A Quick Guide to Slow Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is one of the three pillars of photography.

  1. Shutter speed
  2. Aperture
  3. ISO

It primarily determines two things:

  • Exposure
  • Amount of blur

However, when you understand how shutter speed works, you can do so much more than simply manipulate the brightness or amount of blur.

In this post, we’re going to take a quick look at slow shutter speed photography, and go through the creative shutter speed techniques that are ‘must-masters’.

What is shutter speed?

Every time you take a photo, a small flap called the shutter opens and closes to let light reach your camera’s internal sensor, which creates your image. Shutter speed simply describes how long the shutter stays open.

Fast shutter speed means that the shutter is only open for a short period of time and slow shutter speed means the shutter is open for longer.

How is it measured?

Shutter speeds are measured in seconds, or fractions of a second. For example, a shutter speed of 1/100 means 1/100th of a second or 0.01 seconds.

This is also known as the ‘exposure time’ because it’s the amount of time the sensor is exposed to light.

Most cameras offer a wide range of shutter speeds, starting at just a few thousandths of a second and going up to several seconds. Some give you even more control, allowing you to hold the shutter open indefinitely.

What does it do?

When the shutter stays open for a longer time (slower shutter speed) the object in motion will appear blurry in the photograph because that same object is recorded in multiple places on the film or sensor as the object moves across the frame for as long as the shutter is open.

The longer the shutter is open, the more light reaches the film/sensor, resulting in a brighter overall image and more recorded movements of the object (blur).

…this is where the fun comes in.

Slow shutter speed is your window of opportunity to get creative.

What you’ll need:

  • Tripod
    It’s frustratingly easy to capture camera shake if you’re going handheld.
    A tripod is crucial no matter how steady you think your grip is.
  • Camera
    Most decent DSLRs on the market will do.
    You don’t need a top of the range camera to pull off top-notch shots.
  • Remote shutter release [optional]
    A remote shutter release is a device that lets you trigger the shutter remotely to avoid moving the camera when you press the button.
  • Neutral density filter [optional]
    • ND filters black out the light so that your shutter can be open for longer. They’re recommended if you’re experimenting with long exposure during the day.

Running Water

Shutter speed: 1/2 seconds or slower
Equipment: Tripod, ND filter

Setup:
Because you’re capturing a moving scene, it’s important to have elements within the frame that remain static to highlight the moving smooth blur of water.

For example, if you are shooting a waterfall, compose and focus your shot of the water but be sure to include protruding rocks or trees to add contrast in movement and detail.

Tip: Use an ND filter in bright light or you won’t be able to use a slow shutter speed and get a properly exposed image.

Light Trails

Shutter speed: 10-15 seconds or slower
Equipment: Tripod

Ever wanted to capture and track the motion of evening traffic or bustling nightlife? Thanks to slow shutter speed, you can capture these streaks of light, otherwise called light trails. The longer the exposure duration, the longer the light trails.

Setup:
Simply steady your camera and tripod and frame your shot. Be sure to experiment with different angles and different shutter speeds to achieve your desired light trails.

Tip: Make sure that your shutter speed is long enough to capture longish light trails. You don’t want to cut them off too soon as you will have some unwanted short trails in your image.

Panning

Shutter speed: 1/30 to 1/60 seconds
Equipment: ND Filter

This one’s a cool one, but a tricky one.

Panning is a technique where you pan to follow an object in motion to capture the object clearly (sharp) and render motion blur to the rest of the image. Unlike the other techniques, a tripod’s not going to help you with this move.

Setup:
This technique is best done by tracking the motion of your subject, turning your camera to follow its motion and releasing the shutter during the process, while continuing to pan.

Getting your timing and coordination down at the start might be slow going, but having this trick up your sleeve is well worth the effort.

Tip: The shutter speed will depend on the speed of your subject and how much panning effect you want. Experiment in the recommended range and adjust accordingly.

Light painting

Shutter speed: 2 seconds or slower
Equipment: Tripod

Just about any light source can be used to create a light painting, from a flashlight to your phone to party sparklers.

Setup:
Simply set up your camera in a dark room or outdoor setting with the ‘painter’ out of frame. As soon as you take the photo, the painter is then free to paint or write different patterns with their chosen light source.

Tip: The exposure duration depends on how much time you need to finish your drawing. Allow for extra time if you want to finish out of frame.

Ghosting

Shutter speed: 5 seconds or slower
Equipment: Tripod

This technique is sure to get heads turning, and it’s shockingly easy to pull off.

Setup:
Start with your ‘ghost’ subject out of frame. Once you open the shutter, have your subject simply movie in frame and plant themselves in different positions to capture them as a semi-transparent ‘ghost’.

Tip: Consider a 5-15 sec exposure (depending on the lighting) with the ghost standing still in any given position for no longer than half the exposure duration.

Star trails

Shutter speed: 1 hour or slower
Equipment: Tripod, fully charged battery

Bring warm clothes because this long exposure shot can take hours—but it’s worth it.

Long exposure shots of the night sky are at the extreme end of the slow shutter speed effects. We’re talking shutter speeds over an hour.

Setup:
This effect lets you capture the motion of stars in the sky as star trails. The longer the exposure, the longer the trails captured.

If you are shooting in the Northern Hemisphere, take the time to locate the Polaris star (North Star). When in frame, it’ll give your image a pivot point around which the rest of the stars rotate. Sorry Southern Hemispheres, we don’t have an equivalent.

Tip: Check weather conditions before heading out. The last thing you want is getting there and discovering an overcast night with low star visibility.

Racking the Lens

Shutter speed: Variable
Equipment: Tripod optional

This last long exposure effect doesn’t have a recommended shutter speed and you don’t even need a tripod.

If you’re going to attempt this one, you’ll need to be fairly well versed with your shutter speed settings, as well as your aperture and ISO.

Setup:
Simply set your shutter speed to a reasonably long exposure and then compose and focus your shot as normal. While taking the shot, between when the shutter opens and shuts, zoom in or out.

It seems easy enough, but pulling off your desired effect takes a lot of experimenting with different light and settings. All part of the process!

Tip: Choose a shutter speed long enough to zoom your lens from one end to another. Things to consider are the level of available light, type of lens being used and amount of movement in frame or from your camera.
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