There are three main elements of photography - Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. What is common between these elements is that they allow a photographer to control how bright the captured photo is.
Apart from their shared elements, there are also a few key fundamental differences between them. Aperture controls the depth of field (DoF). ISO affects the level of noise in the digital files. Shutter speed is responsible for how we capture motion.
Today, we will concentrate on how photographers can use shutter speed to creatively capture motion.
Some of the Creative Applications of Shutter Speed:
Please refer to the Shutter Speed Infographic to visualize the different aspects of shutter speed and its relation to artistic expression.
We already know the essentials of how shutter speed works—by allowing the image to be recorded or captured during the time the shutter is open.
The relationship between the duration of time the image is recorded (shutter speed value) and the object’s speed of motion that we are capturing will result in freezing motion or motion blur.
1. Freezing the Motion
Freezing the motion is simply preventing the image from having any visible motion blur.
To freeze the motion, we must understand the speed at which the motion is happening and select the appropriate shutter speed value.
For example, to freeze a runner requires a shutter speed value of 1/500s or faster. To freeze birds in flight, a shutter speed value of 1/2000s or faster might be required. The shutter speed value varies depending on the speed of motion whether it is an animal, person, or a vehicle.
This technique is most often used in action photography.
If you have seen sports photography of fast runners or cyclists, you often notice the motion is blurred in the background while the athlete is perfectly in focus and sharp. This is achieved by using a slower shutter speed in combination with camera movement.
For a cyclist, a shutter speed value of 1/1000s or faster is needed to freeze the motion. However, to create a panning effect, we use a much slower shutter speed of around 1/30s. At the same time, we must move the camera in the direction of the motion when we hit the shutter button. This produces an image where the cyclist is in focus while the background is blurred because of the motion of the camera.
On the other hand, if we keep the camera static, the result would be a perfectly sharp background with the cyclist blurred.
This same technique is used in sports car racing, bird photography, etc.
3. Light Trails
To achieve the light trail effect, a few conditions have to be met. It has to be dark, the camera has to be on a tripod, a slower shutter speed of 1-10 sec must be used, and we must be photographing a scene with moving lights. The most common subjects for the light trail technique are moving cars.
When we keep the shutter open for a couple of seconds, the static parts of the scene will remain in focus while all the moving lights are converted into blurred continuous trails of color in the direction of the original motion.
4. Running Water
Depending on the photographer’s vision, running water can be captured with either the freeze motion or the blurred motion techniques.
The blurred motion technique is commonly used in landscape photography to capture waterfalls, rivers, and other bodies of flowing water. By using slow shutter speed values of 1/5s to 1/30s, we can produce a silky and smooth effect in the water. The slower the shutter speed value used, the smoother the water’s motion will be.
One of the reasons this technique is so visually impactful is because it does not exist in real life and is linked to the special effects seen in movies.
5. Star Trails
Star trails is a photography technique based on the application of motion blur. The movement of the Earth around its axis puts the stars in motion. While we can’t see the motion ourselves because it is too slow for the naked eye, the movement can actually be recorded using extremely slow shutter speed values.
For Milky Way photography, there is a 500 Rule. This states that the shutter speed should be:
500 / focal length x crop factor or faster
to capture perfectly sharp stars and avoid the motion blur effect created by the Earth’s rotation.
This means that if I use the Fuji XT2 camera with a cropped sensor in combination with a 12mm Rokinon lens at the widest aperture of f/2.0, I have to use a shutter speed value that is 28 seconds or faster to get the stars in perfect focus.
500 / 12mm x 1.5 = 28 seconds
To capture the star trails, we don’t have to worry about the 500 Rule because we want to capture the motion. To capture more prominent star trails, we must use shutter speed values of 30 minutes or longer.
In modern digital photography, we do not have to use extreme shutter speed values because we can capture the sequence of shots using 30 second shutter speeds and combine them later in Photoshop.
Photography, at its best, is a two-dimensional and still medium where movement seems impossible. A photographer’s creativity and understanding of basic techniques can ignite a spark and give it new life. For these purposes, the shutter speed gives us many tools to create the illusion of motion that makes our photographs more dynamic and alive.