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Improve Your Photography: Creative Use of Shutter Speed

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  • Post published:02/09/2021
  • Reading time:10 mins read
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I want to discuss shutter speed and how it can be utilized as part of the creative process. What? How can you use shutter speed “creatively”? The shutter opens and closes to make an exposure. How can you do this creatively? Well, just like you can control the feel of a photograph with creative use of aperture and depth of field (this will be covered separately), shutter speed can also be an effective tool to convey motion and evoke feelings. If you just set your shutter to the fastest possible speed and shoot you may come away very disappointed. The same is true if the speed is too slow.

This post is going to discuss the use of slow shutter speeds to convey motion and create a mood. I will cover fast shutter speeds and other techniques, including panning, in future blog posts. The downside to using slow shutter speeds is that you have to carry a tripod (or some other device) with you to hold the camera steady during such a long exposure. Personally, I think it is well worth the effort.

How to Creatively Use Shutter Speed

The images used here were all taken during a hike at the Overlook at the Falls park in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. The first image was taken with a slow shutter speed (1/6) to make the water appear more like what the naked eye sees. The water takes on a soft quality while the non-moving surroundings remain sharp. This not only transforms the water to a soft, flowing quality but it helps to separate the branches in the foreground from the falling water. This is a nice, tranquil image. It’s like listening to “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.

Now take a look at the next image. This is the same shot but the shutter speed was increased to 1/30th. It’s not bad but given a choice, which would you hang on the wall? You can begin to see the water droplets and the irregularities in the flow of the water as well as foam at the bottom left of the image. The third image was shot at 1/250th and is not at all appealing. The water looks more like a stucco wall than a water fall and you can see the churning of the water at the bottom. Notice too, that the separation between the branches and the water isn’t as pronounced.

The last image was taken with a shutter speed of 1/4000th. Talk about harsh! The water is frozen in space and the branches are beginning to get harder to see. This is like listening to “Crazy Train” by Black Sabbath! Would this image make you want to visit the falls? I didn’t think so.

Can you think of other subjects that might benefit from a slower shutter speed? Here’s one that most people may not think about. Have you ever wanted to take a picture of a building but people keep walking by? That is not a problem if you have a tripod and use a slow shutter speed. If you use a slow enough speed the people will be in and out of the image without showing up. Depending upon what speed you shoot, anything passing between the camera and subject will appear normal (fast shutter), blurred (slightly slower), ghost-like (slower yet) or completely disappear. You can have a lot of fun with this technique. Give this a try – go outside, find a building or landscape you want to shoot, put the camera on a tripod and play around. Try slow, medium and fast shutter speeds and see what you get. Have your friends join in on the fun – have someone run through the picture while someone walks slowly and another stands still.

I will leave you with one last example of a slow shutter speed. This was taken at the same location but a little further downstream. The exposure for this shot was .8 seconds at f/36.

How to Use "Panning"

The objective of panning is to have a sharp subject and a blurred foreground and/or background. 

It is an incredibly effective way of showing motion in an image. The art of panning during the exposure can be difficult to perfect but is well worth the effort. You are going to need your camera, a tripod (or monopod) and a moving subject. You need to make certain the tripod is level so that when you move, the horizon doesn’t skew. You don’t absolutely need to have the tripod but it is helpful; in fact the two shots shown here were made without the aid of either. They were taken during hikes in Thompson Park as the light was growing dim. I couldn’t use a fast shutter so I had to pan to get these shots. You will notice that most of the image is blurred – not due to poor focus but due to slow shutter speed and panning with the subject. There are parts of the deer that are clear and reasonably sharp but the foreground and background are very blurred, along with the legs. This is the most dramatic way to show motion in your photographs.

In the case of the deer images, circumstances dictated that I use a slow shutter and pan. Fortunately it is a skill that I have worked on over the years and it comes naturally which is why you should add it to your arsenal of techniques.

