6 Ways to Use Shutter Speed Creatively

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6 Ways to Use Shutter Speed Creatively

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In many ways, shutter speed is an inaccurate term. I read an article a few years ago and the photographer referred to shutter speed as shutter time. The logic was spot on. A shutter always opens or closes at the same “speed”. The key value is how long the shutter stays open, hence shutter time. On Canon cameras the shutter speed function (shutter priority) on the mode dial is abbreviated to Tv, which stands for “Time Value”, and is a more accurate description of what this article is about. I am going to refer to shutter time as opposed to shutter speed, it sounds crazy, but it will make more sense. The reason this definition is important is because, we are going to be looking at how you can use the time that the shutter is open (and gathering light onto the sensor) creatively.

Waiting for an image to unfold requires patience

In a sense, shutter time is a bit like time travel. You camera’s shutter can open and shut in 1/8000th of a second. Think about that. Take one second, divide it by 8000 and one of those units is the time your shutter was open. That is very quick. On the other end of the spectrum, you can shoot super long exposures of 20 or 30 minutes. That means the shutter stays open for that length of time. Again, amazing. Think of all that light falling onto the sensor during that time, and the images that can be created doing so.

The shutter time becomes more than simply a moment in time, it could be a split second (literally) or a few seconds. The resulting image will capture and freeze the moment or, with a longer shutter time, there will be blurred movement. This is the fun part of photography. In many ways, your camera can “see” events that happen which you cannot. The camera can capture a frozen moment and suspend your subject in that moment forever, this is like magic. The compelling images are amazing to see and are reasonably easy to make, so let’s take a look at a few of them and see how they are done.

6 Ways to Use Shutter Speed Creatively

1. Freezing the moment

These are the images we all know about; ones that have captured a frozen moment in time. Normally these are sports images, the winning goal, or the knockout punch connecting. They are intriguing to most people and are compelling because we can’t freeze the moment in our eyes. We see a moving, continuous rendition of the events happening in front of us. You have seen “slo-mo” shots of the winning goal; the frozen moment image is that equivalent.

These images take a bit of practice to get right. Lets assume for a moment, you are photographing a soccer match. It is great to get action shots, but you will want to get any shots of the teams scoring goals. You will then need to have the correct lens. In sports photography, it will be a pretty long zoom or telephoto lens. Most sports photographers will use 400mm and longer. You will also need to keep your camera steady. A tripod in these cases is somewhat impractical as you need to be able to move the camera quickly and easily to follow the game. A monopod is normally what works best.

freeze action 2

Depending on the lighting conditions you need to make sure you have a shutter time that captures the players in mid-action. You also need to take the lighting into consideration. If you are shooting in an outdoor arena, the natural light may be sufficient, but if you are in an indoor arena, you might need to be more aware of your exposure. In that case, you may need to push your ISO up high enough to allow you to freeze your subject. In most sports 1/1500th of a second is the starting point for freezing action. In very fast sports like ice hockey, soccer, rugby and so on, you may need to be shooting at even faster speeds than that. This is how you set up the shots.

Technique

How to do it: Set your aperture to an aperture setting of f/2.8 or f/4.5. This will allow for a quicker shutter time, which will in turn freeze the action. If you are shooting a sporting event in the sunlight, you may need to have your shutter time set to 1/1500 or faster. If this is still not freezing the action, make the shutter time even quicker. Try and anticipate the action and release the shutter at the moment you think it will happen. Be aware that your focus will need to be spot on. With a wide aperture, you run the risk of misfocusing and missing a shot. I once heard a sports photographer say this ” If you see the goal in your viewfinder, you missed the shot”. When you do get that shot though, it will be worth it.

2. The decisive moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase, “The Decisive Moment”. Do a google image search on Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment, you will see many of his great images. He was well known as a street and people photographer, and he believed that you need to choose the precise moment when something happens to hit the shutter release. As you can imagine, this is not easy. Sometimes this might mean you need quick reflexes. Freeze actionMost of the time, it requires patience. He would often set up the shot, get the framing right and then wait. You don’t want to wait for hours, but be patient, sit there for 20 or 30 minutes and watch the scene. Take note of how people are moving into, and out of your frame. When time is right, or the perfect subject (person, vehicle, animal, whatever you choose) moves into the best position, release your shutter at that moment. This will take practice and more than a few shots to get it right, but when you do, you will be ecstatic. The shot will look candid, but you will know what it took to get that image. Many people assume Cartier-Bresson’s images were simply shot quickly from the hip, but much of the time they were planned and he waited patiently for the decisive moment.

