Many cameras today, especially mirrorless cameras, let you pick between a mechanical and electronic shutter. Others – including a lot of DSLRs – have a third option called “electronic front curtain shutter” (EFCS) which is a blend between the other two types. Each shutter mechanism has several pros and cons, more than you might have realized. If you pick the wrong one, you could be harming your image quality.
Table of Contents
What Is a Mechanical Shutter?
Today, mechanical shutters are the default shutter mechanisms for still photography. Many older cameras and even some new ones only allow you to take pictures with a mechanical shutter.
Mechanical shutters function using physical “shutter curtains”: two blades with a gap in between. When you take a photo, the blades slide rapidly in front of your camera sensor. Any light that hits the sensor between the blades will appear in your image.
You do not need to do anything special to enable the mechanical shutter on your camera. It is almost certainly enabled by default.
What Is an Electronic Shutter?
Electronic shutters are becoming more and more popular nowadays, but they still are not present in many modern cameras.
In general, electronic shutters work by reading data from your camera sensor line-by-line. A few cinema cameras have something called a “global shutter,” which reads the whole sensor simultaneously rather than line-by-line, but, at least for now, this technology has not found its way to consumer DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
To enable the electronic shutter, you will need to enter your camera menu. On some cameras, like the Sony A9, it is obvious how to change to the electronic shutter: Camera Settings 2 > Shutter Type > [Electronic Shut.]. However, other cameras hide this option under a “silent shooting” mode. For example, on the Nikon Z6, the only way to enable the electronic shutter is: Photo Shooting Menu > Silent Photography > On.
Again, not all cameras have an electronic shutter option, especially DSLRs.
What Is Electronic Front Curtain Shutter?
Lastly, electronic front curtain shutters are a blend between standard mechanical and electronic shutters. In this case, the first of the two “shutter curtains” is electronic, while the second is the traditional mechanical blade.
Enabling EFCS is easy on most cameras. For example, with the Sony A7 III, you simply go to: Shooting Menu 2 > e-Front Curtain Shut. > On. With the Nikon D810 and D850, go to: Custom Setting Menu > Shooting/display > Electronic front-curtain shutter > ON.
However, on certain cameras – specifically the Nikon D810 and D850 – turning on EFCS sometimes does not do anything. In order for it to work at all on the D810, you need to be in Mirror Up release mode; on the D850, you need to be in Mirror Up, Quiet, or Quiet Continuous release mode. Luckily, most cameras do not have this issue.
We talk about these limitations and more in our article on shutter shock.
Non-Image Quality Differences
Before diving into the factors that impact image quality, let’s take a look at some of the more general pros and cons of these three shutter types.
Fastest Shutter Speed
Which shutter mechanism lets you shoot at the fastest shutter speeds today? In general: Electronic, followed by Mechanical, followed by EFCS.
Electronic shutters on some cameras, such as the Sony A9, let you shoot at extreme shutter speeds like 1/32,000 second. However, not all cameras with electronic shutters will max out so high.
Mechanical shutters generally max out at 1/4000 or 1/8000 second depending on the camera. This is still quite fast – enough for typical needs.
Electronic front curtain shutters are usually the slowest of the group, often maxing out around 1/2000 second. Even on cameras that allow faster EFCS shooting, the manufacturer will often recommend against it due to potential uneven exposures. Although 1/2000 second is fast, it won’t always be enough in bright conditions.
Maximum Frame Rate
Another important point is that different types of shutter may have different maximum frame rates. If this applies to your camera, it’s usually the electronic shutter that can support the greatest number of frames per second. For example, the Nikon V3 can shoot 6 FPS with its mechanical shutter, and a whopping 20 FPS with electronic shutter. Your camera manual will say if yours is the same way.
Mechanical shutters are generally ideal for use with a flash. On many cameras, you can’t even use the electronic shutter in combination with a flash at all. On the few cameras that do allow it (such as the Nikon 1 V3), it will max out at a slow sync speed (1/60 second in this case).
Flash with electronic front curtain shutter is better; most cameras let you use it without any different restrictions. However, with high-speed sync and external flashes, you’ll often see very visible banding in your images around 1/1000 second. So, with flash, I would stick to the mechanical shutter.
For situations when you need the quietest possible camera, you’ll want to go with the electronic shutter. This is no surprise, since it has the fewest moving parts. It’s followed by EFCS, then mechanical shutter in terms of volume. However, note that even the electronic shutter may not give you totally silent shooting, since other components of the camera (especially aperture and focusing) also make sounds as you take photos.
There are some more minor differences between the three shutter mechanisms, too:
- You will wear out your camera’s shutter curtains more quickly if you exclusively use the mechanical shutter.
- There are differences in response time with each type of shutter (the time between pressing the shutter button and when the camera starts taking the photo). In general, mechanical shutters have a slightly slower response time, although this is not true on every camera.
- At fast shutter speeds (1/2000 and beyond), electronic front-curtain shutter can result in uneven exposures.