So now you know the why, here comes the how. Think of your camera as a video camera. When you shoot video you keep the camera pointed at the subject while you shoot; that is what you are going to do now but instead of recording a video you are taking a single photo (or a series of photos if you have multiple shooting capabilities.) When you are first starting out I would suggest choosing a subject that will give you many opportunities to shoot like a track meet or car race. You could even set up by a reasonably busy street and shoot cars passing by. What you are looking for is a situation where you can compose and set up your shot without the subject. Crazy! Right? Remember, your subject is moving and will only be in the “zone” for a split second. You don’t always have time to compose the shot and focus, especially if you are close to the action. You also don’t want to think about anything but a smooth panning action when you are first trying this technique.

Mount the camera on the tripod and make sure it is parallel to the path of your subject. Tighten the handle so that the platform will not tilt when you move it and loosen the handle that restricts the panning movement. You want the camera to move freely so that you get a smooth motion when you take the picture. Decide where you want the subject to be when you take the shot and compose the image, including focus. Now, if you have a camera that will adjust the focus of your subject as it moves – terrific! If you don’t then you need to set the focus manually. I know, you’re wondering how you can focus on something that isn’t there; right? You can set the focus by picking a spot on the ground where your subject will be and focus on that. You’re going to be using a small aperture so you will have decent depth of field. When you have done this pan the camera to your left (if the action is moving from left to right), look through the viewfinder and turn the camera to the right as though your subject were here. Have your finger on the shutter release when you do this and have the shutter partially depressed. You are going to depress the shutter fully when your subject is “in the zone” AND the camera is still moving. You are going to continue moving the camera even after you take the shot – this is the follow through, like a batter in baseball or a golfer hitting a tee shot. The follow through is very important to the success of the shot. When you are starting out, I would suggest doing this a few times so that you become comfortable with the action.

When the time comes to actually shoot, you are going to turn the camera to the left and wait for your subject to enter the frame. When you have it framed start panning to your right, keeping the subject just to the left of the center of the frame. You’ll notice that the subject will appear to be moving faster as it gets closer to your target area and you will need to adjust your panning speed to keep up. When the subject reaches your target zone, gently squeeze the shutter while continuing to pan and continue panning after the shot.

(Note: If you can take multiple shots, you might want to do so – it could yield some great shots. Just start firing a bit before the target zone and continue to shoot a couple images after the target zone.)

That was easy! Right? Don’t worry if the initial shots don’t turn out the way you expect them to. It takes a lot of practice and even then you never quite know what to expect. That is why I would suggest you start by shooting something that will give you a lot of opportunities to get the shot – something that has a track and the participants take multiple laps, a car race, foot race, bike race, etc…. would be a good place to start. The beauty of digital is that you get instant feedback and can adjust your settings and technique for the next shot.

The above instructions assumed you were using a tripod – what if you don’t have a tripod? (If you don’t have one yet, check out our gear guide.)

The action is the same but you are using your body as the pivot instead of the column of the tripod. You want to stand with your feet about shoulder width apart (maybe even a little more) and pointed directly at the target zone. You are then going to turn at the waist and only move your upper body to pan with the subject. You are going to do this while keeping the camera level and moving only at the waist. Make certain to keep your elbows down and tight against your body to add stability.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned shutter speed yet. This is something you are going to have to experiment with. The images shown here were shot at 1/25th and 1/15th and worked well. If you have something moving very fast you can use a faster shutter speed but if something is moving slowly you might need a slower shutter speed. This is where experimentation will pay dividends. I would suggest starting at 1/60th and then progressively slower speeds.

That, my friends, is what panning is all about. I only talk about horizontal panning in this article but you can use the technique to shoot something moving vertically, too. The vertical shots are slightly more difficult.

Read Joe’s blog: Exploring Photography with Joe ValenciaLearn more about Joe here.

All photos by Joe Valencia. Follow him on Instagram.

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