Robert Boughen | BACK TO BASICS: Shutter-Speed

BACK TO BASICS: Shutter-Speed

December 17, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Last time in BACK TO BASICS we learned all "Understanding Exposure"; what exposure means, how it is measured, and how it is calculated. Within those calculations we came across Shutter-Speed. Shutter-Speed is one of the three main elements by which you take a photograph. The other two are Aperture and Sensitivity.

Shutter-Speed, simply put, is how long the shutter remains open during an exposure. The Shutter is a cover for the camera's sensor (the thing that records the light that makes up your photo), and the noise you're used to hearing when you take a photograph is the sound of the shutter opening and closing. That noise (so long as you're using a camera that doesn't have a silent shutter) is a good indication to you about how your camera is operating. A long gap between the first (open) and the second (close) clicks means that you are operating on a slow Shutter-Speed.


This is how your Shutter-Speed will be displayed on your camera; either as a fraction of a second (e.g. 1/125 = 125th of a second) or for long-speeds in seconds (e.g. 30" = 30 seconds).


Shutter-Speed is important both for our calculations about the exposure of the photo we are taking and as a creative tool. We are always going to have to consider using a suitable Shutter-Speed for our lighting, but also about how our Shutter-Speed will affect the photo creatively. In exposure terms, the less light the camera is receiving, the longer we are going to have to leave the Shutter open.

Leaving the shutter open for longer is called long-exposure technique, and is especially useful to take photos in low-light conditions. Any camera using automatic settings is going to apply this kind of Shutter-Speed in dark rooms or at night. You'll probably be very familiar with taking a picture on your phone at a party and it coming out very, very blurry. This effect is called "Motion-Blur". Remember that your camera is recording light over a period of time, so anything within the frame that moves during that time is going to blur as the camera records the same object in different places onto a still image. If we shorten the Shutter-Speed we're more likely to get sharper, better defined images, as the chances for the camera recording any movement is lessened.


The dog is shaking quickly whilst the shutter is open, causing him to be covered in "motion-blur". Taken in Venice, Italy.


Most of the time, we're not going to want motion-blur in a photo. There are a couple of ways you can reduce it. Firstly, find ways to increase your available light, such as moving your subjects outside or near a light source. Second, use your camera's manual settings to increase your Sensitivity and widen your Aperture to allow the sensor more light; this will allow you to shorten your Shutter-Speed. Thirdly, if you can, use a tripod. This will help you remove any shake from the camera. Finally, try to pick subjects that are static if you're shooting in low-light conditions; if they're sentient, ask them to stay still.


This action shot of Leonese kids playing "Tet" required a very quick Shutter-Speed as the subjects were moving quickly. This enables the subjects to remain sharp and without any "motion-blur". Taken in Kenema, Sierra Leone.


More interesting at this stage, though, is thinking about how we can use Shutter-Speed creatively. As mentioned above, the shorter the Shutter-Speed the more defined and sharp our images will be. This must be considered creatively. For example, if we are taking pictures of things that are happening quickly, for example a sports game, we're going to want a very fast Shutter-Speed to capture lovely, sharp images of on-going action.

How about long Shutter-Speeds? The most obvious application is a purposeful long-exposure. These are often photos of landscapes taken in low-light conditions where almost everything in the frame will be static, such as a city or sky-scape at night. Usually these photos are going to need a narrow Aperture to pick up a lot of detail, so a lengthy-exposure time will be necessary. This type of photo will almost certainly require a tripod.


Classic example of a long-exposure, used especially at night to allow more time to gather the necessary light to properly expose an image, like this panorama of the New York City skyline.


Another reason to use a long-exposure technique might be give something a flowing, cinematic feeling. Just as short Shutter-Speeds give us definition and sharpness, sometimes we may purposefully choose to allow motion-blur. A good example of this would be taking a photo of running water.


Here, a long Shutter-Speed (~1") was used to give the water a flowing effect. It was taken on a tripod so the rocks remain sharp. Take in Terme di Valdieri, Italy.


A slightly different twist on creatively applying Shutter-Speed is when using a "Tracking Shot" to convey speed. This involves a moving subject that is tracked as it passes the camera to keep it in the same point in the frame, leaving the subject sharp but the rest of the photo motion-blurred to create the effect of the subject passing by quickly. This type of photo is usually taken on a medium Shutter-Speed to allow enough time to accumulate the motion-blur, without making the subject impossible to track.


This technique is a "Tracking Shot". The motorbike, which is the subject, is kept sharp by moving the camera to keep it in the centre of frame while it passes by. This creates motion-blur on all the static objects in frame, effectively reversing the image you would get if you kept the camera still. Taken at the Goodwood Circuit, UK.


As the above examples show you, there are many ways to use Shutter-Speed intelligently. Every time you're taking a photo, you should be considering if the Shutter-Speed you're using is the right one for the effects you want to achieve. Over the next few weeks, why don't you go out and try one of the techniques I've listed above and create your own Shutter-Speed specific photo! Then share it with us on our Facebook page!



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