Technique

How to do it: You need to think of a scene you would like to capture, visualize it. You may want to capture the comings and goings at a coffee shop in your city. You may want to have someone with a red coat sitting outside, sipping coffee. You should then set up and frame your shot, then sit there until the scene unfolds. Someone with a yellow jacket may sit down, which might work too. So be flexible, but be patient, sooner or later the shot will unfold.

3. Abstract and creative blur

As I said earlier, shutter time is a bit like time travel. You can capture an infinitesimally small slice of a moment, and in other cases you can capture seconds, or even minutes. When the shutter is open, light is coming through your lens and falling onto the cameras sensor. If you allow this to happen for a long enough time, some part of your image will blur. Sometimes blur in an image is unwanted. This happens when your shutter time is too long, your camera moves unintentionally, and the image is ruined.

A close up image of a flower, shallow depth of field blurs the background, but the yellow stamens are in focus

A close-up image of a flower, shallow depth of field blurs the background, but the yellow stamens are in focus.

The kind of blur I am talking about here is intentional blur. This technique can be used to make slightly, or completely, abstract images, depending on the shutter time. The longer the shutter time, the more movement there is, and the more blur you will see. Blurring can be the result of your subject moving, you moving the camera, or both. If your subject is moving and the camera moves, the blur can be very dynamic. If your camera is on a tripod and the subject moves, this creates a sense of speed.

Technique

How to do it: Set your aperture to f/5.6 or higher (smaller opening). Attempt this in low light conditions, just before and just after sunset. Set your shutter time to 1/10th of a second or longer. Release the shutter and move the camera quickly from left to right. You can rotate the camera, move it up and down, or even just shake it in your hand while the shutter is open. In this technique, you will be moving the camera and the scene could have moving elements in it too (i.e. a car or a bus could be driving past, or people could be walking in the scene). The results will be random and unusual, but with practice, you can create some pretty compelling abstract images.

Camera swirl, this image was made by rotating the camera anti-clockwise while the shutter was open

Camera swirl, this image was made by rotating the camera anti-clockwise while the shutter was open

4. Low light exposures

The goal in low light exposures is to have the scene in focus, and only one part in the scene moving. This is particularly interesting at night when you get light trails from a vehicle driving through your scene. You can do this in the early evening or evening if it has become dark. These images are compelling because the light trails from the vehicle seem to hang magically in the air while the vehicle itself is invisible. Another great time to shoot longer exposures is during the blue hour; the 20 to 30 minutes of soft blue light that fills the sky after the sun has set. This is a great time to do longer exposures too as the sky will look blue and your subject (a city or a landscape scene) will be well lit.

Technique

How to do it: Set your camera up on your tripod. Select an aperture setting of f/8 to f/11. Set your shutter time to expose correctly for the scene. Depending on the light your shutter time could be anywhere from 1/10th of a second to three or four seconds. As it gets darker, your shutter time will need to increase. Set yourself up in a position where something will be moving – cars, boats or even people can work well for this. Take a few shots to see how it is all working and make any adjustments. The important technique here is timing. If you want to get a shot with the car lights streaming through your shot, time it so that you release the shutter as the car is in the best place in your scene, similar to the decisive moment.

This scene works well because the light trails add some dynamic interest to the image

This scene works well because the light trails add some dynamic interest to the image

5. Long exposures

As the name suggests, these are longer shutter times. In some cases, they may be 20-30 seconds long, but for some really interesting images, you will want keep the shutter open for 15-20 minutes. Long exposures require the use of a 10 stop Neutral Density filter. This filter will block out the light sufficiently to allow you to open your shutter for long periods of time. The results can be amazing. You can use the ND filter in the day to make your shutter time longer. “Why would I want to do that?”, you might ask. You might have a scene with a windmill in it and you want to blur the movement of the windmill as it rotates. You might also want to create a seascape scene where the waves look silky and smooth. In these cases, an ND filter will be very useful.

Technique

Long exp 2

ISO 100, f/11, just under 13 minute exposure.

