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The shutter controls the duration of an exposure. In creative terms, it’s the shutter that determines how time is depicted: whether movement is frozen in time so that every tiny detail is visible, or blurred to create a sense of motion and energy.
A fast shutter speed will freeze movement to reveal detail, form and features. For example, in wildlife photography, a fast shutter speed reveals exactly how a subject moves – the position of its body, its legs, the intensity of its gaze. To illustrate this point, the image of the cheetah was photographed using a shutter speed of 1/2000sec. This fast shutter speed has frozen all movement, revealing how all four feet leave the ground and how the animal’s hind legs reach forward beyond the point of its forelegs.
Even for everyday photographic situations, such as when photographing a son or daughter during a school sports day, playing in the back garden or park or while on holiday, a fast shutter speed will capture the moment to best effect. And, when shooting action sequences of wildlife, sports or people, a fast shutter speed will ensure you never miss the moment.
Another benefit of faster shutter speeds is the reciprocal increase in lens aperture. As was explained in last month’s lesson, lens aperture controls depth of field, which, in turn, controls emphasis. Fast shutter speeds typically result in large apertures (eg, f2.8 or f4) and might help to remove distracting background detail that’s blurred to a point where it’s hidden.
Faster shutter speeds will also reduce the likelihood of image blur caused by camera shake, which can ruin an otherwise excellent photograph. At slow shutter speeds there is more of a chance of camera shake adversely affecting image quality, particularly when using telephoto lenses. While the very best solution to avoiding camera shake is to use a suitable tripod, this isn’t always practical.
Slow shutter speeds can be used creatively to blur motion and create a sense of movement. Keeping with the wildlife example used earlier, the image of wildebeests (shot at 1/20sec) reveals little in the way of detail, but creates a wonderful sense of movement.
Neither example – the cheetah or the wildebeests – is the right way or wrong way to take the photograph, but simply different interpretations of a subject.
A useful example that illustrates how shutter speed enables a photographer to alter a subject’s appearance is a waterfall. A shutter speed in excess of 1/500sec will freeze every droplet of splashing water from a tumbling waterfall, revealing the intensity and power of the subject. This is a very different effect than the ethereal look of water that’s created when it’s photographed at a slow shutter speed. Of course, what constitutes a fast shutter speed depends on the subject being photographed and is an important consideration, for two reasons.
First, the specific shutter speed needed to freeze movement is always relative to the speed of the subject. For example, a sprinting cheetah runs at such pace that a shutter speed of even 1/500sec is relatively slow, so a setting of at least two stops faster (1/2000sec) and possibly more is required. Conversely, a setting of 1/500sec might be fast enough to capture the action of a child playing in the garden.
Second, and less obvious, is a symptom relating to high-resolution (6MP+) digital cameras. Because these cameras produce such high-resolution images, for many fast-moving subjects (particularly wildlife and sports) a minimum shutter speed of 1/1500sec is needed to capture an image that is completely sharp to the naked eye.
At fast speeds like this, every individual drop of water is frozen in action for a crisp, clear shot
At this speed you won’t capture any movement in the flow of water, and it will appear as drops. The camera can be held by hand at this speed
At this speed, water starts to transform and some droplets merge together in fast-moving areas
Blur occurs on the faster parts, like the waterfall, but slower-moving parts are less affected here
At this speed, smooth water flows are captured cascading over the fall. Think about using a filter and tripod now
Set your shutter to stay open for one second and watch water transform into soft, misty and blurred texture
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Debbis passionate about all things photographic: from the latest digital kit to the greatest techniques to capture a scene. Shes been at the helm of the photography portfolio of magazines, websites and more for three years.
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