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How to Use Slow Shutter Speed

 18th Nov 2020

There are so many impressive effects we can create with our cameras. The beauty of photography is the creative interpretation and slow shutter speed is one of the great ways we can do this!

Once you have the technical skills and you know how everything works you can bridge the gap between execution and creative thinking. 

Slow shutter speed is one of these skills. You can achieve some amazing things with slow shutter speed but you need to have the know how to execute it effectively.

We’re going to cover a lot in this blog, such as:

  • What shutter speed is
  • How to use slow shutter speed
  • Tips to achieve great effects 

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open which means how long light is exposed onto the sensor. In layman’s terms it’s the length of time it takes to take a photograph. 

The length of the shutter speed gives you different effects. 

Look at this amazing shot from Iceland…

Haifoss 600

Notice how the waterfall to the right of the composition is blurred as if ever flowing - this is thanks to slow shutter speed. If you want to get back to the basics of shutter speed, I encourage you to read What is Shutter Speed.

How to use slow shutter speed

Blur is usually something we try and avoid by minimising the risk of camera shake and using a fast shutter speed. Here we want the opposite effect! We utilise a slow shutter speed when we want to add drama to an image or create a more interesting perspective such as with moving water, a busy motorway, cloud movement or star trails!

As with all camera skills - this takes practice. There isn’t a definite formula because every situation is different so take your time figuring out what works best for that context and why.

Here are the technical steps to start using slow shutter speed:

  1. Set your camera to Shutter Priority (that’s S or TV on the command dial depending on the make of camera)
  2. Select a speed of ½ second
  3. Check the camera’s light meter to see if the shot’s correctly exposed
  4. If the light meter is indicating the shot’s overexposed ­then add a neutral density filter and re-check
  5. Once the light meter’s in the middle and indicating correct exposure use the self timer to activate the shutter
  6. Repeat the above for speeds up to as long as 2 seconds because the longer the shutter speeds ­the more blur you will get

Tips for using slow shutter speed

Here are some really important insights to help you navigate slow shutter speeds!

Use a neutral density filter

A neutral density filter will massively reduce the light your camera sees which will allow you to use longer shutter speeds without over exposing.

But because they alter the perception of light your auto focus may not be as relevant - keep an eye on this and switch to manual focus if necessary.

Depending on the strength of the filter, the light meter may be fooled as well - rely on your photographic knowledge rather than your camera’s designated functions!

Invest in a tripod

When you’re using a slow shutter speed you need absolute still so you don’t negatively affect the set up with unplanned blur.

A good tripod will help you improve your composition, give you time to think about exposure and depth of field. They'll eliminate camera shake - and some images like blurry waterfalls are simply not possible without a tripod.

A remote switch gives you power

To avoid mismanaging your pre set up settings for your shot use a remote to avoid any unnecessary camera shake or shifting of composition.

If you’re capturing a star trail and your shutter needs to be open for a number of hours this also gives you the power to override settings and leave your shutter wide open!

A slow shutter speed can open up so many creative opportunities in photography and it’s really exciting getting those results when you get it just right.

Take your time and settle in at a location. Try different shutter speeds, use varying ISOs and work with and without a tripod to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Self discovery fuels creativity!

Connecting the technical skills and creative learning isn’t always straightforward which is why I’ve created Seven Building Blocks of Photography to help you:

  • Think like a Photographer
  • Use and predict light
  • Find compositions that work
  • Know instinctively which focal length lens you need
  • Know which Camera Settings to use
  • Take home images you're proud to have taken
  • Gain confidence as a photographer