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Understanding Shutter Speed - Abhi Madangeri

Photography is all about playing with light and the basic factor which determines the amount of light that reaches camera sensor is shutter. The time taken for opening and closing of shutter is called shutter speed which is measured in terms of seconds. The shutter speed can be very fast, fraction of a second to very slow, several seconds. This time interval can be used to create the desired effect in our images. In this article we will look into these effects of shutter speed and their impact on the end result.

Every subject and its action has a shutter speed associated with it. Knowing the shutter speed for a given subject and using it to create an image comes with experience. 

There are few factors which have to be considered when deciding the shutter speed.

Camera Shake - Blur due to camera shake or movement is very common when shooting handheld. This movement makes the complete image blurred by some degree based on the amount of shake and shutter speed. So while hand holding, shutter speed should be fast enough to overcome this shake to create a sharp image. Using tripod, monopod, bean bag or any other support helps eliminate blur due to camera shake. Besides situation where fast shutter is used, this shake can also be minimized by using a tripod and mirror lock up functionality in landscapes, portraits and night photography where shutter speed may be slower.

Subject Movement - Sometimes shutter speed may not be fast enough to freeze the subject's movement to get sharp images. Unlike camera shake, in these images you may find all static elements would be sharp but only the subject or part of it is blurred. Many a times in bird images you must have noticed, even though the complete bird falls under the DOF area, the body is sharp but the head isn't. This happens due to relatively slow shutter speed.

Light - Understanding light conditions and selecting shutter speed suitable for the specific scene is very important. When outdoors the actual light may not change dramatically but the habitat may affect the area lit by the same light. This happens when we are shooting under a thick canopy, the changes in light and contrast is quite dramatic and needs changes in shutter speed accordingly. So in such situation knowing the area of shoot and the light conditions help a lot.

Time as a Creative Tool

Shutter speed can be used creatively to achieve different effects in an image. Here are a few different approaches towards image making using time as the main element affecting the end result.

Still: Having a fast shutter speed is the main criteria to freeze action or create static portraits with good sharp details. We need to select a shutter speed fast enough to freeze our subject depending on the subject and light condition. Shooting at a high ISO and underexposing by a few stops without losing details is the trick when shooting moving subjects but shutter speed can be relatively slower at lower ISO when shooting portraits, landscapes, etc.  

Shutter Speed: 1/1250s

Panning/Zoom Burst: This works at a slower shutter speed where the subject is in focus but the blur around the subject gives a feel of motion. The shutter speed depends on how fast the subject is so that the subject is sharp. The trick here is to move the camera with the moving subject. In case of zoom burst, the subject is in focus but the surrounding is blurred by the movement of the lens zoom.

Shutter Speed: 1/13s

Creative Blur: The silky smooth water flow or the sketchy feel of an abstract frame falls under this category. To achieve this, a thorough understanding of the end result is necessary. Based on the visualization of the end result, shutter speed has to be selected which would be specific for the subject. The blur and streaks which are the main elements of such images depend on the time the shutter is kept open.  

Shutter Speed: 1/13s

Trail: Star and vehicle trails and even painting with light requires a long exposure to create the continuous trails of light. The exposure can vary from fraction of a second like 1/15 to several seconds. Most long exposures need a stable support like a tripod to get the image right.

Shutter Speed: 425s

Long Exposure: Though we use long exposures for trails and creative blur, I have added this category for images which don't fall under the above 2 categories. This may include night photography like capturing the Milky Way, buildings and city at night, landscapes, monuments, etc. Showing the light trail or blurring of motion is not important but the aim is to use long exposure to capture the details.

Shutter Speed: 21s

For beginners a ceiling fan with varying speed is an easy subject to experiment with different shutter speed and its impact on the image. Shutter speed can be used in many ways and we need not always have a fast shutter to have the subject sharp. Always have the picture in mind before you press that shutter button and choose the right speed for the right moment.  

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