Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking Great Photos - Part 4: Shutter Speed

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How often have you wanted to capture that moment of glory as your child kicked the winning goal in soccer, or crossed the finish line just ahead of the rest of the competition, but you ended up with nothing but a digital card full of blurred images and disappointments?

If you’ve ever found yourself in this terrible predicament, then you’ve come to the right place, because this lesson is all about shutter speed.

First off, shutter speed is simply telling your camera how quickly to take the photo. I know…pretty simple and straightforward, right?


But what if you don’t know a few of the basics of how fast is really fast and what is—in actuality—pretty slow?

Houston, we have a problem…

If you shoot in aperture mode (which is where I probably take 95% of my photographs and the topic of the last lesson) the camera adjusts the shutter speed automatically; however, there are times when I want to switch over to shutter speed mode to take a photo because there are times that I’m all about speed...

Shutter speed can make all the difference in the world when taking a photo. Did you know that when you blink it takes somewhere around 30/100th (3/10ths) of a second? Seems pretty quick, doesn’t it? However, that’s long enough to have missed seeing that shooting star, that flash of lightning, or the moment that your kid slipped into the room and shanghaied some of your chocolate. My point is - things can happen quickly.

When I was younger I believed that taking a photo at 1/10th of a second was pretty quick. I can remember being blown away thinking, Wow, that’s really fast. And sure, while 1/10th of a second might seem quick in terms of most things requiring movement in the real world, in the realms of cameras and photography, it’s actually pretty slow.

As a general rule, I shoot most of my photos somewhere around 1/100th of a second. If you’re handholding your camera, anything below 1/60th of a second will probably come out blurry…not saying it will, I’m just saying that there’s a greater chance of it.

Most photos that you take and will be satisfied with will probably have been shot with a shutter speed somewhere between 1/60th and 1/500th of a second.

The general rule I use for action is to shoot at at least 1/250th of a second or the image will be blurred. To freeze all of the action I try to shoot at 1/500th of a second.

Of course, most compact cameras have that little icon of the running man to help you out with action shots. When you switch to this mode, the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to be quicker, and it also adjusts the rest of the modes (ISO and aperture) so that the image will (supposedly) have enough light in order to take the shot and have it look good.

This works sometimes, but not always.

To gain more control over your camera, switch to shutter speed mode (it might be buried somewhere in a digital menu, so consult your camera’s manual to find out where this mode really is) and start playing around with it. Take some shots of frisky pets, cars racing by on the street out front, or your precocious four year-old as he does something he’s not supposed to and tries to make a quick getaway.

My point is, experiment. You’ll never get used to taking photos with varying shutter speed and knowing what really works until you do it.

Just like practicing the piano…okay, maybe not piano.

This past weekend I attended a student’s basketball game. I always take along my camera with the intent of practicing action shots – it also keeps me from having to talk to anyone there if I really don’t feel like it.

I took out my camera and moved to the end of the court, watching the boys play in the no-so-well lit gymnasium. The lights were something of a cross between incandescent and fluorescent bulbs that seemed to make everyone look like they were extras in a Twilight movie. However, even with bad lighting and fast action being a horrific combination for photography, capturing that iconic shot was still possible.

When I first started to shoot, I took the first few pictures – not thinking - in aperture mode; my shutter speed was only 1/60th of a second. It only took me a few moments to realize what I was doing. I knew that there was just no way I’d be able to capture any of the action properly. Mostly I ended up with a dozen shots that looked something like this:

Not very pretty, is it?

Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.

I quickly upped the shutter speed to 1/350th second and recommenced shooting. The outcomes I began to garner were far more aesthetically pleasing:

By increasing the shutter speed, I was basically commanding (I just love that word) the camera to work even faster and take the image quicker, thus freezing the action before said boy actually hit the floor while diving for the ball.


But what if you want movement? In this case, you slow the shutter speed down.

I did this last year when I was invited to a different student’s basketball game. I decided I wanted to experiment with giving the feeling of the movement happening instead of freezing the action altogether. As a result, I dropped the shutter speed down to 1/30th of a second and panned with the player as he bolted across the gymnasium.

The shot of which I speak is the one I used for my header:

I got exactly what I wanted: the feeling of motion and increased visual impact.

But what about those amazing shots where the photographer has blurred the surface of the water so that it looks smooth as silk? How do they do that?

Shutter speed, baby…shutter speed.

