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Shutter Speed and Landscape Photography: A Practical Guide

How to use shutter speed for stunning landscapes

In landscape photography, there are three fundamental settings to consider: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed, known together as the exposure triangle. While all of these settings are equally important to understand to create technically correct images, I think that shutter speed is extra important for creating photos with impact. By carefully choosing your camera’s shutter speed, you can often make your image stand out from the crowd.

Determining the ideal shutter speed for a landscape scene is not easy, however. There’s not a single correct shutter speed, but there are scenarios where it’s a good idea to favor particular speed settings. In this article, I’ll walk you through a few different types of shutter speeds, and I’ll explain how you can use them to great effect in your landscape photography!

Using fast shutter speeds for landscape photography

For landscape photography – or any type of photography, really – the easiest shutter speed to use is a fast one. Working with fast shutter speeds doesn’t require a tripod, and you can capture moving subjects without worrying about motion blur. A fast shutter speed is also the most common choice for most beginning photographers since it doesn’t require much effort (and most Auto modes choose a relatively fast shutter speed, anyway).

Below, you have a typical example of when you need to use a fast shutter speed. To freeze the motion of the deer, I had to increase my shutter speed to 1/320s. Had the deer been moving faster, I would need to increase the shutter speed even more; otherwise, I’d risk motion blur.

deer in a field - Working with Different Shutter Speeds for Landscape Photography

Of course, the average landscape photographer rarely shoots photos featuring moving animals. Yet photographing animals is not the only time you should use a fast shutter speed. For this next image, I used a very fast shutter speed of 1/1600s:

iceberg and water - Working with Different Shutter Speeds for Landscape Photography

Why did I use such a quick shutter speed for that image? By the looks of it, the water is relatively still, and there are no moving subjects. Both of those things are true – but the shot was taken from a boat. Even though the waters were calm, I needed a very quick shutter speed in order to prevent any blur from camera movement as the boat moved along.

Had I been standing on land, I could have easily used a slower shutter speed and achieved a similar look. In fact, the overall image quality could have been even better! Since I needed a fast shutter speed and I didn’t have tons of light, I was forced to use a wider aperture and a higher ISO than were ideal.

But here’s the thing: landscape photography isn’t about always having the perfect settings. It’s about having the settings that allow you to get the shot within the given conditions.

Take it from me. For a long time, I was focused on always having the perfect settings for my landscape photography. But this approach often leads to missed shots as you focus too much on the technical details rather than working with the conditions you’re given.

If I had used a slower shutter speed when standing on the boat, I would have captured a photo with icebergs that were blurry due to the motion. What would you prefer? A blurry picture that is “technically” perfect, or a sharp picture that doesn’t have the perfect settings? For me, the sharp-yet-imperfect shot is definitely the better choice.

Before we move on to working with slower shutter speeds in landscape photography, let me run through the list of scenarios when I recommend dialing in a fast shutter speed:

  • When photographing the landscape handheld
  • When capturing landscapes that include quickly moving subjects (such as animals, cars, people, etc)
  • When aiming to freeze motion (such as rushing water or crashing waves)
  • When photographing from a vehicle

Using slow shutter speeds for landscape photography

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 a landscape shot captured at 1/320s and 1/640s, you’ll likely see a big difference between a landscape photo taken at 10 seconds and 60 seconds.

Because of this, I’ll split this section into two parts. The first part discusses working with shutter speeds that are less than 30 seconds, and the second part discusses working with shutter speeds that are more than 30 seconds.

dark image with moving water - Working with Different Shutter Speeds for Landscape Photography

Note: The definition of a long exposure is somewhat vague, but I’d define it as the shutter speed where you can no longer capture a sharp handheld image. Typically, this is around 1/50s, 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 focal length).

Shutter speeds up to 30 seconds

The difference between a 1-second and 30-second shutter speed is significant for landscape photography, but it’s more natural to group all of these speeds together. 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. Bear in mind that there’s no correct choice, and it often comes down to your preference and the tools at your disposal.

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 will also blur 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!).

waves crashing on a rocky shore - Working with Different Shutter Speeds for Landscape Photography
To maintain texture in crashing waves, I use shutter speeds around 0.5-1 seconds.

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 because 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. For 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’ll see that they have been moving and the image is starting to have the “dragged sky” effect.

seascape scene - Working with Different Shutter Speeds for Landscape Photography

Keep in mind that the speed of the clouds determines 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 get the “dragged sky” effect, you often need to use a shutter speed (or exposure time) longer than 30 seconds.

Shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds

(Note: In order to achieve a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds, you most likely need to activate Bulb Mode on your camera.)

When I first got into long-exposure landscape 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 – 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 a 2-3 minute exposure, they’ll most likely disappear, allowing you to capture a photo without any human presence, even in tourist-heavy locations.

sunset on a coastal scene - Working with Different Shutter Speeds for Landscape Photography

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.

When photographing the landscape, choose your shutter speed wisely!

Working with longer exposures can be a lot of fun, but it’s not 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 the resulting image will look the same whether it’s captured with a 300-second shutter speed or a 1/1000s shutter speed.

Hopefully, the advice I shared on choosing the right shutter speed for capturing the landscape was helpful. As you approach each new scene, keep in mind the difference between short, long, and ultra-long shutter speeds, and do your best to select the appropriate speed for the image you want to create.

If you find yourself unsure of how to proceed, try capturing the same scene using several different shutter speeds, then compare the images when you get home and see if you can learn from the results. Just remember that knowing how to select the best speed for each scene 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 ebook: The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography.

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Christian Hoiberg
Christian Hoiberg

is a full-time landscape photographer based in the scenic Lofoten Islands who helps aspiring photographers develop the skills needed to capture beautiful and impactful images. Visit his website to get a free download of his eBook 30 Tips to Improve Your Landscape Photography.

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