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How to Make the Most of Creative Shutter Speed in Photography

Image: This photo is all about the moment of capture. I used a fast shutter speed to capture it.

This photo is all about the moment of capture. I used a fast shutter speed to capture it.

One of the most important settings on your camera is shutter speed, and it’s just as important to master this as it is to master aperture. If anything, shutter speed control allows you to become even more creative with your photography. Exciting techniques like light painting and panning both rely on the photographers’ use of this setting. In this article, you’ll learn techniques that need a creative shutter speed, and how you can apply this to your photography. So let’s begin with what shutter speed is, and why it’s important.

What is shutter speed?

A photograph relies on light to become exposed, and shutter speed controls how long that light sources can expose the photo. That means in general, lighter conditions mean fast shutter speeds, and dark conditions mean slow shutter speeds. Shutter speed is also controlled by opening or closing the aperture on your lens, adding filters to your lens, and, in some cases, adding external lighting to your scene. In DSLR camera’s it means the mirror locks up, and in mirror-less cameras, the shutter is merely open. Now, various techniques rely on shutter speed to work. Let’s sub-divide them by the how fast the shutter speed needs to be.

Fast shutter speed

Using super-fast shutter speeds allows you to freeze things that might be faster than the eye can appreciate. That may mean raindrops, wildlife, or photographing sport.

Freezing the action

The shutter speed you’ll need to freeze the action very much depends on what you’re photographing. Concerning creative imagery, you’re looking at freezing things that are too fast for the naked eye, and hence, you’ll get some unusual detail in the photo you’ve taken. Next is a simple guide to the type of creative shutter speed you’ll need to freeze the following types of action:

  • A waving hand – A shutter speed of 1/100th is fast enough to freeze this motion, to be sure use 1/200th
  • A flying bird – 1/2000th will get you a sharp photo of a flying bird.
  • Raindrop splashes – Look to use a shutter speed of 1/1000th or faster to freeze moving water. It’s possible to take water drop photos at slower speeds, but those often use a strobe flash to freeze the water rather than the shutter speed itself.
Image: Freezing droplets of water require a fast shutter speed.

Freezing droplets of water require a fast shutter speed.

Moment of capture

Getting the right moment is what makes or breaks a photo. It is possible to take good moments of capture at slower shutter speeds, but generally, you’ll want to freeze the action. That means a fast shutter speed, and capturing that moment a baseball player swings their bat, or the archer loses their arrow. In both cases, these need a fast shutter speed to capture that moment.

Handheld photography

While not related to creativity in your photo, shutter speed is all important when it comes to avoiding camera shake. There is a nice rule of thumb that correlates your focal length to the slowest speed you can use handheld. Of course, there are those with steadier hands, and image stabilization helps too. That said, the correlation works like this and is easy to remember. If your focal length is 300mm, you’ll need to use a shutter speed of 1/300th second to avoid camera shake. You can use a much slower shutter speed at wider focal lengths though, so at 50mm 1/50th is adequate.

Creating motion.

Ahead of getting into long exposure, there are the shutter speeds that you can get away with handheld, but slow enough to move the camera and produce motion blur.

Image: Panning is a popular technique, that needs a slower shutter speed.

Panning is a popular technique, that needs a slower shutter speed.

Panning

This is a great technique and is a good example of how creative shutter speed can be used.

The technique requires a steady hand because it uses shutter speeds that wouldn’t usually get taken handheld. The idea behind this technique is that you follow a moving object with your camera, and take the photo with a slow enough speed to blur the background. You can follow any moving object from a pedestrian walking to a Formula 1 racing car. Amongst the easiest objects to pan with is a cyclist moving at a steady speed. Those new to the technique should practice panning with a cyclist first. A shutter speed of around 1/25th is a good starting point to blur the background while keeping the cyclist sharp.

Motion blur

An alternative strategy is to allow the moving object to blur, and keep the static object sharp. While panning is primarily done handheld, using a tripod for this type of photo achieves better results. In this case, you’ll be looking to show the background motion of things like cars, trains or buses against static objects. That might be people waiting to cross the road, or someone waiting for a bus or train. Once again, a shutter speed of 1/25th is often slow enough to blur the moving object in your frame.

Image: This photo was taken from a moving train. The slower shutter speed created motion blur.

This photo was taken from a moving train. The slower shutter speed created motion blur.

