Setting Shutter Speed

Trick Photography And Special Effects

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shutter button control wheel shutter speed shutter speed

On most manual or older model cameras, the shutter speed is indicated on a dial located on top of the camera body (left). To set it, you turn the dial until the desired speed is indicated next to a marker. With many modern cameras, the shutter speed setting is displayed on an LCD screen; you change it by turning a control wheel (center). Many camera models show the selected shutter speed in the camera's viewfinder (right).

John Goodman, Two Wrestlers, Havana, Cuba, 2000

The choice of shutter speed controls subject movement. Goodman uses a shutter speed of 1/4 here, which means the shutter is open while the wrestlers are in motion and also the camera is in motion because that speed is too slow for steadily handholding it. The blurred effect serves to enhance the feeling of intensity of these Cuban athletes. © John Goodman; courtesy of June Bateman Gallery, New York, NY.

Full shutter speed settings let in half as much or double the light of the settings that precede and follow them.

Stop: page 71

as "2" (1/2 of a second), so it allows half as much light to reach the film. And "250" (1/250) is twice as much time as "500" (1/500), so it allows in double the light.

Each halving or doubling is called one stop. The half/double relationship is not coincidental; remember that f-stop settings have exactly the same relationship. You control exposure by balancing the combination of shutter speed and f-stop to permit the correct amount of light to enter the camera.

Some shutters are mechanical, driven by gears and springs, and others are electronic. Mechanical shutters can be set only for the speeds designated by the shutter-speed dial; even if you try to set the shutter between two designated speeds—say, 1/60 and 1/125—the camera will set one speed or the other. Some electronic shutters function only at designated full shutter speeds, but almost all provide intermediate choices in either half-stop increments, such as 1/90 (halfway between 1/60 and 1/125), or third-stop increments, such as 1/80 and 1/100 (between 1/60 and 1/125). Note that on these cameras, one click of the control wheel is not necessarily a full shutter speed adjustment. If you are trying to make a full, one-stop change, check the LCD panel to ensure that you have not set a half- or third-stop setting by mistake.

One clear advantage of mechanical shutters is they don't depend on batteries to work. If you have a camera with an electronic shutter, it won't work at all if the batteries are exhausted. However, electronic shutters are more accurate and generally quieter than mechanical shutters. And with half- or third-stop settings they allow more precise exposure control.

Almost all cameras offer a "B" (bulb) setting and a few offer a "T" (time) setting. Both permit the shutter to remain open for an indefinite period of time for very long exposures, often called time exposures. These settings are especially useful in dim lighting conditions, when adequate film exposure may require shutter speeds ranging from a few seconds to as long as several minutes.

When set at "B," the shutter remains open as long as you keep the shutter button pressed down. When you release the button, the shutter closes. When set at "T," the shutter remains open from the time you initially press the button, and then closes when you press the button a second time.

Controlling Movement

You can choose a shutter speed fast enough to stop motion or slow enough to blur it.

The shutter speed setting controls the appearance of a moving subject. Faster shutter speeds stop (freeze) movement, but if the shutter is open for a longer time, the moving subject may blur. Thus, you have the option of choosing a shutter speed fast enough to stop motion or slow enough to create blur, depending on the effect you're looking for.

Most of the time, you will want to stop movement, and this generally requires a fairly fast shutter speed. Just how fast depends to a large degree on

Stephen Tourlentes, Landing, LAX, Los Angeles, CA, 2002

Tourlentes makes very long exposures, often using the "T" or "B" shutter setting to achieve shutter speeds of several minutes, to photograph airplanes taking off at night. Because the shutter remains open as the planes take to the air, the film captures the bright, blurry trails of their lights moving across the dark sky. © Stephen Tourlentes; courtesy of Revolution Gallery, Ferndale, MI.

