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Taking Better Photos Day 5 - Shutter Speed

01 July 2011

Does anybody else ever feel like they’re not getting the picture fast enough?  I know with Alexander, I used to feel that I was massively missing out because he’d do something, I’d try to take a picture, and he’d already be gone by the time the camera actually took the picture.  Point and shoots are kind of notorious for this. 
Some of this has to do with auto-focus, and some of it with shutter speed.  Something that helps me immensely is to hold the shutter release button (the button you push to take your picture) half way down.  Doing this will allow you camera to focus on your subject, that way you’re ready when you want to snap your picture.  The only hitch with this plan is that you need to somewhat anticipate the moment.  Luckily, we usually know when we want to take a picture since we have our camera’s in our hands J

So what is this elusive shutter speed?  In a nutshell, it’s how slow or fast your camera is taking a picture.  Think of shutter speed like blinking your eye.  When your eye is open, your shutter is open.  The speed of your shutter opening and closing affects a couple of things.
  1. You know how you see photos of waterfalls where the water looks like cotton candy?  That’s achieved by using a slow shutter speed, or by keeping the shutter open for a longer period of time.  Or, you see photos of race cars going over 100mph frozen in action?  That’s achieved by using a fast shutter speed, or by having the shutter open and close quickly. 

For example, this picture was taken with a slow shutter speed of 4/100 of a second.  If I could have done it freehand, I would have done 1 second instead, but using a slow shutter speed also has a hitch.  The slower the speed, the more blur you get.  In a picture of a waterfall, you want blur, in a family group shot…not so much.

This picture was taken with a shutter speed of 1/160 of a second.  See the lack of cotton candy effect?  That’s because a faster shutter speed freezes action better. 

  1. The other aspect of shutter speed has to do with light.  The slower your shutter speed, or the longer you keep your shutter open, the more light you’re going to get in your photo.  The faster your shutter speed, the less light.  Say you’re taking shots at night or in a dim room, you’re going to want a slower shutter speed.  Say you’re out in the bright sun, you can use a fast shutter speed.  Again, keep in mind that a slower shutter speed allows more room for blur in your photos. 
Get excited because knowing this information means you’re moving out of auto mode on your camera!  Maybe it's only exciting to me.

Point and shoot users:  Want to get action shots or shots that freeze action?  Switch into sports mode.  Some cameras even have a fireworks mode, which will slow everything down.  If not, try night mode but realize that because of the slower shutter speed, you might get blur if you don’t set your camera on something like a tripod.  Some point and shoot cameras have a manual mode.

SLR users:  Now’s the time to play with shutter priority mode.  This is a great starting point because everything except the shutter speed is still automatic.  Play with shutter speed.

Now for fireworks.  Logically speaking, I would think that because fireworks can be such a quick blast you would need a fast shutter speed, but the opposite is true.  A really slow shutter speed will help you get those picturesque fireworks photos.  Try it this weekend during all those Independence Day festivities.  I’ll be back on Tuesday to talk about the second aspect of that triangle, aperture. 

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