How to do it: Set up your camera on a tripod. Set your aperture to anywhere between f/11 and f/16. In these images, you will want to have an exposure time of 15-30 seconds and longer. You will need a cable release to go beyond 30 seconds on your exposure. You want a lot of movement in the scene, whether it is light trails or clouds moving across the sky. The longer you have the shutter open, the more surreal the image will become.

If you have an ND filter, set up your shot first, use autofocus to get everything in focus, then switch your camera to manual focus. The reason is, once you put the ND filter on your lens, the scene will become very dark. If your camera is on autofocus, it may struggle to find a focal point. If that happens, your lens will “hunt” for something to focus on and you won’t be able to get the shot, or it may be out of focus. So, once you have focused your image, switch to manual focus and mount the ND filter onto your lens to make the shot. Be aware, long exposure photography can really eat up battery life, so carry spare batteries if you have them, especially on cold winter evenings!

This image was exposed for 4 minutes, which softened the water and the clouds

This image was exposed for four minutes, which softened the water and the clouds

6. Panning

This technique, when done correctly, can produce amazing results, but it’s not easy. Panning is when you focus on a subject that is moving, and you move your camera in a horizontal plane with them. During that movement, you will release the shutter. Your exposure time will depend on the subject and the light, but in this technique you don’t want to freeze the action, you want to suggest movement. A longer shutter time is preferable, so you may be shooting at 1/30th or slower. To pan effectively, you will need to practice a few shots, here are some pointers.

Technique

How to do it: Firstly, stand with a wider stance than normal. When you pan with your subject, move your body from the hips up. Timing is key, release the shutter when you think the subject is in a good position in the frame. Follow through, don’t stop the movement when you release the shutter, keep moving with your subject (and at the same speed as the subject) until the shutter closes (think golf swing).

A panning shot creates a very unique sense of movement

A panning shot creates a very unique sense of movement.

The next step is to go out there and get these shots. I would recommend you make an effort to try at least 20 to 30 shots of each of these techniques. Play with the settings, see what works and what doesn’t. Let me know what you think and maybe even put some of the results in the comments, lets see what you get.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here

  • Michael Owens

    This is my favourite kind of photography, the creative inventive special effect like shots.
    Thanks Barry, glad you’re a fan also!

    Long exposure example below. Works best at night and in the rain for me, daytime is nice with a 10 stop ND.

  • Greg

    Great article Barry. Very useful advice!

  • Hans Roosli

    @6. Panning. Be careful when your lens/camera has an image stabilizer. My Canon lens has a “mode 2″ for that purpose. Quote from the Canon website: ” In this mode, if you move the lens to follow a
    subject for a pre-determined time, the Optical Image Stabilizer
    continues to correct any camera shake that’s perpendicular to the
    panning motion. However, the Optical Image Stabilizer doesn’t try to
    correct for the intentional panning, giving you a smooth viewfinder
    image as you follow the moving subject.”
    Panning might be better when the stabilizer is turned off.

  • Agatha Nolen

    Great article with a lot of practical advice. I’d like to expand my photography from flowers and travel photography, and this article will get me started in the right direction for some beautifully creative shots.

  • Shammyd

    I found this to be a really useful piece. I’m interested in branching into new areas of photography, and I got a lot of ideas from it. Thank you!

  • I love long exposures and night shots Michael! Great image too!

  • Good tip Hans…thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks Greg

  • Glad that this helped Shammyd

  • Glad to hear that Agatha, looking froward to seeing the results!

  • morticiamunster

    I’m a newbie LOVE that you have included the techniques – I panned once successfully and could not figure out how I got such a cool shot, thank you off to pan 🙂

  • Kiara

    Very interesting and useful article, thanks for all the tips and explanations!

  • scout

    this is a shot of Radio CIty Music Hall Dec 2014. It was a random shot that turned out delightful.
    At this point of time in my photography I tend to have really good luck most of the time with unplanned shots.
    Can someone explain to me how to post a larger version of photo here. My original photo was two large and I ended up with this size.

  • scout

    Forgive my earlier post. First time here. I see that the photo size works out after you hit enter even though it appears so small in the posting box. This photo was a random accident taken outside my home on city streets and again was a delightful surprise

  • Enjoy Morticia!

  • Thanks for reading Kiara

  • The lights look good Scout, nicely done!

  • Guest

    Here’s a shot I took using an intentional zoom distortion technique. I love playing with things like this!

