The Most Useful Shutter Speeds To Know, Part I

The Most Useful Shutter Speeds to Know, Part I

Recently, a well-known photographer shared a post pleading with others to stop asking him about the camera settings he used to take his photos. To summarize my understanding of it, the photographer believes that, rather than concern yourself with those settings, you should focus on the experiences and what I call “soft metadata” that went into creating the photo.

While I don’t disagree with the underlying sentiment shared by this photographer, I do have a problem with his approach. Of course, the composition and story of a photo are critical and sharing that with viewers only helps enrich their experience viewing it. However, it’s a bit haughty of this photographer to outright dismiss the value of the camera settings used. I’m sure it wasn’t his intent to come across the way he did, but once you put a post like that out for public consumption, the online law of the land is that perspective becomes reality and my perspective of this person diminished after watching it.

So, this is the perfect opportunity to toss this photographer’s request of “not asking about camera settings” into the garbage. After all, while knowing the specific camera settings of a photo won’t guarantee your ability to recreate it, it will make you that much more equipped with the knowledge needed to try. And at the end of the day, that’s what I’ve built my career on.

The Most Useful Shutter Speeds to Know, Part I

I realized that so many of my shared photos fall into categories based on useful shutter speed, so why not break them down in this multi-part series? If you think about it, the shutter speed you use for a photo can affect the end result in dramatic ways. It can also ruin your photo if you haven’t dialed it in properly. Of course, there are several other variables and conditions that have to be managed as well, such as the available light, the nature of your primary focal point and, of course, your aperture and ISO.

But still, in this post, we’re going to be talking about shutter speeds and, as a result, we’re going to make the assumption that you’ve accounted for the amount of light you need and have set the appropriate aperture and ISO to match. In other words, let’s say you want to get a panning shot of a taxi as it hurls down the road but it’s midday with a bright sun out and there’s no way you can set your camera to 1/20 sec. even with your aperture at its smallest diameter. In this case, the assumption I’m making is that you’ve packed a neutral-density filter that will cut enough light for you to get your shutter speed to 1/20 sec. without blowing out the entire exposure.

The Most Useful Shutter Speeds to Know, Part I
Sony a7R II, ZEISS Milvus 2.8/21. Exposure: 1/20 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100

Rather than break down the categories by shutter speeds, it would be more useful if I break things down by intent. I believe that photographers are intent-based creatures. We get an idea for a photo and how we want to execute it. From there, we adjust the camera’s exposure settings to execute on that intent. We’ll get things going with our first intent-type and then cover the rest in the next installment of this series.

Freezing Fast-Moving Objects

Admittedly, this is my least used intent as far as compositions go. I love depicting objects in motion, whether it’s a vehicle, flowing water or a throng of pedestrians. But still, there are many times when my intent for a photo requires me to use a blazing fast shutter speed. This is almost always the case when I want to freeze something that typically moves fast or moves a lot. Let’s take this photo of some photographers standing dangerously close to Thor’s Well in Oregon.

The Most Useful Shutter Speeds to Know, Part I
Sony a7R II, Sony FE 70-200mm f/4. Exposure: 1/200 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100

My typical MO when photographing Thor’s Well is to drag the shutter so that I can capture the movement of the water (more on that later in the post). However, when you’re standing at the base of the well, it’s difficult to get a true sense of scale of the water as it blows upward and over you. Also, this water typically moves quite fast (sometimes at dangerous speeds), so a fast shutter speed is needed to really freeze things. In the above example, I used a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. In my experience, that’s about as slow as you want to be when attempting to freeze a fast-moving object. Obviously, this depends on the variables I discussed in the intro: available light, what your camera settings are and how fast your subject is moving, as can be illustrated in the following photo of a sheepdog wrangling a herd of sheep.

The Most Useful Shutter Speeds to Know, Part I
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, 1/800 sec., f/4.0, ISO 100

As you can imagine, both the sheepdog and the herd were moving pretty much nonstop. In order for me to freeze everything in front of me, I had to crank up (or down, depending on how you look at these things) the shutter speed to 1/800 sec. Similarly, with the example below, I had only one shot to nab a sharp photo of these sled dogs barreling through the snow at great speeds. Given the amount of available light, I couldn’t make my shutter speed too quick or else it would have been too underexposed. I settled for a modest 1/400 sec., which did a great job in freezing the fast motion toward me. 

The Most Useful Shutter Speeds to Know, Part I
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. 1/400 sec., f/9.0, ISO 200

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