A while ago, photographer Tony Northrup posted a video where he pleads to stop asking him about the camera settings he used to take his photos. To summarize my understanding of it, Tony believes that, rather than concern yourself with those settings, you should focus on the experiences and what I call “soft metadata” that went into creating the photo. While I don’t disagree with Tony’s sentiment, I do have a problem with the his approach. Of course the composition and story of a photo are critical and sharing that with viewers only helps enrich their experience viewing it. So, this is the perfect opportunity to toss Tony’s request of “not asking about camera settings” aside. After all, while knowing the specific camera settings of a photo will not guarantee your ability to recreate it, it will make you that much more equipped with the knowledge needed to try. And at the end of the day, that is what I’ve built my career on.
I realized that so many of my shared photos fall into categories based on useful shutter speed, so why not break them down here? If you think about it, the shutter speed you use for a photo can affect the end result in dramatic ways. It can also ruin your photo if you haven’t dialed it in properly. Of course, there are several other variables and conditions that have to be managed as well, such as the available light, the nature of your primary focal point, and, of course, your aperture and ISO.
But still, in this article, we’re going to be talking about shutter speeds and, as a result, we’re going to make the assumption that you’ve accounted for the amount of light you need and have set the appropriate aperture and ISO to match. In other words, let’s say you want to get a panning shot of a taxi as it hurls down the road but it’s mid-day with a bright sun out and there’s no way you can set your camera to 1/20 sec. even with your aperture at its smallest diameter. In this case, the assumption I’m making is that you’ve packed a neutral density filter that will cut enough light for you to get your shutter speed to 1/20 sec. without blowing out the entire exposure.
Note: While I had been using the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 5D Mark III, Sony a7 II, and Sony a7R II to get the photos included in this article, I will be linking to the current generation of these cameras and lenses.
Rather than break down the categories by shutter speeds, it would be more useful if I break things down by intent. I believe that photographers are intent-based creatures. We get an idea for a photo and how we want to execute it. From there, we adjust the camera’s exposure settings to execute on that intent. So with that in mind, let’s begin!
Freezing fast-moving objects
Admittedly, this is my least used intent as far as compositions go. I love depicting objects in motion, whether it’s a vehicle, flowing water, or a throng of pedestrians. But still, there are many times when my intent for a photo requires me to use a blazing fast shutter speed. This is almost always the case when I want to freeze something that typically moves fast or moves a lot. Let’s take this photo of some photographers standing dangerously close to Thor’s Well in Oregon.
My typical MO when photographing Thor’s Well is to drag the shutter so that I can capture the movement of the water (more on that later in the post). However, when you’re standing at the base of the well, it’s difficult to get a true sense of scale of the water as it blows upward and over you. Also, this water typically moves quite fast (sometimes at dangerous speeds), so a fast shutter speed is needed to really freeze things. In the above example, I used a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. In my experience, that’s about as slow as you want to be when attempting to freeze a fast-moving object. Obviously, this depends on the variables I discussed in the intro: available light, what your camera settings are, and how fast your subject is moving, as can be illustrated in the following photo of a sheepdog wrangling a herd of sheep.
As you can imagine, both the sheepdog and the herd were moving pretty much nonstop. In order for me to freeze everything in front of me, I had to crank up (or down, depending on how you look at these things) the shutter speed to 1/800 sec. Similarly with the example below, I had only one shot to nab a sharp photo of these sled dogs barreling through the snow at great speeds. Given the amount of available light, I couldn’t make my shutter speed too quick or else it would have been too underexposed. I settled for a modest 1/400 sec., which did a great job in freezing the fast motion towards me.
Panning with Your Subject
I’m a sucker for a good panning shot and I am not ashamed to admit it. Whereas in the previous section, we discuss freezing motion altogether, now we’re talking about conveying it within the frame. One of the most important factors to consider with a panning shot is the speed of your subject. While you can get a solid panning shot with things moving very quickly or slowly, there is a sweet spot in terms of movement through the frame that yields fantastic results. I also find a shutter speed range between 1/40 and 1/20 sec to provide the most consistently strong results. What’s important is adjusting your aperture and ISO to get a proper exposure based on that shutter speed.
Early on in my career, I was very critical of which panning photos I thought were keepers. In fact, I was quite militant over requiring that the subject be tack sharp while the rest of the scene melted away in a blur. Over the years, I think I softened up a bit. I realize that there is a beautiful quality to imperfection. If the subject didn’t turn out to be perfectly sharp but was recognizable enough to the viewer, I’d be ok with it. This photo of a skateboarder hustling down a NYC street is a prime example of that. For some reason, I really enjoy the way it turned out despite me missing my mark as I panned along with him.
The Movement of Water
Of all the intents listed here, this has to be my most used one. Ever since moving to Oregon in 2011, I have become obsessed with conveying the visual qualities of moving water. There is an undeniably hypnotic quality to seeing water flow and it is brought to another level when you’re standing there because you also have the sounds to go along with it. After years of experimenting, I’ve concluded that a shutter speed range of 0.5 – 1 sec is ideal for capturing this movement, however there is a caveat. The water needs to be moving at a certain speed in order to get optimal results. If it is moving too slowly, your photo just won’t turn out right. However, if you’re near an ocean, river, or waterfall, the speed of the moving water should be adequate.
Ideally, the characteristics of the moving water can add a sense of directionality for the viewer, too. In many cases, I’ll stand by the water for a few minutes, studying what it’s doing. Are there rocks or other debris affecting how it moves? Can I position my camera differently so as to capture a better angle? What about my proximity and heigh to the water? Maybe if I move a few steps back and bring my camera lower to the surface, I can get a more effective result? These are the questions that I ask myself when photographing moving water. However, as far as settings go, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll always be between 0.5 – 1 sec to get these results.
Ghosting and Glassing Objects
When I first invested in ND filters, I made it my life’s mission to drag the shutter speed for as long as possible in almost every scenario. In some cases, that worked out in my favor but in most cases, it was—literally—a waste of time. Still, there is something to be said about dragging your shutter between 4 and 30 seconds (or longer!). The specific shutter speed you settle on will be determined by the amount of light you’ve got, what your aperture is, and what the desired effect is. Take this photo of the Coliseum in Rome as an example. I was going crazy because of how many people were in front of me. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t make the photo work. That’s when I decided to try using a 10-stop ND filter to get a 90+ second exposure. Doing so allowed me to introduce an interesting ghosting effect, especially with the tourists in the foreground.
Probably the most common use case for a super long exposure, usually 30 seconds or longer, is to glass out water or clouds. The ethereal visual qualities of such long exposure photos is unmistakable and, when used in the right context, it can seriously elevate the feel of it. This is the intent that I focused on almost exclusively when I got my first ND filter. I’d drag the shutter for as long as possible just to create a glassy surface from the moving water or turn clouds into wisps of vapor. While this intent is certainly a valid one, I would caution exercising some restraint as the look itself can get old pretty quickly. Although, I suppose that’s a fair point to make for each of the intents listed here.
So those are some of my most important shutter speeds along with the intent behind them. What about you? Do you have a certain intent that you rely on and, if so, what shutter speed do you typically dial in? Let me know in the comments.
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