Ul­ti­mate guide to pick­ing the per­fect shut­ter speed for ev­ery oc­ca­sion

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Are you pay­ing enough at­ten­tion to your cam­era’s shut­ter speed? Or do you just check it’s fast enough to avoid the risk of cam­era shake, and then ig­nore it? That’s the wrong at­ti­tude!

Pho­tog­ra­phers work very hard to get their sub­jects per­fectly sharp, and to cre­ate just the right de­gree of back­ground blur in their im­ages, but it’s a mis­take to imag­ine that fo­cus­ing and lens aper­ture are the only con­trols that count. In fact the shut­ter speed plays an equally im­por­tant part in con­trol­ling sharp­ness. The lens aper­ture can con­trol the sharp­ness with depth, but the shut­ter speed does the same thing with an en­tirely dif­fer­ent di­men­sion – time.

If you’re pho­tograph­ing an ob­ject that’s still, the shut­ter speed may not be a fac­tor, but most ev­ery­day sub­jects show some kind of move­ment, and this is where the shut­ter speed be­comes im­por­tant.

Freeze or blur?

For ac­tion or sports pho­tog­ra­phy, you might want to freeze your sub­ject to elim­i­nate any move­ment. When you’re work­ing out what shut­ter speed you need, many fac­tors come into play, such as the speed your sub­ject is trav­el­ling at, its dis­tance and the an­gle you’re shoot­ing from.

For some sub­jects, such as a speed­ing race car, there may not be a shut­ter speed high enough. That’s why ac­tion pho­tog­ra­phers ‘pan’ with the sub­ject to keep it cen­tred in the frame (see page 10 for more on this). It’s the sub­ject’s speed across the frame that causes the blur, not its speed in real life, and fol­low­ing your sub­ject in the viewfinder is the se­cret to pin-sharp shots.

Rel­a­tive move­ment

When you take a pan­ning shot, it’s the back­ground that comes out blurred, and this is just one ex­am­ple of a sit­u­a­tion where you can use rel­a­tive move­ment for pow­er­ful cre­ative ef­fects.

Wa­ter­falls and seascapes are other clas­sic ex­am­ples. A slow shut­ter speed is used so that the wa­ter turns into a milky blur – but the rocks and cliffs don’t move dur­ing the ex­po­sure, so they stay com­pletely sharp. You can use the same tech­niques to blur pedes­tri­ans in travel shots.

Don’t just treat the shut­ter speed as a rou­tine ad­just­ment to pre­vent cam­era shake – it’s an im­por­tant cre­ative tool in its own right.

The need for speed! An un­der­stand­ing of shut­ter speed and move­ment will help you stop your sub­jects sharply in their tracks

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