Learning how to truly control and use shutter speed is one of most important lessons we all must master as photographers. The reason? Your camera’s shutter speed function is the most powerful image-making element in your arsenal of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. It’s the one factor that, more than any other, can make or break your image. So getting really, really good at using this feature to its full advantage will go a long way towards improving your photography. That’s what we’ll start to do here.
Why do I say shutter speed is so important? Because by using shutter speed correctly and with careful intention, you can greatly enhance the power of the images you’re already making. I’ll give some examples below.
Example 1: Sports Action
You’re shooting a football game (or other sporting event) with your 300mm lens. It’s a daytime event and you’re camera is set for 400 ISO, Program Mode. The camera picks 1/500th of a second @ f8 for the exposure. The resulting photos will be perfectly ok, but just ok. How could you improve these action shots?
First of all, get out of Program Mode! Change to full Manual or Aperture Priority mode. Then open up to minimum (wide open) aperture and a higher shutter speed, in this case, the equivalent exposure would be 1/2000th sec @ f4 with my Canon 300 mm f4 lens. What will this change do for your images? First, the minimum aperture will help throw elements you aren’t focusing on out of focus much, much better than the former f8 aperture would do. This alone will improve your images. But just as importantly, 1/2000th sec is FOUR TIMES faster than 1/500th sec, and the detail and action-stopping quality in the images will be much, much CRISPER. (If you doubt this, go out and perform this very exercise at a local soccer or football game, you’ll quickly see how much cleaner the 1/2000th sec images will be.) To sum up, for peak action, you want very, very fast shutter speeds with minimum apertures.
Example 2: Cyclist Riding (Pan blur)
Now we go to the opposite end of the shutter speed spectrum: intentional blur.
Besides providing you with the ability to make jaw-dropping, incredibly crisp action photos, shutter speed can be used to create beautiful, amazing implied motion with slow shutter speeds. (The photographer most famous for this technique is Ernst Haas, whose later career was defined by it.)
For this example we’ll be shooting a cyclist. The first shot at left is a standard, straight-up version of someone on a bike. Pretty boring, no? Well, let’s try to do something a big more creative. We’ll imply all of the wonderful feeling of cruising on a bike, the wind blowing through your hair, by panning as we follow the action, attempting to match our pan speed to the speed of the cyclist. This will require a slow shutter speed and correspondingly high aperture. To further slow things down, I’ll suggest setting your camera to the slowest ISO available, in my case, ISO 100. We’ll need to experiment some to find the perfect shutter speed for this photograph, since the speed of the cyclist will have a big bearing on the most dramatic shutter speed to use.
So whether it’s fast or slow shutter speeds that might work in the situation you’re shooting, try to think carefully about all that this feature can do, before you press that shutter button! You want to be making informed and intelligent choices for your shutter speed, dictated by the situation you are shooting.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog
Related posts on the web:
Smashing Pumpkins at Pixsylated
Using Blur to Portray Movement at Digital Photography School
Shutter Speed at DIYPhotography.net