Your camera is an amazing creative tool. That's not really intuitive to a lot of beginners, because cameras are so good at recording reality. But the fact is that you can use your camera to manipulate reality just as you can use it to recreate reality and the simplest creative tool your camera has is shutter speed. Shutter speed works in two directions--you can either slow it down or speed it up. Use a slow shutter speed to emphasize movement. Use a faster shutter speed to freeze movement. So how do you decide when to choose a slow shutter speed, and when to choose a faster one?
Let's start with a cheat sheet.
|Shutter Range||Shutter Speed Settings (seconds)||General Applications|
|High Shutter Speed||1/2000, 1/4000, 1/8000||High speed subjects (Jet aircraft, bullets, etc.)|
|Fast Shutter Speed||1/250, 1/500, 1/1000||Sports, action, stopping motion, telephoto lenses (long focal length)|
|Mid-Range Shutter Speed|
|Mid-Range Shutter Speed||1/60, 1/125||Portraits, stationary subjects|
|Slow Shutter Speed|
|Slow Shutter Speed||1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30||Motion blur, panning, water (“angel hair” effect)|
|Long Exposures||30, 15, 8, 4, 2, 1||Night photography|
|Bulb Setting||B||Fireworks, lightning, light painting|
Note: This list is a guideline—the shutter speeds you choose may vary depending on the type of effect you want. For example, when shooting water to achieve the "angel hair" effect, you may want to choose even longer exposures to enhance the effect.
Slower shutter speeds
When you slow down your camera's shutter speed, you're giving the ambient light more time to record an image on your camera's sensor, that's what produces the motion blur effect in your final photo. The term "slow shutter speed" is not really an all-inclusive one; different speeds will get you different effects. I like to divide that term up into three different categories.
Slow Shutter Speed
his category includes speeds of 1/2 second to 1/30 second -- slow enough to record the image and trace any movement in the scene. When you shoot at these speeds, you need to brace your camera or use a tripod to prevent camera shake. Camera shake is that sort of motion blur you don't want—it will produce double imaging and blurring throughout the image.
Slow shutter speeds can be used for creative effects, so provided you have a way to stabilize your camera you can get a lot of cool results just by trying out different settings. Some examples:
Slow Shutter Speed - Motion Blur - Motion blur in your image lets your viewer know that your subject is in motion. Let's say you're shooting a running child—you've got a sharp background and a blurry subject, and your viewer gets a sense of speed. A spinning windmill is another great example—the tack-sharp structure and surrounding environment contrasts with the spinning, motion-blurred vanes.
Slow Shutter Speed - Panning - This technique uses motion blur, too, only the blur comes from the movement of the camera. When you pan with (or follow the motion of) a moving subject, you get a blurred background and (hopefully) a sharp subject. The streaky blur you'll get in that background does a great job of conveying speed and forward motion to your viewer. Panning can also help isolate your subject from a busy background.
Panning works best at shutter speeds of 1/8 to 1/30 of a second. Anything slower than that and camera shake would start to become a problem. On the other hand, speeds faster than 1/30th wouldn't produce any background blur at all.
Panning takes practice, so don't be disappointed if your first attempts aren't perfect. Just remember that panning works best with horizontal motion—bicycles, motorcycles and other vehicles—runners may not work as well because they've got some vertical motion, too. You could pan with that forward motion but those swinging arms might produce an image of a runner with no hands.
Slow Shutter Speed - Water (Angel Hair Effect) - The "angel hair" effect is what they call those misty water shots I'm sure you've admired. To get a shot like that, start with 1/15 and then experiment with increasingly slow shutter speeds. Moving water (waterfalls, fast-moving rivers and ocean waves) will turn into a soft, misty fuzz. The longer the shutter speed, the smoother that water’s going to appear.
This category includes speeds of 1 second to 30 seconds or longer. Typically, you'll be using these speeds in low light, and you will need a tripod and a wireless trigger to keep your camera steady. Keep in mind that even though you are using a tripod, the act of pressing that shutter release button is still going to be enough to cause camera shake, and that may ruin the shot. If you don't have a wireless trigger then it might be wise to use your camera's self-timer to trigger the exposure. You may also want to consider using your camera's mirror lock-up function. At very slow shutter speeds, the vibration caused by the mirror inside your camera as it moves out of the way during the exposure can affect image sharpness. A strong wind could have the same effect, so take note of the strength of the wind.
In bulb mode, the duration of the exposure is controlled by the photographer. In some cameras, you press the shutter button once to open the shutter and again to close it. Other models require the shutter button to be held down for the duration of the shot. A wireless trigger is a must for bulb mode, because you can't keep your finger on that button without introducing camera shake. If your camera model is the push-twice variety, you may be able to get away without one at very long exposures (that little bit of camera shake at the beginning and end of the shot won't be enough to impact a very long exposure), but for the most part having a wireless trigger on hand is a good idea.
Use bulb mode when shooting fireworks, lightning or light painting. In these scenarios, the shutter is left open until the light illuminates the scene. The longer the shutter is open, the more of those fireworks or lightning strikes you can record on the same image.
Slow shutter speeds give you a lot of creative opportunities. Just remember that your tripod and wireless trigger are required accessories whenever you think you're going to be shooting at those longer speeds. It may be a bit of a bother to carry that extra gear around with you, but your results will make it all worthwhile.
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