Understanding shutter speed as a creative tool: freeze and pan with confidence

Understanding shutter speed as a creative tool: freeze, pan and smooth with confidence

Understanding shutter speed as a creative tool is essential if you want to produce images that are about movement – whether you’re freezing action, smoothing out running water or panning the camera to add motion blur.

The shutter speed often seems to take second place to more obvious creative controls such as aperture and depth of field, so we’re going to show you how important understanding shutter speed is to your creative repertoire; we’ll show you how to take control of your shutter speeds and how to turn what would have been a good shot into a great shot.

Understanding shutter speed as a creative tool: freeze, pan and smooth with confidence

Whether it’s a ghostly seascape or the silken drapes of a cascading waterfall, the results you can get by modifying the shutter speed can show the world around us in a way that the eye can’t see. Capture the drag of a receding wave or pan a speeding motorcycle and your images will have not only dimension, but panache.

Contrary to most other types of photography, it’s the lack of light that’s often required for creative slow shutter-speed work, especially in the landscape. As night draws in, longer shutter speeds are required to correctly expose an image.

You can recreate low-light conditions during the day using neutral density filters to reduce light levels without altering the colour of the image.

Six- and 10-stop ND filters can give shutter speeds as slow as 30 seconds in bright daylight. This will make clouds drag across the sky, waves will lose all texture completely, and any movement at all will become merely a suggestion.

There are plenty of other  accessories to help control shutter speed. A cable release is vital for timing the shutter presses with your hands off the camera to avoid camera shake. Similarly, tripods are essential, although some sports shooters prefer monopods because they give a great deal of rotational freedom.

When shooting long tripod-mounted exposures, you can ensure maximum sharpness by using the mirror lock-up feature. When you press the shutter, the mirror flips upwards, the shutter blades open and close, and then the mirror flips back down. This clattering action can cause image softness, especially at longer focal lengths.

By engaging mirror lock-up, the first shutter press flips the mirror upwards, and the second press takes the shot. But use a cable release (or the self-timer) so your hands can stay completely off the camera. Turn to page 74 for more tips on mirror lock-up.

Creative use of shutter speed isn’t all about slowing down exposures, however. Using fast shutter speeds and flash to freeze action or capture the magnificence of a splash of water in mid air – as the image on the previous pages demonstrates –
is also important to consider.


Annoying problems at common aperture settings (and how to solve them)
The best shutter speeds for every situation