Changing shutter speed not only changes the amount of light that enters the camera, it also changes the way your images look. By changing the shutter speed, you’re allowing the film or digital sensor to be exposed for a longer or shorter period of time. That affects how motion is portrayed in your image. A short (or ‘fast’) shutter speed will freeze motion, whereas a long (or ‘slow’) shutter speed will allow you to show motion.
Let’s take a look at a few examples using slower shutter speeds to show motion in your images:
Slow speeds – camera stationary
The image above shows what happens when you use a slow shutter speed while holding the camera still. In this case the shutter speed was 1/40th of a second, which allowed me to hand-hold the camera while still showing some motion on the cyclist. The slower the shutter speed, the more movement in your subject.
The image below was made with a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second. That’s starting to get a little slow for hand-holding so I rested the camera on the top of a fence rail on the side of the road. The image shows a cyclist riding along the road, followed closely by a skateboarder. Both the cyclist and skateboarder are blurred quite a lot, but they’re still identifiable, while the rest of the image is still in focus. It gives a feeling of movement, without moving the camera.
Panning the camera to add motion
Moving the camera while making an exposure is another way to show movement in an image. Instead of keeping the camera still and using a long shutter speed – you move, or pan, the camera with your moving subject as you expose the image. That way the subject remains sharp, while the background becomes blurred.
This image of another cyclist riding along a boardwalk was also taken at 1/40th of a second, panning with the rider and following him from right to left as he passed by. The shutter speed was slow enough that the background is blurred, while the bicycle and rider are relatively sharp.
Remember, the subject doesn’t have to be ‘tack sharp’ when you’re showing movement. Sometimes a little blur on the subject helps to enhance the feeling of movement in the image, as it does in this case. Notice the spokes of the bicycle’s wheels are blurry too, which also helps to show movement. Using a faster shutter speed while panning would have resulted in the background not being as out of focus and the wheels would have been frozen in time with the spokes clearly visible. In essence, the cyclist would have looked like he was stationary and balancing on the boardwalk, not moving as he actually was.
Cyclists and other fast moving objects are not the only subjects for slow shutter speeds. What about shots including moving water. I think it’s fair to say we’ve all seen images of the sea or a river with water that looks buttery smooth. That smoothness is also achieved by using a slow shutter speed.
The following three images were all taken from the same location on the side of the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. The camera was mounted on a tripod for stability and the images were made at different exposure values. The first image was made with a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second, which is relatively fast for this type of photograph. The individual ripples in the water are clearly visible. You can see some movement, but not much.
The second image was made with a shutter speed of 2 seconds. The water is starting to get smoother due to the longer shutter speed. The individual ripples are starting to disappear.
The final image in this series was exposed for five seconds. The water has now become much smoother due to the movement while the shutter was open. Photography is an art form and there is no right or wrong way to photograph any subject, but for me, the third image with the smooth water is much more appealing than the first two versions.
Why not experiment with different shutter speeds next time you go out to make photographs. It’s a great way to add interest to an otherwise static and maybe boring subject! All it takes is a little imagination and patience and you can come away with some really interesting and different images – like this water drain for example, which was hand-held with a shutter speed of one second. The ghostly images passing over the drain make it a little more interesting than just the drain grate itself. The most important thing is to experiment – and have fun!