Survey your collection of photos, and I’d bet that most will have been taken at 1/30th of a second or faster. Usually, we want to freeze any action, getting as sharp an image as possible. Other times, however, we might want to purposefully use long exposures for creative images.
Silky waterfalls, streaked clouds, oceans waves that look more like mist – those are the images where we might use shutter speeds that last multiple seconds or even minutes. But how about a middle-ground, say a 5-second exposure? What kinds of looks might that give you?
For the examples in this article, let’s be a little flexible saying anything between four and eight seconds is what we’re interested in.
Fortunately, Lightroom can filter images by looking at the shutter speed recorded in the Exif data. I was easily able to see which of the over 105,500 images in my Lightroom catalog fell into that range. It was just 1,036 of those or .981%.
So, while perhaps shutter speeds in the 5-second range are not often used for general photography, as you will see, occasionally that range is just right for the look you seek.
Tripod or hand-held?
The “inverse focal-length rule” says that to prevent camera shake blur you should always try to shoot at 1/lens focal length as your minimum for hand-holding your camera. For example, using your 70-200mm zoom lens if you were zoomed wide to 70mm your shutter speed should be 1/70th or faster like 1/100th of a second.
Zoom in to the full 200mm setting, and you’d best be at 1/250th or faster to prevent camera shake.
Those rules apply here. If you intend only to blur those things that move during your 5-second exposure, you’ll definitely need a tripod. However, there might be situations where you could make a 5-second exposure without one:
- Your creative intent is to show some camera motion blur. A creative “swish-pan” is a good example.
- No tripods are allowed where you are working. Crowded places, sports events, indoor locations or other places might not allow you to use a tripod. Come up with some workarounds – brace your camera against something, set it down on a bench or something, and use the 2-second timer for a hands-off shot. Maybe you could carry a beanbag or improvise with your jacket. If smaller variations of a tripod are allowed, things like a Gorillapod or Platypod might be the answer.
- Consider mirror lockup to reduce vibration.
You’re familiar with the “exposure triangle” right? If not, follow this link to learn about it. It is foundational knowledge for all serious photographers. Briefly, it states that all exposures are governed by three things, the “holy trinity” of photography:
- Shutter speed (how long the sensor is exposed to light),
- Aperture (the size of the hole through which light enters),
- ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor to light).
Whether you are in Manual mode, Full Auto, or any other camera exposure mode, those three things are always at work. Now, if we’ve already decided we want a 5-second shutter speed, we’re left with just the other two to control our exposure.
ISO and Aperture – which?
You are likely going to want to choose one of two modes when practicing 5-second exposures: Full Manual (which will give you full control over all settings), or Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon and Pentax, S on Nikon and Sony).
Shutter priority lets you choose and lock in a shutter speed and then the camera adjusts aperture (the f/stop) and ISO (if you have that in Auto ISO). If not, ISO will be locked to whatever you set.
Now, you’ve locked in 5-seconds as your shutter speed, should you use Aperture, ISO, or maybe both to get the exposure right? Like so many things in photography, the answer is, “it depends.”
Let’s speak to ISO first. We’re trying to make a 5-second exposure. Doing so will allow quite a bit of light into the camera. So as not to overexpose the image, dialing down the ISO will help. Many cameras have 100 ISO as their lowest setting. Some can go down to 50 ISO. The benefit of lower ISO is less noise. So, set to the lowest ISO possible, yes? Sure, but that by itself may not get you there, and there are other considerations.
Let’s consider aperture.
Setting the aperture (remember the aperture is the “hole.” The term f/stop is the way we reference the “size of the hole.”) to a larger number, i.e. f/11, f/16, or f/22 will let in less light. That too may help us get that 5-second exposure.
Of course, changing aperture also affects the depth of field. We could also encounter a reduction of sharpness if we use the smallest apertures due to what is called “diffraction.”
Proper exposure while considering the implications of each “leg of the exposure triangle” is always a juggling act. If you’re still a novice photographer who has always used automatic exposure settings, I might have lost you here. If so, I suggested you read up on these things:
Cut the light
So, we have our shutter speed set at 5-seconds, our ISO at say 50, and an aperture of f/22. We check and see the image will still be overexposed. What now? Well, as we might put on sunglasses on a bright day to cut the amount of light coming into our eyes, in photography we use neutral-density (ND) filters.
These come in various grades of darkness. A rating system indicates how many stops of light they reduce. Each increase of ND 0.3 results in one additional stop of light reduction. So an ND 1.8 is a six-stop filter.
That means whatever a good exposure for the scene might be with no filter, putting such a filter on will allow you to adjust to the now correct exposure by six stops.
If all of this makes your head hurt, I suggest downloading a free ND calculator app (Android / iOS) which will tell you the settings you need.
Lee Filters (who makes a 6-stop ND filter called the “Little Stopper,” and a 10-stop filter called the “Big Stopper“) offers a nice free app. To use an example, if I had to shoot in bright daylight and the longest shutter speed I could use was at 1/200th of a second, using a 10-stop Big Stopper could get me down to that 5-second shutter speed.
Another option is a “variable ND filter.” These have two layered polarized filters, that when rotated, allow progressive darkening. They can be nice, but sometimes introduce weird visual artifacts, create color casts and such, particularly at darker settings and when using wider focal lengths. Do some research before you decide to buy one of these.
Standard circular polarizing filters can work to a degree as they will typically cut light by 1.5-2.5 stops. You can stack filters too, but a word of caution here – stacking filters runs the risk of vignetting the image, or worse, sometimes stacked filters can get stuck on the lens. This is a sure way to ruin your day. A filter wrench is a good tool to have in your kit.
Okay, techy stuff out of the way. When and why might you want to take 5-second exposures? Let’s look at some example photos.
Smooth water, streaked clouds
Zoom during exposure
Combining with flash
Low light and night photography
Now go “take five”
So what is the “right” shutter speed to use? When making long exposures for creative images there is no absolute.
Use the shutter speed that best captures the vision you had when making the image. Learn to adjust aperture and ISO to get you to that speed you want and ND filters when you must. The key is taking control of your camera.
As a master painter knows exactly what brush and stroke to use, you as a photographer can make masterful photos when you know the right settings and controls to use. If you have not typically worked in the 5-second shutter speed range, use the photos in this article as inspiration. Now, go “take five.”