Many people, pros included shoot on Aperture Priority, leaving it up to the camera to figure out the shutter speed for an image. Well it’s time to take control of your shutter speed and master this often overlooked component of your image. Learn it, use it, and love it.
The shutter speed is the speed at which the shutter moves when exposing the sensor to your image. If it moves quickly, the sensor has a small fraction of a second to record the image. A slower shutter speed gives the sensor more time to record everything it sees. It sounds simple, and it is, but understanding this enables you to shoot creative and dramatic shots.
Using a slow shutter speed usually requires the use of a tripod to stabilize your camera and lens when recording an image. In fact, it is imperative to use a tripod. With the shutter open and the sensor exposed for so long, any small movement can blur your image. Even with a tripod you must be vigilant to ensure that wind doesn’t rattle your camera. Simply pushing the shutter release button to record your image can create enough movement to soften your shot. Use a remote control or the self-timer on your camera. Some have a 2-second timer for just this purpose.
Sometimes blur is what you are looking for. How many pictures of a blurred river sweeping over mossy rocks with trees overhead have you seen? Lots, right? To get these shots, the photographer has set up his/her tripod next to a moving river, selected a slow shutter speed and pressed the button. The river is the only thing moving in the picture so it alone is blurred. The f-stop is usually f16 or higher so everything but the river is in focus. These are beautiful shots and fairly easy to create. Try different shutter speeds to produce different types of blur in the river. Some people like the river to be a complete blur while others use a slightly faster shutter speed to bring out slight details in the rushing water. You will need to experiment with different shutter speeds because the speed of the water will vary from river to river and will affect your settings.
Blur in an image can also be used to show motion such as a race car zooming by. In such an image, it may also be nice to show the actual car so that people can see your subject. To do this, it helps to employ a flash. Set the camera on your tripod. Set a slow shutter speed (this will vary depending on your subject). Set your flash to Rear Curtain Sync which will trigger the flash at the end of the shutter cycle rather than the beginning. This means that the race car will drive towards you creating a blur, and then just before the shutter closes, the flash is triggered ‘freezing’ the race car in your frame. Without the Rear Curtain Sync, the flash would trigger at the beginning of your image and the result would have the car driving into the blur of the image, which probably isn’t what you want. Most cameras are set to default to normal, so if your flash has the capability, you will have to change the setting to Rear Curtain Sync yourself.
Introducing even a little blur into your image can convey a sense of motion or action. Simply slowing your shutter speed by just 1 or 2 stops can have a dramatic affect on your image. It’s always fun to experiment.
In the above example, the car will be fairly sharp, with a blur behind it which creates the feeling of speed. Since your camera is on a tripod, all of the background should be in focus. But what if you wanted to reverse this so that the car was sharp and the background was blurred. If the background was blurred in one direction, it could also impart the sense of motion in the image. This is where panning comes in. Panning is where you move the camera with your subject at roughly the same speed, and because the camera is moving with the subject, and it stays in roughly the same spot within your image it remains ‘sharp’. How sharp depends on your skill. Practice, practice, practice. You can use a tripod to do this, but you must set up your camera and practice the motion before you are ready to take the picture. Some tripod heads allow you to swivel the head on the tripod without moving the camera itself, but be sure the camera is as level as possible before shooting. Panning can also be done without a tripod. Stand with your feet apart so you are stable. Raise the camera to you eye and as you press the shutter release, swivel at your hips so that you turn with your subject. You should proactive this movement before you are ready to take the picture. In both cases, you should move the camera at roughly the same speed as your subject. With all of the variables involved, this will take several attempts before you find one you really like. This is fun to do, so play around with it to see what works best for you.
You can also use a flash when panning to help ‘freeze’ your image, but keep in mind that this is another element you are adding to the process. It will take several attempts to get it right.
The concept of having a fixed distance between you and your subject can also be applied when shooting fast moving subjects as well. One example would be a water skier on the end of a rope. If you are in the boat, the skier will always be a set distance from you. Slow your shutter speed and try panning with the subject. Another example is when you and your subject are moving at the same speed. Climb up the mast of a moving boat and shoot straight down with a slow shutter. Your images will look like you are screaming along. Shoot from inside a car as you are driving along. Everything inside the car should be in focus, but outside should be a blur. Shoot from a dog sled and the dogs should be in focus, but the trees next to you will be blurred. Use a flash to ‘freeze’ the dogs and you will get a wonderful image of the dogs in action with their legs blurred showing how fast they are moving.
Painting with Light
If you take a picture of a dark room, you might have to set your shutter speed to around 30 second to record the image properly. That means that the sensor will need 30 seconds to record everything it sees. What if you stood in the image for 15 of those 30 seconds? The sensor would record you, but not entirely. You would look like a ghost. There are many different scenarios you can play with here including placing yourself into an image more than once, showing different parts of your body in different places. What if you used a flash to freeze someone into your image, and then moved them. The light from the flash would help to record whatever it landed on. Holding your flash in your hand, setting it on manual and using a low power setting would let you flash different parts of your image independently and record them differently.
When shooting a room with bright and dark areas, you can expose for the brighter spots using a slow shutter speed. Then once you press the shutter release, you can walk through the room and manually flash those darker areas to brighten them up. Remember, if your image takes 30 second to expose properly, then it takes 30 second of you in one place to render you properly. If you keep moving, you won’t register on the sensor, and you are effectively invisible. Remember to keep the flash pointed away from the camera so that the light shooting from your flash is not recorded.
This concept can be illustrated when photographing a multi-colored disco ball. As the ball spins, our eyes see each color, red, green, blue. If you photograph this ball using a long shutter speed, the ball will have white light shooting out of it. The red, green and blue colors combine over time to create white light on your image.
Another fun ‘Painting With Light” shot is of someone moving a flashlight around at night. Point the flashlight at the camera and it will record its movement so you can paint pictures with light. This can also be a fun thing to do with your kids and different colored glow sticks.
Another fun slow shutter speed application is shooting star trails. If you point your camera at the stars above and leave your shutter open for an extended period of time, you can see how the earth spins in the motion of the stars. Different angles will give you different motion. The length of the shutter speed will also give you different looks. The amount of ambient light will affect how long you keep the shutter open. Dark nights are best to record the stars, but this makes for very long recording times. To record trails of significance, you will need to set your camera on bulb to keep the shutter open for an extended period of time. It can take anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to record the shot. It all depends on how long you want your star trails. The longer the shot, the longer the trails. Be sure that your batteries are fully charged as most cameras use the battery power to keep the shutter open.
It can also be nice to record something in the foreground when shooting star trails. A tent lit up from the inside with the star trails overhead can make for a compelling image. You will need to light up the tent only once and for a relatively short period during your star trails shot. Practice beforehand to ensure you know how to light the tent the way you want. Once you start your star trail shot, you can light the tent any time you want, but you can’t see if you got it right until the shot is over, so make it count.
So the next time you are out shooting, get the shots you want, and then take a moment to consider the same images captured with a slow shutter speed. Some of the techniques mentioned above can take some time to perfect, but with practice, will ultimately create some unique and effective images. Think outside the box and you can take your photography to the next level.