Using Shutter Speed to Tell the Story

by Jane Palmer

In the next few posts, I want to closely examine each of the 3 legs of the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle is something all new photographers have to come to terms with. Learning the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is a fundamental skill and a deep understanding of how to use these elements to craft your photograph is crucial to a successful image. By looking at each one individually, I think it will help new photographers gain confidence when they set up an exposure in the field. Today, let’s talk about shutter speed.

Shutter speed (SS) is the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to light. It is measured in fractions of a second up to 30 seconds (on most cameras.) We commonly refer to a shutter speed of “a 250th” or “125” as a shorthand way of meaning 1/250 of a second or 1/125 of a second.

It is important to understand the effect of SS on the final image, so you can make a good choice when you are capturing the photograph. Let’s look at some examples of the effects of SS on an image.

A fast SS is often used to “freeze” action such as in sports or wildlife. Because the shutter is open for such a tiny amount of time, the subject seems to be frozen in mid action. Use this type of SS when you want to be sure that you have sharp details in a moving subject. I start to think of SS as fast when I get above 1/250th of a second, but often I will go much higher depending on the speed or type of movement of the subject.

In this photograph of a loon and her chick, I used a SS of 1/1250. I wanted to be sure to freeze the water sheeting off of her feathers as she surfaced after a dive, and to keep her interaction with the chick in sharp focus. I was surprised that a change from 1/1000 to 1/1250 made a significant difference in the sharpness of the details on the water droplets! I discovered this after experimenting with different SS during that morning of shooting.

Loon feeding her chick. Shutter speed 1/1250

In contrast, here is a photograph that uses a slow shutter speed to imply motion. Photographing moving water is one of my favorite things to do, and I am always careful to try different SS during a shoot to determine which one works that day. The speed and volume of the moving water have a major effect on the choice of SS, and the only way to find the ideal SS for the effect you want is to experiment.

Smoky Mountains stream in autumn. SS 1.3 second

When photographing moving water, be careful to maintain some texture in the water. It is tempting to use a long SS and really blur the water, but that often results in what I call “marshmallow fluff”–fine if you are making whoopie pies but not desirable for stream images! In the image below, notice that I used a significantly longer SS than in the above image (they were taken moments apart). Doubling the SS made the moving water look cottony and unappealing. I like to be able to see texture in the water and especially like the “fingers” that happen when water falls over a rock. We don’t see this with our eyes, so it tends to be very attractive when it shows up in our images.

Smoky mountain stream. SS 2.5 seconds

No discussion of SS would be complete without talking about long exposure photography. This is a special technique that often requires neutral density filters that limit the amount of light entering the camera, thus allowing for very long SS. The special effects of this technique can be quite stunning and seem to be most striking when something in the image is moving (becomes blurry or smooth) and something is still (remains sharp.)

As you gain experience with long exposure, you will recognize scenes that would benefit from this type of effect. The classic shot of the pylons leading out into a body of water is a good example of this technique. The long SS smooths out the water and blurs any surface motion, yet the pylons remain sharp.

Morning on the St Johns, 105mm 25sec @ f/16

Long exposure images of moving clouds will cause the sky to appear streaky and will imply the sense of a windy day. Because there is no way to easily predict the results of these types of images, the best approach is to look for opportunities to use long exposure, and then experiment in the field using different SS to see which image you prefer.

23 second exposure at Rocky Falls caused moving clouds to blur

A final thought. Have you noticed how many times I’ve mentioned the concept of “experiment in the field?” This is a major tenet of my workflow when I’m working a scene. I don’t ever want to get back home and discover that I left the photograph back at the location because I failed to try different settings or compositions. You’ve heard me mention this before: make sure to gather everything you need while on location!

The following photograph is a perfect example of this mantra. I was photographing the crashing waves on a very cold morning in Door County one January. I was caught up in the idea of using a slow SS to imply the motion in the waves. I took image after image, clicking away thinking I just needed to get the waves at the right time to get the image I wanted. I tried longer and longer SS and I just wasn’t happy. The shots were “ok” but that is seldom my goalpost when I’m in front of something spectacular!

As a last resort, remembering my advice to students to try different approaches while you are out there, I decided to try a fast shutter speed instead of the slow ones I’d been playing with. I took one shot at 1/500 and when I saw the image on the back of the camera, I was astounded!! The wave was frozen at it’s peak of action and the morning sun was shining through the water and giving it a greenish glow!! THIS WAS IT! I had spent so much time trying different slow SS that I almost missed a good shot.

Door Country Waves in Winter 1/500 SS

When I got home, I ended up processing only the fast SS shots of that morning! So remember my advice, gather all the assets while you are standing in front of your subject-you will have better shots and fewer regrets!

Next time, we will chat about aperture. Don’t forget to comment below and subscribe to be notified of future blog posts from Creative Light!

3 Comments on “Using Shutter Speed to Tell the Story

  1. I’ve been taking photos since I was 10 when I was given my first Brownie instamatic camera. My first 35mm SLR was after high school. I used to shoot film without difficulty setting my own ISO/SS/Aperture . Since I’ve gone to these new cameras without film I have a devil of a time using manual settings.. can’t wait to work with you on this..

    • Thanks Mary!! I am so looking forward to working with you on the Ozark workshop! Thanks for checking out the blog.


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