Slow Shutter speed

Shutter Speed -Part 2

Part 2 -Showing Motion


In Shutter Speed Part 2 will concentrate on how the camera utilizes shutter speed speeds to get the picture you want.

Part 1 demonstrated the effects of a fast vs slow shutter speed.

Auto Setting

When the camera is on an automatic setting it decides for you what shutter speed to use based on the camera’s on board computer that reads the light, the scene, and the setting you put it on. If you use the camera’s auto setting for fast shutter speed, usually depicted as what I call “the running man”, or Sports Mode on the camera’s dial, it will try to use the fastest shutter speed lighting conditions will allow. If you have it on the landscape setting, usually depicted as a mountain on the camera’s dial, it uses a slower shutter speed. The reasoning is that the “running man” is moving fast and therefor needs a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. The mountain isn’t going anyplace, so a slow shutter speed will do.

Using these automatic settings is fine, as long as you know what they do to the camera’s preferences for shutter speed. If you are photographing something moving fast and want to freeze the motion, the Sports Mode, or “running man” is fine. If you are shooting something moving fast and want to show the blur of motion, let’s say your son or daughter streaking across the field to kick that soccer ball, sports mode won’t work for you –remember it’s trying to use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion.

Try Using Manual

This is when you need to take the camera off automatic and delve into that uncertain world of manual settings. There is nothing wrong with using the automatic settings, if you know what they do. If you want to do something different you need to tell the camera that! So, in this case, when your kid is streaking across the field and you want to show his or her speed, you need to actually use a slow shutter speed.

When using a slow shutter speed, it’s imperative that we hold the camera steady, so if you have trouble doing this, read my post dated April 24, “Hold that Camera Steady!”

To recap: shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter curtain stays open to allow light coming through the lens to hit the sensor. This time is controlled by the camera’s shutter speed controls. It’s expressed in fractions of a second. In your view finder and on the camera’s controls, though, it may be expressed in whole numbers. For example 1000 means 1/1,000th of a second –that’s pretty fast. Figure out how fast your camera can go. Is it 2,000th of a second? 4,000th of a second?

60 means 1/60th of a second –that’s pretty slow. Each standard shutter speed setting is double, or half the time as the last –depending on which direction you are going. In other words at a 1,000th of a second, the shutter is open half the amount of time as it is at 500th of a second. At a 500th of a second, the shutter is open twice as long as it is at a 1,000th of a second. 250 is twice as long as 500th of a second. Got it?

A Fast Shutter speed (250 -1,000th of a second) will generally freeze motion depending on just how fast the subject is moving. A slow shutter speed, (30th to 120th of a second) will show motion, or blur movement. This is because the shutter will stay open longer at slower shutter speeds allowing the subject movement to travel across the sensor of the camera, blurring it. Using a slow shutter speed is harder because you also have to keep the camera steady as this movement can be blurred by camera movement as well as the subject’s movement.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

First, practice holding the camera steady (after practicing from the Hold that Camera Steady! Post). Once you are comfortable with holding the camera steady, try some experiments just shooting a static, non-moving scene. Start at a higher shutter speed, say 120. Take the same scene at 60. Both of these shots should be pretty clear. Now try a 30th and compare the results. With a little practice you should be able to get a fairly steady shot. Try a 15th of a second. Can you still get a steady shot? Is it starting to look a little fuzzy? If so, try again. And again. How low can you go? Remember, seeing the picture you just took on the small screen of your camera is much difference than looking at them on a larger screen like your computer. After trying this exercise, download them to your computer and look at them again. What you may have thought looked steady and clear on your camera may actually look fuzzy and not in focus on your computer. This is because the larger image shows more imperfections of camera movement than the small screen of your camera.

Once you are pretty sure that you are at your slowest shutter speed where you consistently get blurry pictures, you know the next higher speed is your absolute lower limit without using a tripod. With diligent practice, you will get better. Then when you get older, you will start to go backwards and won’t be able to hold it as steady as you once could (speaking with the voice of experience). If you just can’t hold the camera steady enough, you may need to use a tripod or rest it against a solid object (my favorite is a nearby tree-pod).

Determine what Shutter Speed to use

The first thing to consider is exactly what shutter speed to use. The camera has a large number of settings! Start by putting the camera on shutter speed mode. This means you will select the shutter speed and the camera will select the corresponding aperture (a subject for the next post). In the Cannon world this is called Tv mode for Time Value. Nikon calls it S for Shutter. By turning the appropriate dial (you need to figure this out by reading your camera’s manual –sorry), turn it to select the desired shutter speed.

Here’s a rule of thumb: For a person running, you can freeze the motion at 250 or higher. As you go less than 250, the motion will become more apparent –including camera movement. Holding the camera at less than a 60th second may be difficult, especially if you are zoomed in on the subject. Remember using a telephoto setting not only magnifies the subject, it magnifies camera movement! But, with practice you may be able to hold the camera relatively steady at a 30th or even 15th of a second.


Experiment to see how low you can go! First try it by taking pictures of a scene with no movement just to see how low you can go and keep the camera steady. Once your pictures start to look like a Salvatore Dali painting, you know you are not hold the camera steady enough.

There are two ways to depict motion in your pictures. The first way is the easiest, but both will take some practice. Try these methods at a soccer or football game with actual moving objects (perhaps someone else’s kids you don’t care whether you get decent picture of or not. You can also just go to the road and try it by using cars whizzing by.

The first method: hold the camera steady and still, or use a tripod. Allow the subject to travel across the frame using a slow shutter speed. Start at a 60th. Then try a 30th. If you dare, try a 15th. What the heck –it’s digital and won’t cost you a thing, give it a try! The result will show a steady background and the subject streaking across the frame giving a depiction of motion (think The Flash running across the frame). As the shutter speed gets slower, the effect of motion will be greater, until you just cannot hold the camera steady enough, or the subject shows so much motion so as to be unrecognizable. This shot is the easiest to start with because you are not moving or trying to follow the subject.

The second way is a little harder: Use a slow shutter speed and move the camera with the subject –this is called panning. This panning motion will have the subject in focus and mostly sharp (depending on the shutter speed selected), while the background is a blur of motion giving the feeling of speed. This can be the more difficult shot because the camera may not be held steady while panning with the subject making the subject blur, AND the background can be a blur due to your panning, resulting in an altogether bad picture. This shot will take some practice! Again, start at a 60th, and then go down from there. You will see as you decrease the shutter speed that the background gets more and more blurred. As you go slower the movement of the subject will start to blur as well, and the camera motion will become apparent until you get that Salvador Dali effect and the whole picture just looks like the product of a bad drug trip. Again, practice, practice, practice!

Time to Take “Real” Pictures

Once you’ve done this little exercise, and practiced holding the camera steady and know your limitations, you can begin taking those important pictures. I always suggest to people that they should learn new techniques on a trial basis first, before they go to that championship game or that once in a lifetime event. Experiment in a “lab setting” before you take those important pictures that you will never be able to retake! Experiment, practice and keep trying. You’ll eventually get it.

Now, stop reading and start shooting! Let me know how you do.

~Ron G.


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