A Simple Exercise That Will Make You Understand Shutter Speed

Using a slow shutter speed can in many scenarios make an average image great. By lengthening the exposure time, your camera is able to register movement and create a sense of motion in the image. This technique is typically used when photographing seascapes, rivers and waterfalls but a slow shutter speed can be useful in more scenarios than this. In fact, it can be one of your most creative tools.

This article shares one creative exercise you can use to both learn how a slow shutter speed works and, ultimately, create a beautiful and artistic image.

While I’ll only explain one scenario where this technique can be used, don’t think that there’s no other place for it. What I really love about long exposure photography is that you’re limited only by your own creativity. There are so many scenarios where a slow shutter speed can improve a picture and in some cases it’s even what makes the picture.

The Equipment You’ll Need

Before we jump into the technicalities of this exercise, let’s quickly look at the equipment that you’ll need:

  • A camera with the opportunity to manually set the shutter speed and basic settings
  • A tripod (it is possible without but the results won’t be as good)
  • A Neutral Density filter or Circular Polarizer to allow a longer shutter speed

It’s essential that you have a camera that allows you to manually adjust the shutter speed for this technique to work. In this day and age, the majority of cameras (both DSLRs, Point-and-Shoot and Smartphones) have this capability.  Set the camera to Shutter Priority (this lets you adjust the shutter speed and the camera adjusts the remaining settings) if you don’t have much experience photographing in Manual Mode.

While a tripod isn’t essential it will result in a better image. Since we are working with a slow shutter, it’s difficult to avoid camera shake when you’re photographing handheld. Even though we are going to introduce some motion to the image, we want this movement to be controlled (more about this in a minute).

Whether or not you’ll need to use a filter depends on the brightness outside. If it’s getting darker, you might not need one but if you’re photographing in broad daylight you will have to use a filter to achieve a longer exposure. ND Filters are darkened glass that you place in front of the lens, letting less light reach the sensor and ultimately allowing you to use a slower shutter speed.

Adding Movement to the Image

Now that you know what equipment you should use for this technique, let’s jump straight into the technicalities and begin capturing some abstract and creative images.

Creative Exercise With a Slow Shutter Speed

As mentioned, this exercise steps away from the classic “waterfall long exposure” and the subject of your image isn’t crucial when you’re learning this technique. If you prefer, you can simply place the tripod inside your living room and start there. Once you understand the technique and you’re ready to bring it outside, I recommend looking for a subject with a decent amount of contrast – such as a forest. For the best result, fill the entire frame with this subject and avoid including a sky or a foreground.

With the camera mounted on your tripod, aim for a shutter speed of approximately 0.5 seconds. We are going to increase this as we continue experimenting but this is a good place to begin.

Executing the Technique

With the camera mounted on a tripod and the shutter speed set to 0.5 seconds, you’re almost ready to go. There’s only one step left before pressing the shutter button.

The last step is contradictory to common teaching (and common sense): loosen the tilt handle on your tripod head. Make sure that you’re holding your camera as it might tip forward once you loosen it.

Why would you loosen the head, you ask? Good question. I told you this wasn’t the normal use of a slow shutter speed. Normally, you always want to make sure that everything is tight and sturdy to avoid any camera shake or unwanted vibrations. For this technique, however, we’re going to add movement to create an abstract and creative image.

Now that everything is prepared, it’s time to finally press the shutter button. As you press the shutter quickly tilt your camera forwards. Make sure that you do this quickly, though, as the shutter speed is only at 0.5 seconds!

By tilting your camera forward as you take the picture, you’ll see that you’ve added some nice lines and created a lot of motion in the image. Typically, it takes several attempts until you get an image which has the “perfect lines” so continue repeating this process until you get a satisfying result.

You might also be asking what’s the point of using a tripod when we’re going to move the camera anyways. If we don’t use a tripod, it’s going to be very hard to get straight lines. There’s a bigger probability that the lines will be more zigzag and this is something that rarely looks as good (though I urge you to experiment, maybe you’ll get something you like!)

Note: Instead of tilting the tripod head you can try tilting the tripod itself; sometimes that works better!

Play with the Shutter Speed

That’s really how simple this technique is. The biggest challenge is to find scenes where the effect can look interesting. Some ideas can be trees, woods, bushes, flowers, fields, grass etc. I always recommend to zoom in as much as possible and fill the frame with only the subject(s) you’re shooting.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of this technique, it’s time to experiment with the shutter speed in order for you to get a better understanding of how it works. Adjust it to two seconds and repeat the same steps as above. See how different the image is now? Most likely, the image has become much softer and it has lost a lot of the textures you had at 0.5 seconds. This is a good way to see exactly how the shutter speed impacts an image while still getting an interesting image as a result!

I challenge you to try this exercise today and share the result with us in the comments below!