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There are three fundamental settings in landscape photography: the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed (known as the Exposure Triangle). While all of these are equally important to understand in order to create technically correct images, there’s one that’s extra important when it comes to an image’s visual impact. Adjusting the shutter speed makes a big difference and is often what can make your image stand out from the crowd.
Choosing the ideal shutter speed is not an easy process though. There rarely is a single correct shutter speed but there certainly are scenarios that benefit from a specific one. In this article, we’ll look at a few different scenes and how the shutter speed affects each of them.
The easiest shutter speed to work with is a fast one. Working with fast shutter speeds doesn’t require a tripod and you can easily photograph subjects that quickly pass by. This is also the most common choice for most beginning photographers as it doesn’t require much effort (and most auto functions choose a relatively fast shutter speed).
Below you have a typical example of when you need to use a fast shutter speed. In order to freeze the motion of the deer, I had to increase the shutter speed to 1/320th of a second. Had the deer been moving at a higher tempo I would have to increase the shutter speed even more to avoid any motion blur.
Photographing animals is not the only time where you should use a fast shutter speed though. In the image below, I used a shutter speed of 1/1600th.
Why did I use such a quick shutter speed for that scene? By the looks of it, the water is quite still, there are no moving subjects and there’s still enough light to use a slightly slower shutter speed, right? Yes, however, this shot was taken from a boat and even though the waters were relatively still, I needed a very quick shutter speed in order to freeze the scene without any blur from camera movement.
Had I been standing on land, I could have easily used a slower shutter speed and achieved a similar look. In fact, the overall quality could have been even better as I could have used a lower ISO and an ideal aperture. However, the purpose of photography isn’t to always have the perfect settings; it’s having the ideal settings that allows you to get the shot within the given conditions. The most important is to actually capture the image.
For too long I was too focused on always having the perfect settings. The truth is that this often leads to missing the shot as you focus too much on the technical aspect rather than working with the conditions you’re given.
For example, using a slower shutter speed when standing on a boat (such as in the image above) would have led to the icebergs being blurry due to the motion. What would you prefer? A blurry picture which is “technically” perfect, or a sharp picture that doesn’t have the technically perfect settings?
Before we move on to slower shutter speeds, let’s look at a few more scenarios where a fast shutter speed is recommended:
In landscape photography, the difference between slow shutter speeds is much bigger than between fast shutter speeds. While you won’t see a huge difference between 1/320th of a second and 1/640th of a second (in most cases) you may see a big difference between 10 seconds and 60 seconds. Because of this, I’ll split this section in two parts: less than 30 seconds, and more than 30 seconds (Bulb Mode).
The definition of a long exposure is somewhat vague but in my Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography eBook, I describe is at the shutter speed where you no longer can capture a sharp handheld image. Typically, this is in the range of 1/50th of a second, depending on your camera and focal length (a longer focal length requires a quicker shutter speed to capture a sharp handheld image than a wide-angle).
While the difference between a 1 second and 30-second shutter speed is big, it’s more natural to put these together in one section to keep this easier to follow. Still, I’ll try to break it up a little to give you an idea of which shutter speeds you should experiment with in different situations. Again, there’s no correct choice and it often comes down to your preference and the tools you’ve got to work with.
When photographing beaches and seascapes where waves are crashing onto the shore or forming around rocks, I often work with a shutter speed of 0.5-1 second. I find that this creates a nice blur in the water while still keeping enough texture. A slower shutter speed such as 8 seconds blurs the water but not enough to give it the “silky” effect you often see with long exposure photography (we’ll come back to that in a bit).
This also applies when photographing waterfalls and rivers. I tend to use a semi-slow shutter speed rather than an ultra-slow shutter speed when working with these scenes, as I prefer to keep some textures in the water.
As you lengthen the shutter speed you’ll see that moving elements become more and more blurry. In the image below, I used a shutter speed of 20 seconds to blur the water and give some motion to the sky. If you look at the clouds, you can see that they have been moving and it’s starting to have the “dragged sky” effect.
Keep in mind that the speed of the clouds determine how slow the shutter speed needs to be in order to pick up this motion. When clouds are moving quickly you can pick up their motion even with a shutter speed of 5-10 seconds, but to really get the “dragged sky” effect you often need to use a shutter speed (or exposure time) longer than 30 seconds.
In order to achieve a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds you most likely need to activate Bulb Mode.
When I first got into long exposure photography and purchased my first 10-Stop ND filters, I immediately got hooked on these ultra-slow shutter speeds. I’ll admit that I don’t do as much of it anymore (as it rarely fits with the vision I have for most locations) but it’s certainly a lot of fun to play with.
The main reason to use a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds for landscape photography is to achieve the “dragged sky” effect and to completely blur out moving elements such as water. It can also be a good way to remove people from your images (if they walk around during your 2-3 minute exposure they most likely “disappear”).
For the image above I used a shutter speed of 180 seconds. As you can see, this has completely blurred the water and the sky is dragged across the frame.
Working with longer exposures can be a lot of fun but it’s not something that’s always beneficial. For example, when photographing a scene that doesn’t have any moving elements (and no clouds), there’s no need to use an ultra slow shutter speed, as it will most likely look exactly the same with a slower one.
So knowing how to select the best or most appropriate shutter speed takes practice, and comes down to what you want to achieve in your image.
For more information about this and other aspects of this type of photography, check out my Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography eBook,