You know that you can also get those amazing shots, too if you slow your camera’s shutter speed down to about 1/4th of a second or lower. You probably already realize though that you won’t be able to hand-hold your camera, you’ll want to have a tripod and probably set your camera to take the photo on timer so that you aren’t touching the unit at all. Even a slight touch such as pushing the shutter button can cause moment to the camera and give you a blurry shot.

Did this help? Do you feel empowered? Did you forget what I said at the beginning?

If so, here’s the cliff notes from the whole post:
  • Most action shots should be taken between 1/250th and 1/500th of a second to freeze what's happening.
  • To blur a subject partially and add motion, slow to 1/30th of a second (or so) and pan along with them.
  • To get blurred water, try shooting at 1/4th of a second or slower (you’ll need a tripod).
Until next time; shoot ‘til you get it.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: About Your Camera
Part 3: Aperture
Part 4: Shutter Speed
Part 5: White Balance
Part 6: ISO
Part 7: The Breath
Part 8: The Rule of Thirds


Brett said...

Thanks for another free photography lesson. Now I just need to get off of my butt and go get a camera that will do what you're teaching! The little man isn't getting any younger so I really need to go make the purchase!

M-Cat said...

And this would be why you are the professional and I am pathetic. : )

Shaun said...

You have made your "uncle" very proud! Great job on these tutorials! :)

Justin said...

That was a very good post. Great picture taking advice.

Yanet said...

I've been waiting for a photo tutorial from you. Glad it's out. I'm going to have to play with my speed this weekend.

Rachel said...

And even then...... you'll still probably go to a bowling alley and take really horrible photos because you'll screw up the ISO........ it happens.... :D

Kristina said...

Hmmm. I wonder if my T-Mobile camera phone can do this.

Tonya said...

I once had to take about 24 pictures of random strangers on a roller coaster while judging exactly when to "click" in order to get my kids as they began the steep descent. For the record, I timed it perfectly and got the shot...

but I still need a better camera before I can utilize your good advice :(

Lindsey said...

I used to have that problem, but I am happy now that I have a camera with the possibility of frame-by-frame shots. The quality dwindles but it gets a clear shot, usually. I hope to get a nice new camera soon so I can adjust exposure and shutter speed and such.

Karen said...

I took an entire semester of photography in college and didn't learn as much then as I did from reading this one post. Back then, I just took a bunch of pictures and hoped some of them turned out decent enough to pass the class!

Pedaling said...

I'll take any advice you have to give.
I have a great camera,,,but am constantly learning and trying to figure it all out.

Tammy said...

One day I will have time to learn how to take photos. At least that's my plan.

Life with Kaishon said...

You taught this so beautifully! : ) Thank you for taking the time to write this up an explain it!

Connie said...

It's a gift, Mr. Z! You are the photo guru! Love these shots! So, what if the only camera you have is point and shoot and for action shots, you turn it to sports? I think I know the answer. Your pictures look like crap! (Pardon the French)

When I do break down and get a real camera, I'm coming to you for lessons!

Brett said...

I bought my big boy camera today. I'm loving it already! Thanks again for the tips!

Fried Toast said...

One point that I didn't see was regarding the focal length being used. A good general rule of thumb is having a shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of the lens you are using.

For example, if you are using a 20mm lens, then 1/20 or faster should be sufficient (for a still shot, anyway). If you are using a 300mm telephoto, then you want to have at least 1/300.

As you stated, it all depends on what you're shooting, how much light is involved, how sensitive your sensor (ISO) is and what the intended effects are.

All good points you made, but I thought it might confuse a few people since your audience is most likely a mix of P&S (point & shoot) users and DSLR users. P&S owners would have a better shot at making your tutorial work. DSLR shooters and their varying degree of focal lengths might have a bit more trouble (1/250th might not work well in a poorly-lit gymnasium for Joey's basketball game).

Hope that helps anyone that might've had additional questions.

BTW- didn't realize you were a shooter. Will have to hang out next time I'm back in the States :)

Teachinfourth said...

FT - When you make it back to the states I'd love to hang out and go on a shoot...that would be fun. I realize now, after reading your comment, that I didn't include your tip in this particular tutorial. Thanks for adding it.

It also reminded me that it's high time that I got on the ball and wrote another one...maybe after the school year officially ends and I'm not up to my eyeballs in projects.

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