The reason I’m a big fan of experimenting with different shutter speeds is that the opportunities seem endless. By only using a fast shutter speed you’ll limit your photography and miss out on so many great images. In my opinion, shutter speed is the setting which allows you to be the most creative and to capture unique and visually interesting images.
By changing the shutter speed only slightly (let’s say from 1/120th of a second to 1/60th) the image can look completely different and tell a whole different story.
If you are already somewhat familiar with using a slow shutter speed, you’ll know that it’s highly recommended to use a tripod for this technique. Doing so will lead to sharper images and you’ll most likely avoid camera shake (at least if you use a delayed shutter or remote trigger as well). I’ll be the first to say that I use a tripod for 99% of my images, but every now and then, I choose to break this rule as I know that leaving it behind will, in that case, be the best choice.
In this article, we’ll look at three creative exercises you can do using a slow shutter speed. They may not be typical or the most logical but the results can be stunning.
Creative Exercise #1 – Tilt and Pan
As I said, one of the main reasons for using a tripod when photographing with a slow shutter speed is to remove any vibration and movement from the camera, leading to crisp and sharp images. This creative exercise goes against those guidelines and instead of leaving the camera on a steady tripod, you’re going to tilt or pan it while taking the image.
The use of a tripod is not necessary for this technique and it’s easy to do without one. If you’re using a shutter speed slower than one second, I do recommend using a tripod though as you’ll most likely get a better result.
You’ll get the best results when your subject contains different colors and also has texture and patterns. When you’ve found the subject you wish to photograph, let’s say a treeline or a patch of grass, slow your shutter speed down to between 1/15th and 1/4th of a second. You can use an even slower shutter speed, but I’ve found that the best results are in this range, as you’ll still get some good texture and detail in the image.
Now, when you press the shutter button, quickly tilt or pan the camera in one direction – make sure that you’re quick enough though! As you can see, the result is an abstract image with lots of lines. This technique doesn’t work for all scenes though and I recommend zooming in on your subject to avoid including the sky.
Continue repeating this technique and try moving the camera both slower and quicker, as well as making small changes to the shutter speed. You’ll soon see that even small adjustments will have a huge impact on the final image. It may take quite a few attempts before you get an image you’re truly satisfied with, so keep playing.
Creative Exercise #2 – Zooming
Exercise number two is similar to the first in that it will create an abstract image with a lot of movement. Also this time you will forget about the guideline of keeping your camera still when photographing and will deliberately create motion, this time by zooming your lens.
This is a technique you can experiment a lot with, as the results can vary greatly. You may also want to use a longer shutter speed than you did above. For a more detailed description of this method, you can also read: How to Create a Dynamic Zoom Burst Photograph
Let’s try this first. Set your shutter speed to five seconds and place the camera on a tripod. Press the shutter button and wait two seconds before you slowly start zooming your lens, continue until the exposure is completed. As you can see, it appears as if two images are put together into one. The background is sharp but the ghost-like lines going away from it creates a sense of motion and can add a lot of extra depth.
Again, as with all of these creative exercises, trial and error is your friend. Don’t just do it once and leave. Try this multiple times with different settings, vary the exposure, try a different tempo of the zoom (go fast, then try slow), zoom in then try zooming out, zoom and stop at varying intervals, etc. After a while, you’ll hopefully capture something that has potential!
This method can result in fascinating images taken at night. By capturing two images (one where this technique is used and one that’s normal) and blending them together you can get a quite interesting result. The landscape will be normal while the stars look like their shooting out of the image. It’s all about trying the unknown and take a moment to disobey the “rules”. For more on this technique read: How to Create a Dynamic Zoom Burst Photograph or Intentional Blur- How to Create it and Why It’s Awesome
Note: if you want to try this on a bright daytime scene you may need to use a Neutral Density filter to cut down on the amount of light. Otherwise, your image will just be overexposed.
Creative Exercise #3 – Close-up
This last exercise for practicing using a slow shutter speed is quite different than the other two. For this one, you will use a tripod and delayed shutter or remote trigger to capture a sharp image. Then, you will be zooming in on some details in the landscape and using a slow shutter speed to capture it.
For many years I rarely used anything other than an ultra-wide-angle lens, as I wanted to capture everything in the same image. As I became more experienced and my art began evolving, I realized that I found a much greater pleasure in viewing abstract and intimate shots. In many ways, these simple scenes result in more powerful images that better tell a story.
So, for this exercise, you’ll need to go outside and search for something that includes a moving element, such as a waterfall, river, or perhaps waves. The composition isn’t crucial yet as you’re mostly going to be experimenting with different shutter speeds but if you’re able to find a good one that’s a benefit.
Once you’ve found the subject you wish to photograph, set your shutter speed to 0.5 seconds. Capture an image and start lengthening the shutter speed until you reach somewhere between 5-10 seconds (you might need to use an ND filter and compensate with ISO/Aperture for this to work). By scrolling through the series of images you’ve taken you will see just how much it changes by making only small adjustments. I bet that the 0.5-second exposure looks nothing like the 5-second exposure, right?
What fascinates me with this exercise is that every now and then you’re going to find patterns or shapes in the image that you couldn’t see with the naked eye. The motion creates these shapes and in some cases, it can even be scary. Can you see all the screaming faces in this image?
So now it’s up to you to go out and try these shutter speed exercises. Share your results in the comments section below as well as any questions you may have.
Note: If you want more info, my eBook The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography, covers the basics of using a slow shutter speed and shares multiple case studies on how changing the shutter speed can affect your image.