In many ways, shutter speed is an inaccurate term. I read an article a few years ago and the photographer referred to shutter speed as shutter time. The logic was spot on. A shutter always opens or closes at the same “speed”. The key value is how long the shutter stays open, hence shutter time. On Canon cameras the shutter speed function (shutter priority) on the mode dial is abbreviated to Tv, which stands for “Time Value”, and is a more accurate description of what this article is about. I am going to refer to shutter time as opposed to shutter speed, it sounds crazy, but it will make more sense. The reason this definition is important is because, we are going to be looking at how you can use the time that the shutter is open (and gathering light onto the sensor) creatively.
In a sense, shutter time is a bit like time travel. You camera’s shutter can open and shut in 1/8000th of a second. Think about that. Take one second, divide it by 8000 and one of those units is the time your shutter was open. That is very quick. On the other end of the spectrum, you can shoot super long exposures of 20 or 30 minutes. That means the shutter stays open for that length of time. Again, amazing. Think of all that light falling onto the sensor during that time, and the images that can be created doing so.
The shutter time becomes more than simply a moment in time, it could be a split second (literally) or a few seconds. The resulting image will capture and freeze the moment or, with a longer shutter time, there will be blurred movement. This is the fun part of photography. In many ways, your camera can “see” events that happen which you cannot. The camera can capture a frozen moment and suspend your subject in that moment forever, this is like magic. The compelling images are amazing to see and are reasonably easy to make, so let’s take a look at a few of them and see how they are done.
6 Ways to Use Shutter Speed Creatively
1. Freezing the moment
These are the images we all know about; ones that have captured a frozen moment in time. Normally these are sports images, the winning goal, or the knockout punch connecting. They are intriguing to most people and are compelling because we can’t freeze the moment in our eyes. We see a moving, continuous rendition of the events happening in front of us. You have seen “slo-mo” shots of the winning goal; the frozen moment image is that equivalent.
These images take a bit of practice to get right. Lets assume for a moment, you are photographing a soccer match. It is great to get action shots, but you will want to get any shots of the teams scoring goals. You will then need to have the correct lens. Insports photography, it will be a pretty long zoom or telephoto lens. Most sports photographers will use 400mm and longer. You will also need to keep your camera steady. A tripod in these cases is somewhat impractical as you need to be able to move the camera quickly and easily to follow the game. A monopod is normally what works best.
Depending on the lighting conditions you need to make sure you have a shutter time that captures the players in mid-action. You also need to take the lighting into consideration. If you are shooting in an outdoor arena, the natural light may be sufficient, but if you are in an indoor arena, you might need to be more aware of your exposure. In that case, you may need to push your ISO up high enough to allow you to freeze your subject. In most sports 1/1500th of a second is the starting point for freezing action. In very fast sports like ice hockey, soccer, rugby and so on, you may need to be shooting at even faster speeds than that. This is how you set up the shots.
How to do it: Set your aperture to an aperture setting of f/2.8 or f/4.5. This will allow for a quicker shutter time, which will in turn freeze the action. If you are shooting a sporting event in the sunlight, you may need to have your shutter time set to 1/1500 or faster. If this is still not freezing the action, make the shutter time even quicker. Try and anticipate the action and release the shutter at the moment you think it will happen. Be aware that your focus will need to be spot on. With a wide aperture, you run the risk of misfocusing and missing a shot. I once heard a sports photographer say this ” If you see the goal in your viewfinder, you missed the shot”. When you do get that shot though, it will be worth it.
2. The decisive moment
Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase, “The Decisive Moment”. Do a google image search on Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment, you will see many of his great images. He was well known as a street and people photographer, and he believed that you need to choose the precise moment when something happens to hit the shutter release. As you can imagine, this is not easy. Sometimes this might mean you need quick reflexes. Most of the time, it requires patience. He would often set up the shot, get the framing right and then wait. You don’t want to wait for hours, but be patient, sit there for 20 or 30 minutes and watch the scene. Take note of how people are moving into, and out of your frame. When time is right, or the perfect subject (person, vehicle, animal, whatever you choose) moves into the best position, release your shutter at that moment. This will take practice and more than a few shots to get it right, but when you do, you will be ecstatic. The shot will look candid, but you will know what it took to get that image. Many people assume Cartier-Bresson’s images were simply shot quickly from the hip, but much of the time they were planned and he waited patiently for the decisive moment.
How to do it: You need to think of a scene you would like to capture, visualize it. You may want to capture the comings and goings at a coffee shop in your city. You may want to have someone with a red coat sitting outside, sipping coffee. You should then set up and frame your shot, then sit there until the scene unfolds. Someone with a yellow jacket may sit down, which might work too. So be flexible, but be patient, sooner or later the shot will unfold.