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Shutter Speed and its Creative Application in Digital Photography

Among the three elements that constitute the Exposure Triangle, Shutter Speed is one control that offers photographers many opportunities to unleash their creative side. By controlling the amount of time the digital camera’s sensor is exposed to light; photographers could freeze action, capture the movement, make water silky smooth, capture images in very low light and much more. Here in this article we will explore some of the creative applications of shutter speed.

high speed photography
Photo By Mbiskoping

If you are not familiar with the concepts of ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed and their inter-relationship in constituting the exposure, I would recommend you to click on the respective links to grab the fundamentals and then come back to this article.

It is when photographing moving subjects that the creative use of shutter speed really works magic. However it is to be noted that when we say increase or decrease the shutter speed, what we mean is shift exposure values to get faster or slower shutter speeds. Let us have a look at how shutter speed affects the other two variables of the camera exposure.

In order to properly expose a picture (assuming the camera has already set the exposure)

Options available                                     Effect
To get faster shutter speeds :-    
Use wider aperture values, increase ISO      Lesser depth of field, increased noise levels

If a faster shutter speed is achieved by using a wider aperture setting, then the resultant images will only suffer from less depth of field than that of the original aperture. But if ISO is also increased to attain the faster shutter speed there are chances of increased noise levels in the shot.

To get slower shutter speeds:-
.Use narrower aperture values, decrease ISO     Greater depth of field, reduced noise levels

Getting slower shutter speeds requires using narrower apertures and lower ISO, as long as the increased D.O.F is not an issue it is easy to do but there comes certain circumstances when you would not want to increase the depth of field and still get slower shutter speeds, also there will be plenty of occasions when even the narrowest aperture on your lens would not be sufficient to attain slow enough shutter speeds for the required effect. If lowering the ISO and Aperture to its lowest value does not do the trick, use special filters like Neutral Density filters of various intensities to achieve the goal.

Creative Use of Fast Shutter Speeds – High Speed Photography – Freeze Action

High speed photography opens up a plethora of opportunities for a creative photographer like Action sports, Car races, Birds and insects in flight, Water droplets, Bursting balloons, Bullets and exploding items and many more. The digital camera operating at very high speeds could even capture frames that we normally would not be able to see / analyse with our eyes. For e.g. imagine you are looking at a kingfisher diving into the water and coming out with a fish, or a frog catching an insect flying close to it. If you recall what you just saw, it won’t be much – you will only be able to remember the beginning and end of the scene and not much more. There are endless applications to high speed photography now let us discuss the actual photographing part.

Photo By Nebarnix

High speed photography is highly dependent on knowing your subject well, anticipating events in advance and reacting accordingly. We humans have a very slow reaction time of less than 1/5th of a second. And the sequence we are attempting to capture may be happening at speeds in excess of 1/500th of a second. To compound the problem there is the shutter delay or the shutter lag that our digital cameras invariably has. Typical DSLR cameras have a reaction time of 1/10 to 1/20th of a second and for Point and Shoot cameras it could be as high as ½ second. All these calculations which are happening at fractions of a second would count to nothing if your camera does not attain focus in time; and in certain circumstances that could take….. Well……forever.

fast shutter speed
Photo By Photo Art

So for high speed photography anticipate your subject’s next move, pre-focus to combat shutter lag, use continuous shooting mode, start shooting a burst of frames immediately before the action is about to happen and your chances of getting the required shot will be much higher. We will be dealing high speed photography in detail in future articles.

Creative Use of Slower Shutter Speeds - Conveying Motion

The photographers trick to convey a sense of motion in their images is to use slow shutter speeds and thus intentionally add a trail or blur. Depending on the final effect desired, the photographers apply various techniques by varying shutter speeds like using very slow shutter speed and rendering the subject almost like an unrecognisable streak, using a bit more faster shutter speed than earlier and thus creating a more defined blur, or simply keeping the subject in sharp focus and render everything else blurred by panning etc.

creative shutter speed
Photo By Vineetradhakrishnan

However while attempting to create these effects there are certain other elements that need to be taken into account to determine how slow a shutter speed will be needed for each shot.
  1.     The speed at which the subject is moving – faster moving subjects could be blurred with relatively faster shutter speeds and vice versa.
  2.     Direction of Movement – for any given speed, subjects moving towards or farther from the camera will require slower shutter speeds to blur than subjects moving from side to side.
  3.     Relative size of the subject – the larger the magnification of the subject (how much of the frame is occupied by the subject) the more blurred they appear and so this allows you to control the blur by changing focal length of the lens and the distance from subject to the lens.

Effect 1 – Stationary Subject and Moving Surroundings

Slow shutter speed could be used to capture a stationary subject amongst movement, e.g. a person standing still to cross the road. The traffic will appear blurred and the person will appear to pop out of the frame.

slow speed photography
Photo By Hi Phi

Effect 2 – Panning – Moving subject and Stationary Surroundings

Unlike the previous effect in panning it is the subject that is actually moving, the photographer either moves the camera along with the subject (shooting from inside of a car) or pans along with the subject standing at a distance and captures movement by using a shutter speed which is just slow enough to cause the background to streak. You could read more about the panning technique by clicking on the link - Panning

slow speed panning
Photo By Patrickmayon

Effect 3 – Zooming – Stationary subject and Stationary Background

If one decides to add interest to a photo in which neither the subject nor the background element is moving he/she could make use of the Zoom Blur technique. It involves setting up the camera on a tripod, using a slow shutter speed of say ½ a second and zooming in or out during the exposure. The subject will appear with increasing radial blur towards the edges of the frame giving the impression of a subject moving rapidly. You may read more about this technique in the article – Zoom Blur

zoom blur
Photo By Robtain

Effect 4 – Artistic

This is one technique where in the most dreaded enemy of photography will actually be put to good use. Yes we are referring to Camera Shake. Camera shake is usually avoided at all costs, but here in this technique, the photographer uses a slow shutter speed and purposefully moves the camera (try experimenting with different movements, arc, round, twist, etc) during the exposure to induce subject blur. However it is more for the artistic minded among us.

camera shake
Photo By R id

Now that we have discussed some of the creative possibilities that shutter speeds presents it is time to put it into practice and for those of you who are wondering what if the ambient light present at the scene does not allow the use of the desired shutter speed even after all combinations of the other two elements have been tried.

To get faster shutter speeds – try a Fast Lens (lens with larger maximum aperture), shift location, add light to the scene, use flash.

To get slower shutter speeds – use a lens with narrower maximum aperture, shift location, use Neutral Density or Polarizing filters or both.

In the next article we will discuss about Photography - Tips For Beginners - How to use Focal Lock?

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