it. A slow shutter speed will show motion (such as the picture at the top of this article, where the water is blurred), while a fast shutter speed will freeze it (such as the picture directly below this paragraph, where the moving car is sharp). In the first picture below, which was captured with a 1/450 shutter speed, you’d never know that the car was zooming by, because the motion was frozen. The second picture below, which was captured with a 1/80 shutter speed, shows the motion through the car’s blur. The third picture below, which was captured with a 1/60 shutter speed, shows the motion through panning, where the car is sharp but the background blurred from the sweeping lens.

Fujifilm X-M1 & Fujinon 90mm – 1/450 shutter speed
Fujifilm X-M1 & Fujinon 90mm – 1/80 shutter speed
Fujifilm X-M1 & Fujinon 90mm – 1/60 shutter speed

You can show motion in a photograph using a slow shutter speed, and some of that motion might not be immediately obvious. In the first picture below, the firework is moving during the exposure, showing colorful light streaks. In the second picture, the earth’s rotation makes the stars streak. In the third picture, intentionally shaking the lens creates an abstract picture through the camera’s movement.

Fujifilm X100V – 20 second shutter speed
Fujifilm X-T30 & Fujinon 100-400mm – 30 second shutter speed
Fujifilm X-T20 & Fujinon 90mm – 1/15 shutter speed

A fast shutter speed will freeze motion. If there’s some fast-moving object that you want to capture still without blur, you need a quick shutter. This might be a car driving down the road, running kids or jumping pets. Just how fast the shutter needs to be depends on how fast the object is moving, how close it is to the lens, and the focal-length of the lens. The picture below is an example of freezing a moving object with a fast shutter speed.

Fujifilm X-T30 & Fujinon 90mm – 1/2000 shutter speed

It takes much practice to master the shutter, but with practice you’ll know exactly what shutter speed you need to get the picture that you want. There are many variables, so there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You might fail, but you’ll learn, which will lead to success. Be creative! Put the camera on a tripod and try some different slow shutter speeds. Try photographing your kids or pets using a fast shutter. Pretty soon you’ll be a master of the shutter, totally in control of your camera.