Controlling Movement

Controlling Movement

1/4 1/30 1/250

In each of these photographs the spinning wheel is turning at the same rate. Photographing with a slow shutter speed of 1/4 (left) causes the wheel to appear blurred. At 1/30, the blur is less evident (center); a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250 (right) freezes the wheel's motion entirely.

your subject. As a general rule, subjects that move quickly need the fastest shutter speeds; subjects that move slowly—or don't move at all, such as rocks and buildings—need slower speeds. You may be able to freeze the motion of a walking dog at 1/125, for example, but you may need 1/1000 or faster to stop the motion of a galloping horse. Or you may use a setting slower than 1/60 or 1/125 to deliberately blur your subject; the slower the speed, the greater the blurring effect. Note that at slow shutter speeds, blurry results also may be due to camera shake.

The direction and distance of the moving subject can prove as important as its speed. If the subject moves from side to side (left to right or right to left), its image will cross the film faster than if it travels directly toward or away from the camera. Therefore, you will need a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement of the horizontally moving subject than for the one that travels directly toward or away from you. (And you will need an in-between speed for subjects moving diagonally toward or away from you.)

Furthermore, if your camera is close to your subject, movement appears faster than if you are further away. Therefore, you will need a faster shutter speed to freeze close moving subjects than you will for distant ones.

Subtle subject movement is yet another factor. Generally, landscape subjects don't require fast shutter speeds since they don't appear to be in motion. However, a strong wind can easily move grass, foliage, or tree branches. On

Movement appears fastest when your subject moves from side to side and also when it is close to the camera.

Direction of Movement

Direction of Movement

Tripods: pages 99-101

When properly done, panning the camera makes a moving subject sharp and blurs the background.

Panning example: page 64

windy days especially, use a relatively fast shutter speed to guarantee a sharp image; or use a slow shutter speed to create blur, thereby emphasizing the motion.

Deliberately blurring some subjects within an otherwise sharp image is an effective way to show action, movement, or simply to create mood or atmosphere. Keep the shutter speed fast enough so that stationary parts of the subject (such as buildings, cars, and rocks) appear sharp, but slow enough so the moving parts of the subject (such as running water or animals and people in motion) blur. Or place the camera on a tripod, which will allow you to use a very slow shutter speed and still keep many stationary subjects from blurring.

You also might try moving the camera during exposure in the same direction as the subject's motion, a technique called panning. For example, suppose someone is riding past you on a bicycle, from left to right. By panning, you can render the bicycle and rider sharp and cause the foreground and background to blur.

As the subject moves past you, follow its motion by turning the camera while pressing the shutter button. For an effective pan, the camera movement must simulate the speed of the moving subject, which you can accomplish by keeping the subject in the same location in the viewfinder as you move the camera. Try panning at 1/8 or 1/15, then experiment with different speeds, but not faster than 1/30.

While panning is a choice you can make, any deliberate or accidental camera movement may cause image blurring. Accidental movement, sometimes called camera shake, is one of the most common factors in unwanted image blurring. Sometimes blur occurs because you are using a shutter speed that is too slow to hold the camera steady by hand. But blur may result at almost any shutter

Ed Kashi, Saigon on Wheels, Vietnam, 1994

To recreate the hectic atmosphere of the streets of Saigon, Kashi moves his camera during exposure, following the bicycles as they move left to right, a technique called panning. Using a slow shutter speed, such as 1/8 or 1/15, the cyclists appear sharp and the background blurs. © Ed Kashi; courtesy of the artist.

Don't handhold your 35mm SLR camera at speeds slower than 1/30 or 1/60; bulkier cameras and lenses require even faster shutter speeds.

Use a tripod or some other means for steadying the camera at slow shutter speeds.

speed (except the very fastest) when you're not careful to steady the camera before making an exposure. Note that the effect of camera shake isn't always an obvious blur; sometimes it will show as a more subtle lack of overall sharpness.

