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 remains 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.
Plus, slow shutter photography just looks cool. 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 get started, 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.
This is a dead simple tip that applies to all sorts of photography. Want a steady shot? Use a tripod! 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 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
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. 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.
For some long exposure shots, "slow" might not properly describe how long you keep the shutter open. As we mentioned on the last page, 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 aperture (which affects depth of field) to compensate. Choosing shutter priority 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.
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. The most awe-inspiring slow shutter speed photographs 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 faster shutter settings.
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.
Ultimately, slow shutter speed photography is a fun way to take cool, unusual photographs. It's not for portraits, classic landscapes or sharp action shots. It's for light painting, and capturing the essence of motion through the art of blur. To take those kinds of shots well, usually you'll want to employ all the tips we've already been through. 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 own hand at light painting or nighttime urban photography!
HowStuffWorks tells you the stories behind 10 iconic photos, including the Afghan girl, the Black Power salute, and Earthrise.
- Elliott, Chas. "Slow Shutter Shoot-Out - 3 Slow Shutter Speed Techniques." (Jan. 30, 2012)
- 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
- Rowse, Darren. "Introduction to shutter speed in digital photography." (Jan. 30, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/shutter-speed
- 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/