What is so awesome about shutter speed?


Warning: this post is going to be lengthy.

I’m going to start out this post by referencing a question raised by Melissa in the last segment. She asked “how do you decide what the appropriate settings should be in the moment? Say I’m shooting outside on a bright day, how do I know how low I should set the ISO or how low of an f stop?” Very, very good question. I’m not trying to coach anyone on aesthetics here, but lets shift our thinking a little bit. We can be reactionary photographers, or we can be proactive photographers. To be reactionary, all we need to do is lock the cam into “auto” and let the camera evaluate the situation and make all of the calls. Or….. we can be proactive when see a photo-worthy subject, and think to ourselves “how can I make this shot awesome by interjecting a bit of my own style into the way I shoot this?” Depending on how we answer that question is how we would know which way to skew the settings. If you aren’t quite sure what your personal style is when it come to photography, don’t sweat it. I’m sure that it goes without saying, that one’s style is a very dynamic thing that will constantly change and expand with time, experience and practice, etc.. For those who are having a hard time figuring out where to get started, imitation is always a good place. Think of some of the photos that have recently caught your attention. Decide what it is about them that makes them appealing. Then, practice recreating the appealing aspects in your own work.

Now that we know all of the variables involved in achieving a proper exposure, let’s put that knowledge to use. Let’s play out the scenario described by Melissa, as well as a lower light scenario. Since we are discussing shutter speed in this post, we will address the questions in that context.

Shutter speed in bright light

We are shooting outside on a bright day. We have a great subject that we want to be proactive about and capture an interesting image of. We decide that we are going to make the aperture defer to our shutter speed. For those shooting with SLR’s there is actually a setting that will accomplish this for us. On Canon cameras, it is “TV” mode. I apologize for not knowing Nikon’s shutter priority mode. But I know that Nikon also has one. Nikon ppl, please put the name of Nikon’s shutter priority setting in the comments. In shutter priority mode, the camera will automatically try to adjust the aperture to gain the proper exposure, based on the shutter speed that the photographer has chosen.  But, the photographer will still have to manually select the ISO (unless the camera is on auto ISO [which I strongly discourage]). Since we are shooting outside on a bright day, lets start by dropping the ISO down to like 100. That way we know that we are going to get a nice buttery image with zero noise.

Ok, so we are set on shutter priority mode, with the ISO at or near the lowest setting. Do we want to show motion, or do we want to freeze time? It is going to be a lot easier to freeze time in bright daylight, since our aperture only goes so small. So lets dial up the shutter speed to 1/1000″ That should be fast enough to freeze most motion that humans are capable of. Since it it bright daylight, we shouldn’t have a problem underexposing. This is a great setting for jumping or hair whipping pics–

The image above was shot by John Holman, who is friends with the gentleman (my amigo Zach) jumping over his bride in the photo. Let’s check out the EXIF data (fn.1)  on this image.

So, we can see here that John was using a custom program geared towards action, giving priority to shutter speed (sounds pretty similar to Canon’s TV mode). That was a smart move. The shutter speed was 1/800″ and the aperture of f/10 was probably automatically selected by the camera based on it’s light meter. Here is a quick quiz. If John was shooting in TV, and would have had the ISO set to 100 instead of 400, and the shutter speed set to 1000 instead of 800, would the camera have adjusted the f-stop to a higher or lower number to try to get the same exposure?

Motion blur is also possible in well lit situations, but it is more fun in low light, so let’s cover it there. When you learn to do it in low light, you will be able to capture it in any kind of light.

Before we move away from our brightly lit scenario, there is one more idea that I would like to throw out, while we are talking about shutter speed. Why not underexpose? This in an effect that can be very cool. People who see the image will know that it was shot in bright light because of the way that the light is hitting the object in the image. But the photo will be interesting, because instead of being bright and blown out, it will look almost like night time. Here is an awesome example of that–

I wish that I could say that those were my images. Alas, they belong to Enrique Badulescu. Granted there is also some serious post-production work done on these, but it is a good example, no?

