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An Introduction to Slow Shutter Speed

One of the most creative aspects in photography is the ability to control the shutter speed. And while faster shutter speeds can create impactive stop motion images, slower shutter speeds can capture motion in an entirely different way. You’ve probably seen photos with streaking clouds, smoothly flowing water, light trails from cars, star trails in the sky—all of these shots are taken by using a slow shutter speed. 

The way it works is that the longer your shutter stays open, the more light and information it can capture over time. This means that stationary objects will remain sharp and clear, while moving objects (including lights) will blur, smear, or be hazed out moving. With a slow shutter speed, you can reveal the paths that bright objects have taken, make darker moving elements disappear (like people), or turn rapidly flowing water into glass or mist. 

Mastering slow shutter speeds and long exposure will take a bit of practice, but with it you can add some serious magic to your shots.  All you’ll need to start is a camera that allows you to shoot in shutter priority mode and/or manual mode, a tripod, and a cable release. (You’ll need the tripod and cable release to allow your camera to record the long exposures without camera shake.) 

Where to Start

One of the easiest things to start out with is water. Water can be captured in a variety of ways, from the relatively “fast” slow shutter speed of 1/5 of a second to 30 seconds or more. The longer the exposure, the smoother or glassier the water will become. If you want to keep some idea of the water’s movement in the image yet feather out the flows, choose something close to 1/5 of a second:

1/5 sec, ISO 200, f/5. Taken in shutter priority mode
Photo Credit: Teryani Riggs

Other easy first subjects to experiment with include just about anything moving at night that radiates light: cars, ferris wheels, and fireworks. In fact, many of the most awesome long exposure photographs capture brightly lit objects moving against a dark background.

Working In Shutter Priority Mode

If you’re new to working with slower shutter speeds, try starting out with shutter priority mode. All you have to do is set the shutter speed and the ISO—the camera will take care of the aperture. (You should set the ISO well within the range of your camera’s native ISO--usually 400 or less.) There will probably come a time, though, when you want to control the aperture as well. That’s when you need to switch to manual mode.

Using Manual Mode

In manual mode you’re responsible for both the aperture and the shutter speed; the overall exposure of the shot will be solely up to you. If your camera has a light meter built into it or you have your own handheld, a great starting point is to: 

  1. Set your ISO to your camera’s lowest native ISO—usually around 100. (That’s where your camera sensor is least sensitive to light and will need more of it to properly expose.)
  2. Set your aperture to one of its smallest settings—depending on the camera that could be anywhere from f/22 to f/32. The smaller the aperture, the more light that is needed.
  3. Check your camera’s light meter and set the shutter speed accordingly.

The Magic of 10-stop ND Filters

To go beyond what your camera can do in shutter priority or manual mode, consider investing in a 10-stop neutral density (ND) filter. This dark little piece of glass can really take your landscapes to the next level. It fools your camera into thinking the scene before you is much darker than it actually is, allowing you to get much longer exposure times while remaining properly exposed. Before attaching it to your lens, you’ll need to focus and set your aperture (you can do this in aperture priority mode). Once you attach the filter, switch to manual mode and increase your shutter speed by about 10 stops (30 clicks). It takes some experimentation to get it right, but once you nail it, the results are well worth it—especially for seascapes or other landscapes with flowing water or moving clouds.

13 sec, ISO 200, f/8. Taken with a 10-stop ND filter.  Photo credit Teryani Riggs

13 sec, ISO 200, f/8. Taken with a 10-stop ND filter.

Photo credit Teryani Riggs

Once you’ve practiced these slow shutter speed techniques for a while, you’re bound to find a new element of pizzazz entering into your shots. Experiment away and watch the magic happen!

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