Be very conscious of camera shake when holding the camera to your eye. In particular, take pains to set yourself securely, and don't talk or move any more than necessary when taking a picture. Also, don't remove the camera from its eye-level position until you're sure the shutter has closed and the exposure is complete.

An individual's ability to hold a camera steady varies, but the faster the shutter speed, the less image blur there is—for everyone. To avoid the effects of camera shake, follow this general rule: Don't use shutter speeds slower than 1/30 or 1/60 when handholding your 35mm SLR when using normal or wide-angle focal lengths or zoom-lens settings. Bigger cameras and longer lenses require even faster shutter speeds.

As a simple rule of thumb, turn the focal length of your lens into a fractional number and use at least that speed when photographing with that lens. When using a 50mm lens or a 50mm setting on your zoom lens, for example, make sure your shutter speed is 1/50 or faster (usually 1/60, unless your shutter offers 1/50, which some electronic shutters do). When using a 200mm lens or zoom lens setting, make sure your shutter speed is 1/200, 1/250, or faster.

When you have to use a shutter speed that is slower than recommended above, use a tripod to steady the camera. If a tripod is unavailable, try bracing the camera against a tree, car roof, or on a countertop. A beanbag or small pillow placed between the camera and its brace will help cushion movement further.

A tripod or other means of steadying the camera is often a good idea whether you're using a slow shutter speed or not. It helps you frame the subject more carefully, and further reduces any chance of accidental camera movement. However, it also limits spontaneity and restricts your ability to adjust your camera position.

Steadying the Camera

Accidental camera movement during exposure is called camera shake and results in an overall image blur (upper left). Camera shake most often occurs when you use shutter speeds that are too slow to handhold the camera steadily. To minimize unwanted blur, be sure to set a fast enough shutter speed (1/30 to 1/60 or faster), hold the camera correctly (upper right), or brace the camera against a support (lower left). Often the most reliable way to hold a camera steady is to place it on a tripod (lower right).

Bracing the camera Using a tripod

Shutter Types Most 35mm SLR cameras have a focal-plane shutter, which is located inside the camera body, just in front of where the film sits. This type of shutter is typically made of cloth or thin metal curtains. When you press the shutter button, one curtain opens to uncover the film and expose it to light. Then a second curtain trails along behind the first, covering up the film.

Other cameras have a leaf shutter, which is located inside the camera lens and consists of several overlapping metal blades, or leaves, that open and close in a circular pattern when the shutter button is pressed. Leaf shutters are found in large-format camera lenses and cameras with noninterchangeable lenses, such as point-and-shoots, rangefinders, and twin-lens-reflex cameras. They also are used in some medium-format cameras.

Lenses are generally less expensive for cameras with a focal-plane shutter, because each lens does not have to include its own shutter. Also, focal-plane shutters accommodate very fast shutter speeds of 1/1000, 1/2000, or faster, as well as slower-calibrated settings such as 2, 4, 8 seconds or longer. Flash and shutter speed: Leaf shutters are more limited, often offering a maximum shutter speed of page 122 1/500. But they are quieter and less prone to vibration than focal-plane shutters, which means you can usually use slower shutter speeds when handholding the camera and still get a sharp image. In addition, you can use a flash at any shutter speed with a leaf shutter, whereas focal-plane shutters have a maximum shutter speed for flash use, usually 1/60 or 1/125 and sometimes 1/250.

focal plane film shutter

leaf shutter film

A focal-plane shutter is located in the camera body, just in front of the film (left). A leaf shutter, which is in the camera's lens (center), consists of overlapping metal blades that open and close in a circular pattern (right).

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Michael Kenna, Hillside Fence, Study 2, Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Japan, 2002

Kenna brings a bold and elegant style to all his photographs, whether he is photographing a winter landscape in Japan or an industrial power plant in England. But simple pictures are often the hardest to make, particularly when a subject is nearly all light or all dark. Here, Kenna's ability to control exposure is key to making this minimal picture effective. © Michael Kenna; courtesy of the artist.

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