Camera rotation

It’s still possible to give a photo a more dynamic feel, even when everything in your frame is static. You can achieve this feel by moving the camera with a slow shutter speed of around 1/25th. With wide-angle lenses, you can experiment with even slower shutter speeds. However, this may impact your ability to keep a portion of your photo sharp. The idea behind camera rotation is to twist the camera around a central point in your photo while taking the photo. This technique can be used for kinetic light painting when even longer exposures are needed. It can be tricky to achieve because it is a difficult technique to do handheld, and most tripods won’t allow you to rotate around a central point in the way this technique needs. It’s also best to use a wide-angle lens when taking this variety of photo.

Image: Zoom is a good way of giving a photo a more dynamic feel.

Zoom is a good way of giving a photo a more dynamic feel.

Zoom

A zoom burst is another popular way to use creative shutter speed. It is possible with any lens that allows you to change the focal length. So, a kit lens works very well for this technique. With the zoom burst it’s possible to take the photo handheld, but using a tripod gives you better results. While you’re moving the lens and not the camera body, any tripod helps with this type of photo. The aim is to produce motion by zooming into your primary subject matter during an exposure roughly 1/25th in length. Not all locations work well for this photo. For example, a location with lots of sky may not produce much blur. On the other hand, a tunnel with differing levels of light, such as a line of overhanging trees, works great.

Image: Camera rotation can produce interesting effects.

Camera rotation can produce interesting effects.

Creative shutter speed for long exposures

At the extreme end of creative shutter speed usage is the long exposure. Here you’re looking at exposure times in excess of one second. There is an awful lot of creativity to be had in this area, so let’s look at what you can do.

Light painting

Light painting is a lot of fun, and among the most creative techniques you can use in photography. There are essentially two ways you can create light paintings. The first is where the light source is turned away from the camera, and you use it to light up an object within the frame. To do this use the light source like a brush, and shine it only on the area’s you wish to light up. The alternative to this is pointing the light source towards the camera. Light painting can be as low tech as using your torch. However, more ambitious forms of light painting include the use of wire wool, or LED light sticks. Light painting photos typically begin at two-second exposures, and if you use bulb mode they can last into the minutes.

Image: You can use light painting to add more interest to a scene.

You can use light painting to add more interest to a scene.

Kinetic light painting

The difference between kinetic light painting and light painting is that you move the camera, whereas, with light painting, you move the light source. Of course, it’s possible to use random movements of the camera for this. However, the best way is for more controlled movement, and that means camera rotation and zoom.

  • Camera rotation – Very similar to the above technique, but this uses longer exposure times. You’ll need a tripod this time. The technique involves rotating the camera in a nice smooth motion while attached to the tripod.
  • Camera zoom – Once again, following on from handheld zooming, are longer zooms at night taken using a tripod. To learn more about the experimental potential of zoom you can read this article.
Image: This is an example of kinetic light painting. The camera was rotated around the tripod head.

This is an example of kinetic light painting. The camera was rotated around the tripod head.

Landscape long exposure

Using long exposure in landscape photography gives you a great way of interpreting a scene in a different way. This is most easily achieved at night, but daytime long exposure is also possible.

  • Neutral density filter – The use of a neutral density filter allows you to take daytime long exposures. This has the potential to transform your scene with moving clouds, and silky water. You will need a strong filter, so an ND110 or ND1000 is needed.
  • Blue hour – As most landscape photographers will know, this is one of the best times to photograph. You’ll be using long exposure because the light levels dictate that. That long exposure allows you to experiment with traffic light trail photography.
  • Astro-photography – Finally, and at the extreme end of long exposure photography, is astro-photography. Those wishing to photograph the Milky Way will need to use exposure times of around 20-30 seconds depending on the equipment you’re using. Another popular technique is to photograph star trails. This can be a sequence of 30-second exposures stacked together. The alternative is to use bulb mode, and exposure for at least 10 minutes!
Image: Long exposure on days with fast-moving cloud creates dramatic skies.

Long exposure on days with fast-moving cloud creates dramatic skies.

It’s time to hit your shutter!

There are lots of ways to use creative shutter speed. Have you tried any of the above techniques? Are there any techniques you use that are different? As always, we want to hear your opinions. Likewise, we’d love to see any photos you have that showcase the creative use of shutter speed. So go out and try using shutter speed in different ways, and then share your experiences with us in the comments section.

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Simon Bond

Simon Bond is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured in national newspapers and magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in crystal ball photography Simon is the leading figure in this field, get some great tips by downloading his free e-book! Do you want to learn more about crystal ball photography? He has a video course just for you! Use this code to get 20% off: DPS20.