6 reasons why you should select a slow shutter speed

First published:
November 23, 2022
February 5, 2024

6 reasons why you should select a slow shutter speed

First published:
November 23, 2022
February 5, 2024

The Tree at Lake Wanaka by Anupam Hatui

Slowing down your shutter speed is a fantastic technique for capturing wonderful photos. Whether it’s for creative purposes or out of necessity, here are six reasons why you should use a slow shutter speed

A slow shutter speed can produce some fantastic effects in photos. Sometimes, when the conditions are less than ideal, simply using a slow shutter speed can transform a mundane scene into one that is extraordinary. So, here are a few reasons why you should consider using a slow shutter speed.

To capture movement in the clouds

Home ground. Photo by Jed Pearson - f/22 | ISO 100 | 224s

One of my favourite uses of a slow shutter speed is for photographing clouds. By slowing your shutter speed down, you can capture the movement of the clouds in the sky as steaks. This can produce some wonderful results and make your photo look more dynamic than just a static shot of clouds. How slow you will need to go with your shutter speed will depend on how fast the clouds are moving. If it’s very windy you may be able to use a shutter speed of just a few seconds. But if there isn’t that much movement in the sky, it won’t be unusual to have to set a shutter speed of a few minutes.

To smooth out the water

Bude beach. Photo by Robert Jenks - f/13 | ISO 40 | 1/5s

Most photographers have at some point seen or even tried photographing water with a slow shutter speed. It’s the most common use of slow shutter speeds and as with clouds, it can produce wonderful results. One of the reasons why using a slow shutter speed when photographing water (especially coastal scenes) is so popular, is that it helps to de-clutter your composition so that the viewer's eyes can focus on the points of interest (i.e. rock formations etc). But it can also help add a more dynamic element to photos. For example, capturing the movement of waterfalls or waves can help the viewer see the movement of the water.

To capture light trails

Woodhead pass light trails. Photo by Kevin Pawsey - f/11 | ISO 50 | 1/4s

Another great scenario for using a slow shutter speed is to capture light trails of moving objects like cars or even boats. Basically, anything with a light that is moving can produce light trails. The most popular use of this is when you are photographing traffic (i.e. cars) moving. For example, cars driving past on a road can produce streaks of light that can add colour and dynamic elements to a static composition.

But light trails can also be captured from natural elements like stars. Capturing star trails is a little bit more complicated as it requires extremely long shutter speeds or more likely, multiple shots taken at intervals that will then need to be blended together to create one image.

To show movement

Tuk-tuk in Bangkok. Photo by Christian Muller - f/8 | ISO 50 | 1/20s

One of the big limitations of photographs versus the human eye is that we see everything in a live 3D view. So even when we see things that our moving, in our mind the static version of that looks dynamic and shows movement. Obviously, in a photograph everything is static. So when you take a photo of a someone dancing or animal running, that motion is usually frozen. While there’s nothing wrong with capturing static shots, it’s also important to show the movement in a scene sometimes. Using a slow shutter speed is the only way that you can do this.

By slowing your shutter speed down slightly, any movement will be blurred and as a result, the viewer will translate that as movement. This is referred to as “motion blur”. But there is a distinct difference between “motion blur” and just a “blurred” photo. To ensure that your photo has this “motion blur”, you need to ensure that there are parts of the image which are sharp and in focus. It’s this contrast between the sharpness of the photo and the blur that shows movement. If your photo doesn’t have sharp parts to it, the whole image will just look blurred.

To remove people from a scene

By using a 10-stop ND filter, I was able to get a 30 second shutter speed that blurred out most of the people in this scene.

How many times have you arrived at a busy tourist area and were faced with lots of people in the scene? You can of course try and wait for a gap in the flow of people, but in some places that may never arrive. A great technique for removing people from your scene is to use a very long shutter speed (sometimes this might have to be 30 seconds or more). As long as people are moving, if your shutter speed is long enough, they will be blurred out completely.

If you are photographing in low light conditions, it shouldn’t be a problem to set a slow shutter. But if the conditions don’t allow you to use a slow shutter speed (i.e. when photographing during the day), the only way to extend your shutter speed will be to use a neutral density filter. In bright conditions, you may have to use a 10-stop filter or even multiple filters to make the scene dark enough for a long shutter speed to remove people from your composition.

To sell more prints

The falls of Acharn. Photo by Grant Newlands - f/5 | ISO 100 | 4/5s

There is something magical about the photos that slow exposure photography can produce. These types of photos naturally lend themselves well to becoming those “wow” factor shots that tend to sell well as prints. In fact, if I look at my print sales over the last 20 years, the vast majority were taken at longer shutter speeds. So, slowing down your shutter speed does not only produce great photos, but it may just get you more sales as well, especially as prints.

And finally, your equipment…

The Photographer. Photo by Leighton Collins - f/5.6 | ISO 50 | 1/1000s

Needless to say that when it comes to slow shutter speeds, a tripod is an absolute must. As mentioned earlier, the key with long exposure photography is to ensure that there are sharp parts of the photo to contrast against the deliberately blurred parts. And the only way to achieve that is to make sure your camera is perfectly still. No one can hold a camera steady enough at even a 1-second shutter speed to avoid camera shake, so make sure you always use a tripod.

The other accessories that you will need are neutral density filters and possibly a cable release (to avoid touching your camera when taking a shot). Although you can simply set your camera on a timer instead.

Slowing down your shutter speed is a fantastic technique to use in your photography occasionally. So next time you are out and about, why not try it? You may just end with a fantastic photo.

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