I was going to keep dragging this post out, and write about choosing a shutter speed in low light. But since my attention span has expired, I can imagine that a reader trying to ingest all of this would probably also be struggling to pay attention by this point. So, instead lets do an assignment and chat about low light later.

Before we get to the assignment, I would just like to throw in a quick suggestion/technique. One of the coolest things about digital photography, is that it costs just as much money to shoot 100 frames as it does to shoot 1 frame. So, trial and error is our friend. Shoot as many frames as you need to. Term of art– “bracketing.” If we are documenting something that doesn’t allow us time to perfectly dial in the exposure before we start shooting, we can put it about where we think the setting should be– shoot a few frames; then adjust up a bit, snap a few; Adjust down, snap a few. This way we have our bases covered. If the initial guess was a bit off, no worries. We have belt and suspenders by exposing some frames adjusting up and down a bit. One of those shots is bound to be golden.

Here is the homework– Let’s find the sweet spot for freezing time with our shutter speed. Note, this is going to vary depending on how bright of light we are shooting in. So, let’s try it shooting outside during a fairly bright time of day. Set your camera to the shutter priority mode (“TV” for Canon). Start with 1/800″, and play around until you get an image that you are stoked about. Remember, depending on the ambient light, you run the risk of underexposing while using a high shutter speed. The camera can only compensate in f-stops up to the maximum aperture of the lens you are using. But you can always fall back on adjusting the ISO up a notch if you need to.

For extra credit, purposely underexpose in broad daylight. Still in shutter priority mode, run the shutter speed up all of the way, and drop the ISO all of the way. Depending on the ambient light (and your camera’s maximum settings), you may end up with some seriously dark frames at first. So between frames, gradually slow down the shutter a bit until you get an image that you are stoked about.

Link to your images in the comments, if you feel like sharing the results of your homework assignment.

Stay tuned for ideas with shutter speed in lower light situations (for which I’m planning a short action packed tutorial vid to accompany).

1. EXIF data is the information regarding the camera and camera settings that digital cameras automatically store in the image file. It can be viewed in most photo editing programs. Unless the EXIF data has been scrubbed from the file, you can even download images from the interwebz, and see what camera settings were used to capture the image.

View all parts of this series here.

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  1. I actually have a Nikon. The S mode is for shutter speed, the A mode is for aperture. I’m going to give your suggestions a try. I feel like a I have trouble with either getting unwanted motion blur or over-exposure. Unfortunately I often don’t realize it until I’m back on my macbook. Like you said though, I think I just need to practice. Do you ever use your shutter priority mode indoors? Or is that by default a bad idea because of lighting?

  2. Thanks for the assignment…I will give this a try. Quick clarification, please: We’re putting it in Shutter priority mode (TV), not aperture priority, correct? Because you use “ap” a few times and I got a bit confused. Were those typos or am I misunderstanding the assignment?

  3. @Lauren: Holy cow! I had it wrong more than I had it right! Thanks so much for pointing that out. Yes, shutter priority is what I intended to write.

    This is why people should not attempt to draft complicated posts in the middle of the night. Hehehe.

  4. Rad series you got here Jake. I am totally sending some of my friends over here to check it out. Oh, and I must say that bride is SO beautiful.

    Also, I thought I would throw in an answer to Melissa above…Sometimes I like to shoot in TV indoors to force the camera to freeze an image. You can lock a camera on AV at F2.8 but still get some blur, so I like to set my TV at 1/60th, 1/80th or so, there is not as much blur, the image may be a bit underexposed but depending on what you are shooting that may be OK. I would rather have a underexposed image of my son frozen doing something cute, than have a properly exposed image of him blurred accross the frame. I’m sure Jake will get into all of that low light fun in the next session though.

  5. I just wanted to tell you, in case you aren’t getting the kind of feedback you’d hoped for with this series, that I think it’s awesome.

    I haven’t had a chance to try anything new with my camera yet but once I finally get a chance I will be revisiting every single pointer post you write.

  6. I am taking an intro to photog class and you just explained our first 5 (SLOW) 3 hour classes. Its nice to see it all concisely put. Thanks for posting all that 🙂

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