Photography has always been a medium for storytelling, and your shutter speed can play a creative role when it comes to capturing stories. Here are five shutter speed tips to get you started.
Shutter Speed Tip #1: Freeze the Movement
One way to tell a story with your shutter speed is to freeze the movement by using a fast shutter speed.
Our dog, Kenzie, is a speed demon, and this is a big part of her personality! Of course, it’s easy to show this in a video, but what if I want to tell the story of her speed in a still photo?
A fast shutter speed will help, as it effectively “freezes” movement. If I had used a slow shutter speed to take the shot of Kenzie leaping, she would have been a blur and hard to distinguish from the background. But with a fast shutter speed, I was able to freeze her in mid-air.
Now, it’s easy to see the strength of her rear legs as she pushed off from the grass and sailed through the air. Showing the ball suspended in her open jaw added an element of inevitability to the action. It all happened in a fraction of a second, but the camera allowed me to capture her agility, tenacity, and focus, all in a still photo!
How fast is she? Let’s just say that squirrels don’t do very well when she’s out in our yard. 😢 For this photo, I used a shutter speed of 1/2500th second to capture the shot!
And here’s a bonus shutter speed tip. Use the burst mode on your camera, and if you have a choice of speeds, choose the fastest burst. This will give you multiple photos taken during the action. Then, you can choose the best one for your story.
Freezing motion with a fast shutter speed is also a great way to tell a story in sports photography.
Tip #2: Show Motion with Panning
Panning is a great technique for storytelling with your photos! To do this, you’ll actually follow or “pan” the movement of the subject, using a slow shutter speed to blur everything else in the background. This means you are moving your camera that is set to a slow shutter speed, which you usually avoid!
Use this panning technique to follow the movement of fast-moving cars or motorcycles. A slow shutter speed (1/15th or 1/30th second) will help blur everything else in the background.
As you swipe from left to right on the photo of the motorcycle, which version do you prefer? Which one tells the story of a motorcycle racing down the street?
Bonus shutter speed tip for panning: try using it for sports photos!
Shutter Speed Tip #3: Capture the Moment in Low Light
Low-light photography can be tricky, but you’ll capture some truly unique moments when you get it right!
This requires one key element – a slow shutter speed.
I took this portrait of Skip at the Jogyesa Temple in Seoul. I wanted my photo to convey Skip’s joy as we visited this beautiful and spiritual place in our neighborhood.
He was standing next to a table of prayer candles. With a shutter speed of 1/15 second, I was able to light him with the light from the candles and capture their reflection in his eyes.
If I’d used Auto mode on my camera, a flash would have popped up, the reflection in his eyes would be gone, and he would’ve looked overexposed and out of place.
Here’s a bonus shutter speed tip. If you’re hand-holding your camera, avoid setting your exposure too long because you may start to see camera shake in your photo.
You’ll get better results when hand-holding if you turn on your Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction and set a higher ISO number.
Finally, you’ll get even better results if you have a tripod with you, but if you use it, you can set your ISO to 100 and turn off the stabilization.
Tip #4: Use a Slow Shutter Speed to Blur the Motion
Another reason to use a slow shutter speed for storytelling is to create a sense of movement and emotion in your photo. This technique works especially well when photographing water or clouds. For instance, this photo of lanterns and a waterfall along the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul was taken with a shutter speed of 1/10th second.
The slow shutter speed created a sense of movement and dynamism in the water and set a colorful backdrop for the three lanterns.
Shutter Speed Tip #5: Night Photography with a Slow Shutter Speed
If you want to add a level of excitement to your photo, you’ll need to slow down your shutter speed to allow maximum light into the camera. You’ll also need a tripod to keep the camera stable throughout.
Plan to spend some time scouting a location where you can safely set up the tripod without tripping passing pedestrians. You’ll get the best results if you find a spot with interesting elements, like Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London.
This shot was taken with a shutter speed of 4 seconds, giving plenty of time to capture the movement and light trails of passing cars and buses while still keeping everything else sharp.
Now it’s your turn:
Understanding how to adjust your shutter speed will give you a new storytelling tool for your photography. By changing the shutter speed, you’ll create images that show movement, stillness, and emotions and convey your story in a powerful way. Take your time to experiment with the shutter speed and see how it can help you express your ideas.
You’ll find many articles on the internet giving you rules about slow shutter speeds when you hand-hold your camera, and here’s my take on them. Only you know how steady your hands are when you’re holding your camera! You owe it to yourself to take some test shots and compare them. Create your own rule! Then ignore the experts. I shoot still shots with a long lens, hand-held at 1/30th second, all the time.
You can get more advice on how to hold your camera steady in this blog post I wrote.
If you’d like to learn more about shutter speed and even more, click here to discover my online class: https://www.carolinemaryan.com/camera-mechanics-workshops-info/