5 Tips for Slow Shutter Speed Photography

A photograph of a group of people is shown on the LCD screen of a digital camera. 
Tech expert David Pogue explains how to take a proper picture when the lighting is dim, but you don't want to add a flash. Learn about lighting with host David Pogue on The Science Channel's "It's All Geek To Me."
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Cars fly by, their taillights leaving red trails through dark streets, here and gone in the blink of an eye. A merry-go-round at the county fair whips around faster and faster, its lights flashing on and off and its horses and its carriages blurring together into one steady stream of motion. These are the awesome sights we can only capture with slow shutter speed (aka long exposure) photography. The longer a camera's shutter stays open, the more light it takes in. Photographers can use that fact to create breathtaking images that capture the beauty of motion. Something as simple as a glow stick can be used to paint a vivid trail of light in the air and slow shutter speeds can lend cars or cyclists or Ferris wheels a dramatic sense of speed.


Understanding Shutter Speed

Before you start practicing slow shutter speed photography, it's important to have a thorough understanding of what shutter speed is and how you can use it. Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open to expose light onto the camera sensor. Essentially, it's one of the key elements in the exposure triangle, which also includes aperture and ISO.

Shutter speed settings are typically measured in seconds or fractions of a second. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light hits the sensor, which can be used to create various effects in your photos. For instance, a slower shutter speed allows more light into the lens, which is ideal for low-light conditions or for creating a sense of motion. On the other hand, fast shutter speeds are great for freezing motion and perfect for capturing quick-moving subjects without blur (think fast cars or sports events).


Most digital cameras offer a range of shutter speeds, from very fast (like 1/4000th of a second) to very slow (up to 30 seconds long) and sometimes even offer a bulb mode for longer exposures. The choice of shutter speed can dramatically affect the look and feel of your images. It's not just about exposure, but also about artistic expression—whether you're blurring the waves of the ocean or capturing the swift action of a soccer player.

When working with different shutter speeds, it's also vital to consider the focal length of your lens. The rule of thumb is that to avoid camera shake, your shutter speed should be at least 1/focal length of the lens. For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/50th of a second without a tripod.

By understanding these concepts and mastering the use of shutter speed settings, you can significantly enhance the creative control you have over your photography.

How to Capture Motion With a Slow Shutter Speed

Want to try it for yourself? You can capture the speed and lights of a bustling city's nightlife without being an expert. It's not that tough! To capture motion, just grab a camera -- preferably something with more adjustable settings than a point-and-shoot -- and check out these five tips for slow shutter speed photography.


5: Use a Tripod

This is a dead simple tip that applies to all sorts of photography. Want a steady shot? Use a tripod to avoid camera shake! When shooting at low shutter speeds, tripods are extremely important. Remember that the goal of leaving the shutter open is to capture a great deal of light in one photograph. If you're trying to capture a moving object, such as shooting a busy highway, the lights from passing cars will blur together into cool light trails. But if you're shooting with a camera in hand, the picture probably won't come out very well.

Why? Because the photograph will be affected by every subtle jitter of your hand. Even depressing the shutter button will create movement. Steady hands or not, it's difficult to hold a camera still without introducing blur into the picture. Solution: Place the camera on a tripod. Then the only motion you'll capture is what's in front of the camera


4: Buy a Cable Release

Man holding a cable release mechanism on an antique camera. 
While this particular photographer is using a cable release mechanism with an antique camera, the benefits of triggering your shutter with one apply to modern cameras as well.

Taking photographs with long exposure settings requires a steady camera, which is why the tripod is an integral part of any setup. By that same token, even a camera on a tripod will be rattled by a photographer depressing the shutter button. Even though using the tripod is far more stable than shooting by hand, you can do better. Enter the cable release, or shutter release, a camera accessory that provides an external shutter button for triggering shots.

Cable releases are so named for the cable that plugs into the camera and adds several feet of separation between the shutter button on one end and the camera on the other. Of course, these days some shutter releases do without the cable and work wirelessly via bluetooth. That's helpful if you're worried about tripping over the cable.


While both wired and wireless cable releases are good for reducing camera shake, many of them offer another useful function: locking the shutter open for an extended period of time. A long exposure shot of the stars, for example, could take hours. Shutter releases make that possible and they're cheap.

