When's the last time you experimented with shutter speed? When most of us are starting to dip our heels into the murky waters of "learning exposure", we get into the habit of thinking about shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and a means to an end…trying to find the perfect combination that will yield a proper exposure. We get a good meter reading, take the shot, have a look at the histogram, make adjustments as necessary and subsequently move on to the next photo. However, the next time you take your camera (and hopefully the tripod…yes, you're going to use it for this) out into the field, I want you to try something that will hopefully get you thinking a little bit more creatively. I want you to test different shutter speeds with something that's moving (or you could move the camera for motion effects as well). Water, people walking, leaves blowing, your dog running in the back yard…it doesn't really matter, so long as you get some practice and see what changes in shutter speed can do to the overall mood of an image.
A little background is necessary for those of you who have never used a filter on your lens. A polarizer filter is something you can use to enhance blue skies, reduce glare on water, and bring out color on wet foliage. It has another benefit, it darkens your photo by two stops, forcing you to lengthen your shutter speed in order to maintain a proper exposure. Another filter to add to your collection is a neutral density filter. This filter simply darkens the image. They come in all densities from fractions of a stop to 10 to 15 stops. They also come in round filters that screw onto the front threads of your lens as well as square or rectangular filters that require a special holder. I personally prefer to use circular polarizers for their convenience and square neutral density filters that are less likely to vignette, especially with wide angle shooting. But you should use whatever you are most comfortable with. And if you're terrible at math like I am, there's a wonderful app you can use to calculate longer exposure times called ND Timer by Three60.
I set out to photograph sunrise the other day at the beach, and while I was there, I concentrated some time on a set of pilings in the water. The waves moving past it, swirling around it, and flowing back to sea made for a great opportunity to play with shutter speeds.
The following images have not been altered. I haven't even removed dust spots so cut me some slack! I left them unaltered because I wanted to show you the different color casts you may encounter while using special filters to increase your shutter speed. This way, you won't be surprised when it happens to you if you use the same filters in the future. I was shooting on manual and the only parameter to change was shutter speed. White balance was set to sunny, aperture f/13, ISO 100, 150mm.
The first image was taken with no filters. The sun had gone somewhat behind a cloud and so the brightness wasn't too bad. Note that you can see the splash on the first piling…the water is frozen in the air with just a hint of movement. A faster shutter speed would have recorded no movement at all.
The Shutter Speed for this is 1/50 sec.
The shutter speed for this image was: 1/2 second. I used a 3 stop Singh Ray Neutral Density filter with the Lee System filter holder. Notice the movement in the water. We now have swirling patterns, less of a reflection, and more of a feeling of motion. Even the waves in the background have smoothed out somewhat.
For the next two images, I broke out my Singh Ray 10 Stop Mor Slo filter (the square one) for a much longer shutter speed. This image was shot at 10 seconds. The sun had peeked a bit through thinner clouds which gave it a nice glow. The Singh Ray filter tends to produce a warmer toned image while the Lee Big Stopper (also 10 stops) produces a cooler tone or color cast.
The next image was taken a couple minutes later when the sun was completely obscured. This is a 25 second exposure with the same Singh Ray 10 stop filter attached. I had to adjust the exposure to compensate for the cloud cover…which also took away some of the warmer tone. Notice how the waves have become non-existent, the surface has glassed over and the whole feeling of the image has become subdued and calm.
So what does all this mean for your photography? Changing shutter speeds can have a huge impact on the mood of your images. You are the photographer and it is completely up to you what type of mood you want your images to convey. If you want to see the action of waves hitting the pilings and splashing upward to freeze a fleeting moment in time, then a fast shutter speed is what you want. If you want a sense of motion but you still want the viewer to feel some tension in the waves, then a slower shutter speed is necessary but not so slow that all of the texture disappears. If you want the image to speak about serenity, calm, peace, softness, then an extremely long exposure may be necessary to demonstrate that feeling. Different situations will call for different shutter speeds. If you're making clouds streak or traffic blur, although it's a longer shutter speed like the one above that conveyed calm, the streaking clouds and traffic in a wide angle shot may actually result in a feeling of tension or speed. These examples are not "right" or "wrong", they simply help you to create a feeling in an image that otherwise might not be possible without experimenting with your shutter speeds to achieve the particular feeling you want.
Here's another example of using a slightly faster shutter speed of 1/8 sec to express tension. Experimentation was needed to find the look I wanted. Longer shutter speeds blurred the water too much, shorter speeds conveyed absolutely no movement…I was looking for a compromise. When you're in the field, don't trust that you'll be happy with the first shutter speed you choose. Try a few and wait until you get them on the computer to make a final decision which one you prefer.
In the situation below, a very fast shutter speed was called for or the fish would disappear and the dolphins would appear as a blur. This shot was taken at 1/640 sec. I achieved the drama of the moment by freezing the action.
Have fun with your shutter speeds…experiment. The more you practice, the better you will become at figuring out how to achieve the look and feel that you want with your photos!