- Electronic shutter can prevent you from using certain menu items on some cameras. For example, on the Sony A9, you cannot use long exposure noise reduction or Bulb mode with the electronic shutter. On the Nikon Z cameras, you cannot use long exposure noise reduction.
- On mirrorless cameras, the electronic shutter can eliminate viewfinder blackout (and live view blackout) from shot to shot. This can be useful for continuous shooting, making sure you never lose sight of the scene in front of you.
Next up, let’s take a look at image quality differences for each type of shutter.
Image Quality Tests
The most well-known reason to use EFCS or the electronic shutter is to minimize vibrations – and therefore blurry photos – at certain shutter speeds. Specifically, in the 1/40 to 1/4 second range, you can end up with “shutter shock” that eliminates low-level detail in your images. This is most pronounced at longer focal lengths, and some cameras are worse in this regard than others. Here are three example photos taken on the Nikon Z7 (not a camera with particularly high levels of shutter shock). These are all 100% crops. In order, it goes mechanical shutter, EFCS, and electronic shutter. These are taken at 1/13 second. Click to see full size:
Quite clearly, the mechanical shutter image is not as sharp. The blur is not strong enough to ruin a photo, but it’s also not ideal. The other two images, by comparison, are perfectly sharp. Also remember that these differences are more exaggerated on some cameras than others. If you often shoot around the 1/10 second mark, you’ll want to test for yourself to see how bad the problem can get.
- EFCS and electronic shutter (tie)
- Mechanical shutter
Rolling shutter is very important any time you photograph a fast-moving object. Essentially, as your camera reads the scene line-by-line, anything moving quickly can be distorted with a “jello” effect.
In the photos below, I captured a regular ceiling fan on maximum speed, using a shutter speed of 1/2000 second. In order, the photos are mechanical shutter, EFCS, electronic shutter. Click to see full size:
As you can see, the first two images – mechanical shutter and EFCS – show practically no rolling shutter effects. The electronic shutter image, however, is going absolutely crazy.
- Mechanical shutter and EFCS (tie)
- Electronic shutter
In certain cases (especially at fast shutter speeds), using the mechanical shutter can introduce a peculiar type of flare to bright objects in a scene. It is not really flare in the traditional sense, but instead a special kind of sunstar. If you have not heard the term “sunstar” before, it refers to the sharp edges of light seen in certain photos, like the one below:
Normally, sunstars are caused by aperture blades in your lens. But the shutter curtain can cause them as well, and things don’t look good when it does. I call this “sunstar flare” for lack of a better term:
Again, it’s the biggest problem at extremely fast shutter speeds. The image above is so extreme in large part because I’m shooting at 1/5000 second. However, until about 1/125 second (at least on my Nikon Z7), the effects can still be strong enough to be annoying. So, how can you minimize them?
Take a look at the following images, all captured at 1/2000 second and uncropped. Once again, the order is mechanical shutter, EFCS, electronic shutter:
That’s a pretty striking difference! The mechanical shutter has two distinct “sunstar flares,” while the EFCS has one (representing the exposure’s mechanical rear curtain). The electronic shutter does not have this issue at all.
- Electronic shutter
- Mechanical shutter
Flickering in Artificial Light
One of the other major effects of your shutter mechanism involves flickering/banding issues in artificial light. It’s most obvious in the following set of images. The order is still mechanical, EFCS, electronic shutter. Click to see full size:
As you can see, in this example, the only image to have noticeable banding issues is the third – taken with the electronic shutter. In general, that’s what you’ll see; mechanical and EFCS are not a problem in terms of banding. However, some specific cases with EFCS and artificial light can result in banding issues as well, especially when you are using fast shutter speeds like 1/2000 second. For example, take a look at the comparison below. Mechanical shutter is Before, EFCS is After. This is a moderate crop, roughly 1/5 the original area:
So, although EFCS is not nearly as bad as the electronic shutter under artificial light, it still is not ideal. Mechanical is the way to go any time you are shooting in such conditions.
- Mechanical shutter
- Electronic Shutter
Bokeh at Fast Shutter Speeds
One issue that grew in recognition recently in the photography world is the potential for EFCS images to have nervous bokeh at fast shutter speeds. It is certainly more visible in some cases than others, and I’d argue that even a worst-case scenario is not especially bad. Nevertheless, here are three crops demonstrating bokeh differences. Mechanical is first, followed by EFCS, then electronic. I took these at 1/2000 second to exaggerate any differences in bokeh that may appear. Click to see larger:
To my eye, the middle image – taken with the electronic front curtain shutter – indeed has the busiest bokeh, although not by much. The other two photos look similar to one another. For reference, here is the uncropped image (EFCS version):
This is a case where you might as well avoid EFCS for bokeh-critical shots at a fast shutter speed – but if you accidentally take some, you almost certainly will never notice.
- Mechanical shutter and electronic shutter (tie)
A final problem that some photographers have mentioned regarding EFCS and the electronic shutter is the possibility of line-pattern noise in the shadows (i.e., the “banding” problem that was said to occur on the Nikon Z cameras, although that claim was arguably misleading.)