3: Let the Timer Do the Work

For some long exposure shots, "slow" might not properly describe how long you keep the shutter open. As we mentioned, you could want it locked open for hours! Without a specific length of time in mind, locking the shutter open with a shutter release and closing it again a few hours later will get the job done. But that technique isn't always ideal. What if you want to capture a very specific length of time, or want to tightly control the amount of motion blur created by moving objects within the shot?

Easy answer: Let your camera do the work. Some cameras offer a shutter priority mode, which allows you to set a shutter time and have the camera automatically adjust the aperture (which affects depth of field) to compensate. Choosing this camera setting and selecting a very slow shutter speed -- like 10 seconds or 30 seconds -- will allow you to capture a great deal of light and photograph some very cool motion blur. It's possible to set a slow shutter speed without using shutter priority mode, but you may have to adjust the aperture manually as well.


Setting your camera's timer for 10 or 30 seconds (and using a tripod, of course) is the perfect way to compose those cool light trail photos associated with slow shutter speed photography.

2: Shoot at Night

Photograph of a nighttime cityscape. 
In this shot of Yokohoma at night, the use of slow shutter speed captures the accumulated light of street traffic and turns the roadways into rivers of illumination.
©Allan Baxter/Getty Images

Light is your greatest ally. But that doesn't mean you want to do your slow shutter shooting in bright sunlight -- in fact, it means the opposite. Night photography produces the most awe-inspiring slow shutter speed photographs that harness the visual power of bright light against a dark background.

We all know light moves very fast, but we can't really experience "seeing" light move. Shooting bright lights -- such as hand-held LEDs or car headlights whizzing along a busy highway -- at night lets us visualize light in motion.


Even if you don't plan on waving around lights or turning a brightly lit Ferris wheel into a work of art, shooting at night allows for other artistic types of photos. Remember, the longer the shutter is open, the more light the camera sensor is exposed to. A long exposure, which lets in a great deal of light, can make a picture taken on a moonlit night look like daytime. Minimal lighting can provide enough color saturation for a vivid photograph while the slow shutter speed creates interesting motion blur you can't get with a fast shutter speed.

Of course, it's possible to shoot with slow shutter speeds during the day -- you just have to take care to reduce the amount of light reaching the image sensor or risk blowing out the picture. A smaller aperture or lens filter can prevent photos from becoming overexposed.

1: Experiment with Light and Movement

Ultimately, slow shutter speed photography is a fun way to take cool, unusual photographs. It's not for portrait photography, classic landscapes or sharp action shots in sports photography. It's for light painting and capturing the essence of motion through the art of blur. A moving subject is your best muse. To take those kinds of shots well, usually, you'll want to employ all the tips we've already been through. Remember:

  • Keep the camera steady with a tripod.
  • Use a timer or a shutter release.
  • Shoot at night.

Once you've gotten those basics down, experiment. Try shooting during the day with neutral density filters to cut down on the brightness. Even with a camera attached to a tripod, adding movement to a shot can affect the motion blur in cool ways. Try panning to follow a light or zooming to blur different parts of an image. Use different apertures to play with the amount of light reaching the image sensor.


A long shutter shot can last for just a few seconds or be much longer. The light your camera catches will look very different based on that exposure time. Seek out inspiration online and try your hand at light painting or night photography!

We updated this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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  • http://www.digital-photography-school.com/slow-shutter-shoot-out-3-slow-shutter-speed-techniques
  • GadgetInfinity.com. "Cactus Wireless Shutter Release for Nikon D3X D3 D700 D300." (Feb. 1, 2012) http://www.gadgetinfinity.com/cactus-wireless-shutter-release-for-nikon-d3x-d3-d700-d300.html
  • GeoffLawrence.com. "Shutter Speeds and Apertures." (Jan. 31, 2012) http://www.geofflawrence.com/shutter_speeds_and_apertures.html
  • Rowse, Darren. "Aperture and shutter priority modes." (Jan. 30, 2011) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/aperture-and-shutter-priority-modes
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  • Watson, John. "Understanding exposure: shutter speed, aperture and ISO." April 16, 2006. (Jan 31, 2012) http://photodoto.com/understanding-exposure-shutter-speed-aperture-and-iso/