We often spend so much time making sure that the speed of our shutter is fast enough to avoid camera shake or motion blur from movement, that it might sound odd to talk about improving your photos by slowing down your shutter. But that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
“The water was blurred out by holding the shutter option for 30 seconds in this picture.”
Why would you do this? Because certain photos can be improved drastically by using a slow shutter speed. In fact, some photos can be transformed entirely with a slower shutter speed.
Think about using slow shutter speeds instead of a faster shutter when you have moving water or moving clouds in your picture. You can create a nice blurred effect to these parts of the photo, while other parts of the photo will remain steady to anchor the photo.
What You Will Need To Take The Photo
The good news regarding working with steadier speeds is that you probably already have most of the equipment you need. Besides the camera, all that is required is a tripod and remote shutter release.
“Using a shutter speed of 13 seconds created movement in the clouds and smoothed out the water.”
You might need a neutral density filter though. That is a filter that restricts how much light that is allowed into the focal length lenses. When you attach this filter, it reduces how much light is coming into your camera so that you can use a longer shutter without overexposing your photo.
They come in a variety of strengths, which are measured in “stops” of light. Get the 10-stop version when you use a long shutter, which is strong enough to have a pronounced effect on your images with moving objects.
What is The Right Speed?
Before we get started, what is the right amount of speed? Unfortunately, I cannot give you a clear answer to that question. When it comes to making clouds look like they’re moving in the sky, there is very little guidance I can give you because moving clouds are always moving at different speeds.
You will need to use a speed of at least 30 seconds, usually over a minute. Sometimes you will need a speed that is several minutes long.
When it comes to moving water, however, I can offer you a little bit of photography guidance. Try working with these settings ranges: If all you want to do is to create a slight motion blur to create a sense of movement: try using a speed of 1/8 – 1/2 secs.
For a completely blurred effect with water: use a speed of 15 – 30 secs. Finally, if you want to smooth out the water entirely in your photo, you should use a speed that is half a minute or even longer.
Of course, the ultimate speed will depend on the exact effect you are looking for and the conditions you face. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
“Slowing down the water just a bit can create a sense of movement. Here, closing the aperture to f/16 and reducing the ISO to 100 allowed me to use a speed of 1/5 of a second, which created the slight blur I wanted.”
How to Take The Photo
When you are ready to take the photo with this technique, you first need to place your camera on the tripod and set up your composition. Attach the remote release. Get the picture ready to go without even thinking about a long exposure time yet.
When that is ready to go, it is time to set the long exposure to achieve the slow shutter speed you want. Once we’ve changed the exposure, what we will do here is make a series of changes with one goal in mind – increasing how much light is needed to set the right exposure to a photo so that the camera can use a long speed without overexposing the photo.
Here are the steps to set the right amount of exposure before you take the photo:
Manual Mode: Put the camera in manual mode (unless your speed will be longer than half a minute, in which case use Bulb mode). You will find that manual mode is the easiest to work with in this context. Plus, you will be working slowly, so there is no need for the speed that the other modes provide.
Reduce the ISO: Set your ISO at its lowest native setting. In most cases, this will be 100. When you use this setting, your camera’s digital sensor is the least sensitive to light. That means that more lighting will be needed to properly expose the image.
Stop Down the Aperture: Set your aperture at its smallest setting. The aperture is the hole in the back of the focal length lenses that allow lighting into the camera, and making it smaller restricts how much light is being allowed into the camera during the long exposure (again, with the idea of forcing a long speed to get a proper exposure).
The aperture setting is the number with the f/ in front of it. The smallest setting is actually the largest number. The number varies depending on the lenses you are using, but typically the smallest aperture setting will be in the neighborhood of f/22 – f/32. (If you are worried about the effects of diffraction, perhaps use the next smallest setting).
Set the Speed: Now just set it to the proper exposure level using the camera’s meter. The changes you made to the aperture and the rest of your exposure triangle should result in a steadier speed. Is the speed enough for you? If so, go ahead and take the picture.
“Before and after of the Portland Head Light in Maine. The picture to the left was taken with a shutter speed of 1/320 of a second. I put my 10-stop ND filter on my lens and took the one to the right with a 4 second shutter speed.”
Making It Even Slower
If the speed is not good enough for you, then you will need to break out the heavy artillery. By that I mean it is time to attach the 10-stop neutral density (ND) filter. This will greatly restrict the amount of light allowed into your camera so that you can use an extremely long speed.
A 10-stop ND is so dark that you will not be able to see through it – and neither will your camera. Your autofocus won’t work, so you will need to set the camera’s focus before you attach the filter. The camera’s light meter might not work either.
If that is the case, set your exposure before you attach the filter, then increase (lengthen) your speed by 10 stops. That will be 30 clicks of the dial if your camera is set to change in 1/3 stop increments (which most are).
That should allow you to use as long of speed as you want. In fact, sometimes it is a little too long. In that case, just increase the ISO or open up the aperture a little bit.
“Adding a 10-stop ND filter let me slow the shutter speed here to 16 seconds, which completely blurred the water and created the smoothness I wanted.”
Apply Long Exposures to Your Photography
That’s all you need to know to go out and add some magic to your photos by using long exposures. This technique using a slow shutter speed can greatly improve pictures in a variety of settings, but where it really shines is when there are moving clouds and water in your picture.
You can also use it to create the “streaking lights” effect you see with traffic. This might be the missing “extra something” that your photos have needed!