It’s said that extreme shadow recovery doesn’t look as good when using EFCS or the electronic shutter compared to the mechanical shutter. However, at least with the Nikon Z7, I was unable to reproduce this. Take a look at the following crops – again, mechanical, EFCS, and electronic:
To me, they all look equally good in terms of noise performance, line-pattern or otherwise. Keep in mind that these images have been recovered a whopping five stops in Lightroom, which is more than anyone would ever reasonably do. Here is the uncropped image for comparison:
Perhaps with certain cameras it is more pronounced than what I’ve shown here. You should always test for yourself in cases like this. However, based on what I see here, there are more important reasons than this to pick between the various types of shutter.
- Electronic shutter, EFCS, and mechanical shutter (tie)
Problems with Each Shutter Mechanism
Clearly, none of these shutter types is universally the best. So, I cannot recommend that you always use one rather than another; it depends on the photo.
Here are the downsides of each – so you know when to avoid each shutter mechanism (which is really what matters here):
Image quality factors:
- Can introduce sunstar flare when bright sources of light are in your frame
- Can introduce “shutter shock” vibrations at certain shutter speeds, especially around 1/10 second
Non-image quality factors:
- Does not always allow the fastest frame rate for high-FPS shooting
- Often maxes out at 1/4000 or 1/8000 second – not as fast as some electronic shutters
- Loudest of the three
Image quality factors:
- Often adds extreme flickering/banding when shooting in artificial light
- Introduces rolling shutter issues on fast-moving subjects
Non-image quality factors:
- Does not always allow flash – or, if it does, may max out at slow flash sync speeds like 1/60 second
Electronic Front Curtain Shutter (EFCS)
Image quality factors:
- Can add some flickering/banding when shooting in artificial light, though not as much as the regular electronic shutter
- Introduces half of a sunstar flare
- At fast shutter speeds, can introduce slightly nervous bokeh
- On some cameras, shooting at 1/2000 second or faster can lead to uneven exposure with certain lenses, according to Sony’s own information as well as online user reports
Non-image quality factors:
- Maxes out at 1/2000 second with some cameras
- Louder than electronic shutters
There is no single takeaway here about the best type of shutter to use for photography. However, below, I’ll try to pinpoint my recommendations for various needs. Note that the following summary assumes your camera can select any of these three shutter mechanisms:
For landscape photography, use the fully electronic shutter by default (not EFCS). However, if there is any significant artificial light in your shot, the mechanical shutter is your safest bet (although EFCS will probably be fine). In rare cases when something in your scene is moving quickly, like a bird in the sky you want to be sharp, switch to the mechanical shutter. Lastly, if you need to use specific options that the electronic shutter prevents (like long exposure noise reduction), you obviously should use a different shutter mechanism.
For portrait photography, use the mechanical shutter by default, especially if you are using a flash. The biggest issues with the mechanical shutter – sunstar flare and shutter shock – are not major problems in this genre. However, if you are shooting at a wide aperture in bright conditions (perhaps a beach photoshoot) and risking overexposure, there is a case to be made for the electronic shutter – assuming your camera allows extended shutter speeds like 1/16,000 or 1/32,000 second.
For sports, wildlife, and macro photography, use the mechanical shutter by default. That way, you avoid rolling shutter issues and eliminate banding in artificial light (which means you can use a flash without issue). One exception: some cameras shoot faster frame rates with the electronic shutter (again, like the Nikon V3’s 20 FPS electronic versus 6 FPS mechanical). In that case, under natural light, it may be worth accepting some rolling shutter to get the faster frame rate.
For documentary photography, the electronic shutter will allow you to be as quiet as possible. However, if you are indoors or there is any significant artificial light in your photo, switch to the mechanical shutter instead.
For cityscape and architectural photography, use the mechanical shutter any time there is artificial light in your shot. If you are right at the shutter-shock speeds (1/10 second or so), consider bracketing shots – one with the mechanical shutter, and one with EFCS. Figure out later if the EFCS images have banding; if they don’t, you can use them without issue.
If I only had to pick one type of shutter to use in the widest possible range of conditions, I would pick the mechanical shutter. But for natural light photos of a nonmoving subject, the electronic shutter is nearly always the way to go. As for EFCS, it can be useful on cameras which don’t have an electronic shutter option, especially for minimizing shutter shock around 1/10 second shutter speed. Otherwise, if you have the all-electronic option, there aren’t many situations where EFCS is optimal for you any more.
Hopefully, this article gave you a good understanding of the pros and cons of each shutter mechanism. As a landscape photographer, I previously had been shooting most of my photos with EFCS, but after doing these tests it’s clear there is a better method (given that my camera has a fully-electronic shutter option). Now, I’m going to use “silent mode” for almost all my landscape photography, except in rare cases that artificial light is in the shot. This way, I eliminate shutter shock while making the sun look as good as possible in every frame – plus allowing beyond 1/2000 second shutter speed in bright conditions.
If you have any questions about this article, or suggestions as to when each shutter mechanism is ideal, let us know in the comments below!