The amount of light reaching your camera's sensor is known as the exposure and this is controlled by two items on a camera - the aperture and shutter speed. The aperture is a variable hole in front of the lens that adjusts to let more or less light through and the shutter speed is a cover over the sensor that controls the length of time that the light reaches it.
As well as their practical needs both can be used creatively in photography and in this technique we will take a more detailed look at shutter speeds. The shutter speeds of cameras can go from long exposures of 30 or more seconds to fast speeds of anything as short as 1/8000sec. We have recently updated this article to bring it up to date with the latest technology.
Photo by Peter Bargh.
All cameras from the most basic point-and-shoot single use camera to the latest highly sophisticated digital SLRs have shutter speeds. The very basic compact models may have a fixed speed and there's nothing you can do with these. More advanced compact cameras have adjustable shutter speeds, but the speed is controlled automatically and you have no override. Then we go into the more sophisticated cameras such as DSLRs and Samsung's NX system cameras. With these types of camera you still have the automated control but also an override of some form to allow more creative use of the shutter speed. It's here where you can start to get creative with your photography.
How It Works
By adjusting the shutter speed you can control the movement of your subject moving through your frame. A fast shutter speed will freeze the subject and a slow shutter speed will make it look blurred as the subject moves. You can also combine flash with a slow speed to get movement and blur all in the same shot. Lets look at the techniques one by one.
Slow Shutter Speeds In Daylight
There are a few techniques you can try here. The first is following the subject as it moves - a technique known as panning. You select a slow shutter speed and follow the subject as it moves, pressing the shutter button as you pan. If you get it right the subject will appear sharp as it hasn’t moved position in the viewfinder, but the background will be blurred making the subject look as though its hurtling along. Try this on cyclists, cars, planes, joggers, animals and sporting activities.
Another method of creating movement is to keep the camera at a fixed point and press the shutter button using a slow shutter speed. This time the subject will be blurred as it passes across the viewfinder and the background will be sharp. This takes a lot of skill to get the detail right as the subject can often look too blurred resulting in a photograph with no impact.
The third technique is same as our previous example, but used to remove the subject. It's employed by architectural photographers who want to photograph a building without people getting in the way. If the shutter speed is slow they'll record as a blurred and distracting object, but if it's extremely long the blurred person walking across the path of the view will be so blurred it won't even be recognisable and won't affect the picture.
If you can't slow the shutter speed down enough to create your desired effect, try using a smaller aperture (bigger number) to reduce the amount of light reaching your sensor and if you're still having problems, fitting an ND filter over your lens will reduce the light value even more, hopefully resulting in the slower shutter speed you need. As the filter is neutral it won't affect the colour of the picture so you'll be able to take a natural looking shot.
Slow Shutter Speeds At Night
A long shutter speed can be set at night to record car headlights as trails. Choose a position on a suitable bridge over a busy road and tripod mount the camera. Then fire the shutter with a speed of between one and 15 seconds depending on the length of streak you require.
Fast Shutter Speed In Daylight
The alternative of selecting a slow shutter speed is to go for a fast shutter speed to do the exact opposite which is to stop your subject in its tracks. In this case you need to use a shutter speed faster than the speed of the moving subject, which varies depending on the direction too. If the subject is moving across the path at close range it will appear to be moving faster than a distant subject and a faster speed will be needed.
Using a subject-freezing shutter speed is perfect if you want to stop a goal-scoring footballer in their tracks, freeze an athlete in mid air or an insect or bird in mid flight. It's less effective for cars or vehicles as it makes them look static which doesn't make for a very exciting shot.
A camera which can capture quickly and features a quick AutoFocus will also help you capture fast, action-packed shots. The Samsung NX1, for example, lets you shoot continuously at an ultra-fast rate of up to 15 frames per second to ensure you get the shot you want. The advanced autofocus system brings crystal clarity to fast-moving subjects, and a short shutter release lag helps you capture the fleeting moment before the subject moves out of frame.
Using Flash To Freeze Movement
Flash provides a burst of light in a split second that will freeze even the fastest subject in its tracks. Combining a slower shutter speed with a pop of flash is known as slow sync flash on many cameras and if you're working with a more advanced camera, you'll find you have two options: Rear curtain which will fire the flash at the end of the exposure and front curtain which fires the flash at the beginning of the exposure. For action shots, it's rear curtain sync we are interested in as it's great for adding impact to your shot. To use it, let your subject move through the scene and as you now know the slower shutter speed will blur their movement. However, by adding a pop of flash at the end of the exposure, it will leave them crisp and sharp.
Slow Shutter Speeds With Zoom Lenses
Another great technique, known as a zoom burst, will work with cameras where the zoom can be adjusted manually while the exposure is taking place.
You need to mount the camera on a tripod and set the zoom to either the short or long end of the focal length range. Then, with the camera on a slow shutter speed fire the shutter release and rotate the zoom barrel so it moves from one end of the focal length range to the other during the exposure. A steady uniform rotation is necessary to ensure a smooth zoom burst.