Shutter Speeds • Extending your creativity.
Our subject will often dictate what our shutter speed should be. When we are shooting a still life we have time to leave the shutter open for as long as necessary to create a proper exposure. This may not be the case when we are trying to photograph a child at play, or perhaps a little more action like a speeding racecar.
It’s important that we talk about what the shutter speed refers to first. We’re simply referring to the length of time we allow light come through the lens and be recorded. Using the Sunny 16 Rule, if our subject is in full sunlight we can set our aperture to f/16 and our shutter speed at 1/100 of a second (using ISO 100) and create a good exposure. That’s fine if we’re shooting people in casual motion. If our subject is a bit more animated, we’ll need to shoot at a faster shutter speed. Shooting at faster shutter speeds will ‘stop the action’ so our photo won’t have motion blur. It’s important to note that we don’t always want to stop the action, because the action of our subject could be very important to our composition.
When working with lower light we may have to shoot at a slower shutter speed. Before we do that we can open our aperture to allow more of the light to pass through the lens. For every stop we open the aperture we double the amount of light coming through the lens. So if we want to keep our shutter speed at 1/100 and we have ½ sun, we could open our aperture to f/11 and we would have the same exposure as f/16 with full sun. If we have ¼ sun, we could open our aperture to f/8 and still shoot at 1/100 shutter speed and still have the same exposure. The only problem with this is that we’re losing depth of field as we open the aperture. If you’re shooting a portrait of somebody, that’s ok since we generally want to be in the range of f/4 – f/5.6 for portraiture.
Now if we want to be creative and use a slower shutter speed to highlight the action in our subject. We could shoot a waterfall at a slow shutter speed and the water will look much more interesting than if we “stop the action”. The waterfall pictured here was shot with a 1 second exposure time. Shooting at slower shutter speeds can be very creative and a lot of fun too. The “ghost” photo was shot at f/32 for 30 seconds. While sitting in a little café my buddy Steve sat with his coffee for about 12 seconds while my shutter was open and the camera pointing at him. I then had him get up and leave with his chair and coffee. As you see; the result is that we can see the table that was behind him because we didn’t make a full exposure of him. With the light that was available in the café, Steve would have to sit still for 30 seconds to create a proper exposure. I only got 12 seconds of exposure on Steve and 18 seconds exposure of the table behind him. The surroundings are properly exposed but we have a ghost-like image of Steve and the table behind him.
Using a slow shutter speed can take a common scene and turn it into a very artistic and/or fun photo. It is very important to note, that your camera MUST be on a stable surface. In the case of the waterfall photo my camera was mounted on a sturdy tripod. For the photo of Steve I used the table to hold the camera. Another important factor is to not shake the camera by pushing the shutter release button. If you have a cable release you can use it to fire the shutter and avoid shake, otherwise, you can use the self-timer function.
So remember, if you need to keep your shutter speed fast to avoid motion blur or camera shake, you can open your aperture to allow more of the light through the lens. You can also increase your ISO so the camera will record the image faster, and in some cases you’ll have to do both of these. A good example where you might need a faster ISO and a wider aperture is a basketball game in a high school gym. If you go for the slower shutter speeds (anything under 1/50 of a second), be sure to use a tripod or other steady surface to stabilize the camera. I’ve used tables, park benches, rocks, fences and many other surfaces to hold my camera for slow shutter speeds, so be creative and have fun at it. You might be surprised at what you can do by putting your camera on the ground and using a very slow shutter speed (long exposure) for some scenes.
© 2009 – Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com