Miscellaneous Shutter Speed Techniques

Thus far, we’ve looked at uses of typical shutter speeds (typical = those set automatically by the metering system when shooting in aperture priority, for example). In this installment let’s look at some atypical speeds – and how one might use them for creative images. We’ll consider the two ends of the shutter speed spectrum (typical speeds represent the middle of the spectrum) –

  • Slow to blur motion
    • Typically 1 sec to minutes
    • Depends on the speed of the subject
    • Normally requires a tripod
  • Fast to freeze motion
    • Typically 1/250 to 1/2000 sec
    • Depends on the speed of the subject
    • Depends on direction of motion – across your field of view requires faster shutter speed than motion coming towards you
    • Depends on how close you are – nearer to camera requires faster shutter speed

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Slow shutter speed
To achieve the slowest possible shutter speed under the existing lighting –

  • Aperture priority (shutter priority and manual mode will work as well)
  • Set your aperture opening as small as possible (like f/22 and not f/4)
  • Use the lowest ISO available
  • Under ambient (non-artificial or flash) light conditions, this shutter speed set by your camera while in aperture priority is the slowest possible under the circumstances.
  • Can go even slower via neutral density filters.

Ultra Slow

  • Use your camera’s Manual mode to set the shutter speed to Bulb
    • If it’s available, Bulb will appear right after your camera’s slowest shutter speed which is typically 30 sec.

Here is a superb article on outdoor photography uses of slow shutter speed – star trails and light painting – and a photo from the article to whet your appetite (photo © Floris van Breugel). The previous article provides detailed how-to information, but this next one by a master of the light painting technique provides a broader range of image subjects and is even more inspiring.

Next photo by Ed K. (click to enlarge) – 42s f/11.0 at 18.0mm iso200

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Fast shutter speed – Here it’s just the opposite of slow above –
To achieve the fastest possible shutter speed under the existing lighting –

  • Aperture priority (shutter priority and manual mode will work as well)
  • Set your aperture setting wide open (like f/4 and not f/22)
    • This is what is meant when an f/1.4 or similar large aperture is referred to as a “fast” lens. It can provide faster shutter speeds than can a “slower” lens.
  • Use the highest ISO that does not cause noise problems
  • Under ambient (non- artificial or flash) light conditions, this shutter speed set by your camera is the fastest possible under the circumstances.
  • For a faster shutter speed more light is needed (artificial unless the sun’s temporarily behind a cloud)

High Frame Rate

  • Often a fast shutter speed alone won’t get you the shot that you want. Maybe you’re looking for a specific moment like the instant a bat makes contact with the ball. In this case, a fast shutter speed may freeze the motion but, if your timing isn’t precise to a fraction of a second – you’ve frozen the wrong moment. Most camera’s are capable of shooting either a single shot or a burst and in this case you want a burst. Check your manual.

He’s Safe! – Photo by Ed K. (of grandson, #2) – 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, EV -1, ISO 200, shot through chain link fence with manual focus on the base (notice that the shallow DOF mostly removed the fence)


Photos by Ed Knepley. You can find lots of these water drop images on the net. I used mine because I can tell you exactly how they were done. Here’s what I wrote when posting this at my website –

06/02/09 – Splish, Splash

More water drop adventures. This illustrates the difference between shallow water (left, maybe 1/8″) and deep water (right, about 1/2″) in a dish (marks, especially at right are on the dish). Water is dropping from small plastic bag suspended about 18″ above the surface. The drip rate is pretty fast (maybe about 4 per second) which allows me to catch the action by simply shooting many, many shots (and not trying to time each drop) – my “hit rate” is about 50%. Macro lens, tripod, and a precise focus before starting your shoot (place something in the water at the impact point and focus on that manually – and leave the focus alone from then on. A remote release will also help keep everything steady. f/8 seems to do well for DOF. Off camera flash on manual at 1/32 power or on camera both seem to work as does natural light at 1/1250 second ( which necessitates very good (sun?) light). All else equal, I prefer natural light since that allows shooting at your camera’s maximum exposure rate (5 fps here). Blue color comes from playing with white balance settings – no need for color filters or backgrounds; make life easy on yourself. That’s it. Piece of cake.
For a ultra-shallow water splash – which forms water “crowns” – see http://ed-k-photo.smugmug.com/gallery/6743129_wZgCB/1/552841227_zLNK7/Large

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Frequently Used Camera Setting Combinations – Many cameras allow different menu option combinations to be saved. Later you can choose a saved combination rather than change each setting in the combination separately. My Nikon D300 allows four such setting combinations to be saved. I created four and named them –

  1. Normal
  2. Action
  3. Flash
  4. HDR

The Action setting, which applies to this post’s fast shutter speed, takes advantage of special camera options that are useful (these vary by make and model – check your manual). In my case the most useful menu option features for action shots are-

  • Mode – Shutter priority
  • Shutter speed range – I chose Slowest Acceptable Speed & set it to 1/250s
  • ISO – I chose Auto ISO which allows the camera to adjust ISO if the slowest acceptable speed can’t be achieved solely by aperture adjustments (aperture adjustments it obviously makes, not me, in shutter priority)
  • The above three and a few others options are saved. Anytime I choose “Action” from my personal menu, the appropriate camera settings are changed (I just have to set high speed burst which is a dial setting, not menu, on the D300).
  • Know your gear; let it help you. I use flash so seldom that if it weren’t for this it would take me 15 minutes (on a good day) to get the settings right (I know; I didn’t use this right away)

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