Using shutter speed for creative effect

Monks receiving alms in Luang Prabang

The world is in motion; more often than not there’s something moving, flowing or flapping! Expressing that motion brings pictures alive; transforming them from a static record to a dynamic image. There are certain classic subjects that automatically spring to mind when thinking of captured motion in images: smooth, milky water flowing over the falls, blurred people milling around a train station or star trails in the night sky. In each example, a part of the image is blurred by the motion of the subject — the water, people or stars – while the stationary parts of the picture remain sharp.

To capture an image using a slow shutter speed, a low ISO of 100 (or lower if your camera will allow it), should first be selected. In fact, it is best practice to use as low an ISO as lighting allows to ensure cleaner pictures with less noise.

Now set your camera mode dial to Shutter Priority (either Tv or S depending on your brand of camera) which will allow you to choose your shutter speed. The camera to automatically set the correct aperture for proper exposure.

The precise shutter speed needed will depend on how fast the subject to be blurred is moving — the slower the object you are looking to blur, the slower the shutter speed will need to be. For example, to blur a person moving at a walking pace a shutter speed of approximately ¼ of a second is needed, whereas blurring clouds in the sky can require minutes!

For inspiration take a look at the work of some of the great modern landscape photographers, such as David Noton, or Joe Cornish to see the beauty that can be captured with a slow shutter speed, but there is a price to pay – camera shake...

Accepted wisdom dictates that the lowest shutter speed at which a camera can be hand held without the images suffering from the unwanted blurring of camera shake is the inverse of the focal length of the lens. In other words, if your lens is set to a focal length of 50mm then camera shake will occur at shutter speeds slower than 1/50 second; if you are zooming in to 200mm then that speed increases to 1/200 second. As mentioned above blurring the moving elements of an image only really works when the static parts of that image retain their sharpness. The answer is very simple -  use a tripod!

The image above, of monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang was shot using a shutter speed of 0.3 seconds with the camera mounted on a tripod. The temple and old lady doling out rice remain sharp while the monks are blurred creating an impression of motion.

Of course, sometimes we want to achieve the opposite effect and to freeze motion – for example capturing every droplet of water in a fountain or a bird in flight. To do this simply select a fast shutter speed – around 1/500 second for water and 1/1000 second for fast moving objects like cars or animals.

So if you are thinking of taking your travel photography to the next level and plan to experiment with longer shutter speeds why not pack a tripod in your luggage next time you hit the road?
This entry was posted in Basic Photography Techniques.