Function of Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed settings can either be the death of a picture or it’s new given life.

Basically, If you are trying to get a crisp photograph with no shutter movement and your shutter speed setting causes unwanted movement in the photograph, there usually is no of saving the image.  A great rule of thumb for eliminating “shutter jitter” is to keep your shutter speed as close to the millimeter focal length of the lens you are using i.e. 125 shutter speed for a 135mm lens, 250 shutter speed for a 200mm lens, etc.

There are, however, many creative ways to use the shutter speed to bring out different qualities within a photograph.  One must realize that the shutter speed on a camera mimics the blinking of our eyes.  If you’ve ever watch a ceiling fan and have played with blinking your eyes while watching it, you’ll would have noticed a couple of important factors.

The shorter time it took you to blink your eyes (faster) the blades of the fan seemed stopped.  On the other hand, the slower you blinked (left you eyes open for a longer duration) the more blurred the fan blades became.  That’s pretty much it in a nutshell, stopped motion or blurred motion depending on the speed of the shutter.  How you use these factors determine effects that you can employ in your photographs.

Let’s start with a fast shutter speed.  A fast shutter speed generally looks good but if you’re trying to show motion, say, in a waterfall, it will stop the water in it’s tracks.  Sometimes this effect works well at the ocean with waves if you want to stop the wave to make it “glisten” but water with that wispy, motion effect rarely “glistens”.

For that wispy water effect you need a slow shutter speed to capture water as it travels through the frame.  The only setback with this is that you will need a tripod so you don’t get “Shutter jitter” or just outright blurriness.  I suggest a series of trials to determine the distance the water travels during different shutter speeds.  Usually a one time test will give you a good idea what to expect forever.  Of course, you’ll need a tripod.

Tripods will enable you to set the camera still and let objects pass through the image area which can result in a myriad of effects from race cars streaming through a frame to a bicycle rider passing by.  We’ve all seen those pictures of birds with “ghostly” wings.  That’s done with shutter speeds that stop the bird but not the faster wings.  Definitely, a delicate balance.  Catching the motion of an object can be breathtaking!

Without a tripod you can pan a subject.  This is basically following and shooting an object with a slower shutter speed as it travels on it’s own motion, keeping it in the center (usually) of the frame and letting the surrounding area blur.  Like I said, there are as many ways to apply these techniques as there are imaginations.

One technique I like to use when I’m shooting inside a dimly lit environment (like a bar or downtown scenes at night) is to set my shutter speed to a long exposure and when shooting with a flash that stops the action, use the time that the shutter takes to open and close to zoom the image so that lights in the room create an energetic motion.  The image tag for this blog has an example of this technique.  Although this technique can be really effective, too long of a shutter speed can be terribly distracting and obliterate the subject.

If you get a handle on this technique it can really be helpful in filling in the background rather than having it “black out” when you have to shoot people walking into clubs or in the clubs themselves.

The best way to learn about shutter speed techniques is to shoot a lot of film at night and in the city environment.  Do a lot of different test for any scenario.  Testing will solidify your results for ever.  Once tested, always known, is my motto!  Take the tripod just in case!

Happy Shooting!