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    One thing not mentioned is the use of flash with a long shutter time. This can freeze a portion such as a dancer whilst doing a twirl, still allowing blur to show motion. Also, light-painting: a child waving a sparkler, or a torch tracing out letters for example.

  • Tee

    Great article thanks. I have just bought a 9 stop ND filter for my trip to China. I’ve been told it will let me take photos of the Great Wall and ‘remove’ the tourists.. well the tourists that are moving at any rate. Is this correct? Has anyone had success with this?

  • scout

    thank you

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you Barry.

  • Jojo Guingona

    This was shot when an electric vehicle filled with lights passed across my frame.
    ISO 100 10s @ f11

  • For sure Bob, this is often called “dragging the shutter” and yes, it is a great technique, may do this in another article.

  • Yes Tee, it can have the effect of removing the tourists, depending on how long your exposure is and how much they are moving. If someone stands still or moves only a small distance while you are exposing, you will see them. Give it a try, it may take a few attempts, but see what works on the day

  • Lovely shot, great dynamic feel to this and great light streaks!

  • Tee

    Thanks Barry I will. I’m actually excited to give that a go. As a newbie it sounded too good to be true and as a newbie when I was in the camera shop I felt a bit like a lady in a mechanics workshop – I had never heard of such filters. I was skeptical but decided to trust the salesman. Now I’m truly glad I did.

  • Jojo Guingona

    Thanks Barry!

  • 1/13 sec exposure.. I wanted just a little bit of motion blur on the car passing. I focused on the buildings & just waited for a car.

  • Great shot Jackie, you could have taken your aperture down further and made a longer exposure too, which means you would have had more streaking. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sanjay Anand Mishra

    how is this one barry

  • Thank you.. Yes, I’d like to go back & use my tripod next time for some long exposure light streaking.

  • barry

    This site has really gone downhill. If and when the content gets updated, it’s bland.

  • Some good light trails here Sanjay, you could try earlier in the evening too.

  • Can you explain more about what you mean Barry?

  • Honeyy Sunnyy

    Superb shot. Few months before I had no knowledge of photography but now I can say my self a good photographer just because of this photography mastery course:
    bit.ly/masterphotographynow

    This course is highly recommended to beginner as well as professional photographers to enhance their photography skills.

  • Erika Swafford

    I love the idea of Shutter Time instead of Shutter Speed. It is so true! I’ve always explained it as the way cameras record motion is with shutter speed. “Shutter Time” makes much more sense.

  • Bibin Raphael

    clicked this from my hometown, Kochi, India.

    need your comments and suggestions

  • Sanjay Anand Mishra

    ok
    thanks

  • Guest

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    . with-out any doubt it’s the nicest job I have ever done . I began this 5 months ago and pretty much immediately started making a nice over $73.. per-hr . browse around this site —–> SEE FULL DETAIL <—-<—

  • Vipul Mittal

    Learnt long exposure some months ago.. This was the result 🙂

  • Vipul Mittal

    Loved it 🙂

  • jonsar

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  • Nobby Clarke

    When panning you have to try and get the subject in focus. This taken at SS 1/25 handheld with flash Canon 7D and Tamron 24_70mm lens

  • Michelle Meader

    A bit of fun with shutter time at Vivid Light Festival Sydney 2015

  • Andrea

    I took these pictures last February. I was taking a photography class and we were in a studio that had some really cool graffiti on the walls. During our break I was messing around and zoomed out while the shutter was open.

  • Jonathan

    This a great article. Thank you for the contribution. But I respectfully disagree with this statement “You camera’s shutter can open and shut in 1/8000th of a second. Think about that. Take one second, divide it by 8000 and one of those units is the time your shutter was open.” In actuality, your camera’s shutter cannot open and shut in 1/8000 sec. It can however use two curtains to expose rows of light sensors on the sensor for that time. It achieves that by using a thin slit of light formed by the second curtain chasing the first curtain as it exposes the sensor from bottom to top. In fact, the bottom of the sensor is exposed to a different point in time than the top of the sensor due to the travel time of the slit of light from bottom to top. The final image will actually be recording longer than 1/8000 sec in time, even though each pixel or light receptor on the sensor only gets 1/8000sec exposure time. This can be seen in pictures of moving plane propellers. In the bottom of the frame, the prop is in one position, but by the time that slit of light travels to the top of the sensor, the prop has rotated a few inches making it look warped.

    Just food for thought. Again, thanks for a great article.
    Cheers,
    Jonathan

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