What Is a Leaf Shutter? A Look at a Special Camera Type

What is a leaf shutter? If you started in photography under a decade ago, we’re pretty sure you may not know the answer to this question. Even if you started in digital a decade ago, you might not know what a leaf shutter is. But these types of shutters are mostly absent from cameras these days. However, for the last decade, photographers clamored for them. Leaf shutters have advantages for photographers, but as time has gone on those advantages mostly disappeared. 

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What Is a Leaf Shutter?

Having a leaf shutter means that the shutter is in the lens. When film was dominant, there were a few cameras with leaf shutters. The Mamiya 6 and Mamiya 7 series cameras used leaf shutters, as did many point-and-shoot cameras. 

The leaf shutter is the opposite of the focal plane shutter, which has the shutter right in front of the film plane or the camera sensor. The focal-plane shutter is built into the camera instead. Modern cameras can be confused as having leaf shutters because the shutter opens up, adjusts itself, and then opens back up at times. But that’s not the case; the shutter is still built into the camera. 

Leaf shutters have a few distinct advantages. But some of them are moot at this point in technology.

“These lenses are specialized. Modern leaf shutter lenses are handmade by small, employee-owned companies, not mass produced on assembly lines. Not everyone on the block shoots with them. And their price is a direct reflection of quality. You get what you pay for. When it comes to using them with high resolution medium format cameras of the highest quality, you want to pair them with a lens that is sharp lens with amazing clarity to boot. You would’t put cheap tires on an Indy car.” – Why Leaf Shutters Matter

Little to No Camera Shake

With a leaf shutter, you’re not getting a whole lot of swing or shake. When a camera’s shutter fires, it can cause a shake. But with a leaf shutter, it’s very gentle. For years, this was a great advantage. It’s one of the many reasons the Fujifilm X100 series of cameras took off. The leaf shutter, colors, and style of the camera made professionals really want it. These days, the benefits have been pretty much superseded. Lots of cameras have image stabilization built into the sensor and the lens. We can make a very strong argument for 10 stops of image stabilization outdoing the camera shake negation a leaf shutter can achieve. 

If you’re still shooting film, leaf shutters are amazing. If you’ve ever fired a Pentax 67, you probably understand why. There’s a certain romance to the sound of that big, loud shutter on the legendary Pentax camera. But you probably also know how difficult it can be to shoot with. Of course, there are leaf shutter options for the Pentax 67. But, they’re very expensive. At that point, you’re better off trying to score a Mamiya 7 or Mamiya 7 II. You’ll lose the whole through-the-lens viewing experience, but you’ll get more stability. 

If you’re using a modern or vintage point-and-shoot camera with a fixed lens, then you’re also going to experience a leaf shutter. The well-known Yashica GSN Electro 35 sports an electronic leaf shutter. 

A Faster Flash Sync

Faster flash sync is a great advantage of the leaf shutter. To understand why this is important, you need to understand how flash works. So we’re going to break it down.

  • Shutter speed controls ambient light’s effect on the scene
  • Aperture controls the output of the flash power in TTL flash mode. In manual mode, the aperture controls how much of the flash’s light output affects the scene.
  • ISO controls the overall sensitivity of the scene to both ambient light and flash output lighting.

Obviously, there are situations during the daytime where you’d need to use a flash and overpower the sun. A leaf shutter is very well suited for that.

For many years, lots of cameras had a flash sync of only 1/30th using their focal plane shutters. Then it increased to around 1/125th. Most modern cameras can do 1/250th and faster. At the same time, modern high-speed flash sync has gotten so good that flash sync isn’t an issue as much as battery life and flash power are. 

For most of photography history after the 1960s into the last decade, the leaf shutter had an advantage over the focal plane shutter. It could sync with a flash to far faster flash speeds. Even today, lots of those point and shoots can sync to 1/1000th. Some can go even faster. Luckily, those same leaf shutter cameras can also do high-speed sync in many cases. If they can’t, the cameras probably have an ND built in to the camera or some other way to kill ambient lighting. 

A Quieter Camera

The leaf shutter is incredibly difficult to hear. Where the focal plane shutter has a slap of varying degrees of volume, the leaf shutter is a quiet tap if anything. They were valued by photojournalists and wedding photographers for how incredibly quiet they were. Today, cameras with these shutters, such as the Leica Q2 and the Fujifilm X100v are still amazingly quiet. However, mirrorless cameras made it possible to have completely silent camera shutters. Those shutters don’t make a single sound. For that reason, it can sometimes be tough to know whether you even fired the camera unless you know what to look for. But if there’s a little bit of the “tap” that the leaf shutter has, then you can tell it fired. Mostly everyone around you won’t know you shot a photo. 

The Leaf Shutter and the Modern Point and Shoot Camera

In the modern point-and-shoot camera, the leaf shutter is dominant. That brings us to our final advantage that it has: it’s very small. One of the arguments against leaf shutters for a while was that their lenses needed to be bigger than some folks wanted. But that’s no longer the case. In fact, we think today that a camera manufacturer could easily make a mirrorless camera with interchangeable leaf shutter lenses. Honestly, Pentax could probably come through big here if they ever decided to make one. 

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.