One of the challenges of photography is figuring out how to make a still moment come to life. We all know that the camera’s shutter speed and lens aperture determine how much light falls onto your camera’s image sensor. But shutter speed is also one of the most powerful tools a photographer has when trying to take creative, dynamic pictures.
Bryan Peterson is a master of knowing how and when to manipulate shutter speed. He says there are correct exposures and there are creatively correct exposures. He puts his expertise on the subject to good use in his book, Understanding Shutter Speed: Creative Action and Low-Light Photography Beyond 1/125 Second, and shares some of the unconventional methods he uses to create interesting stop-action effects and motion blurs.
Don’t Overthink Freezing Action
To stop action in sharp, crisp detail, Peterson says that shutter speeds of 1/250, 1/500 and 1/1000 sec. are all a photographer really needs. With action that’s coming toward you, 1/250 sec. is sufficient, and especially true when shooting sports. For a motocross race where the riders were coming directly at him, Peterson used this speed, adjusted the aperture until he got a proper exposure at ƒ/11 and fired away. For freezing action from left to right or up and down, 1/500 or 1/1000 sec. is fast enough.
Peterson has noticed that while most photographers lean toward stopping action, the most interesting motion-filled images are those deliberately taken at unusually slow shutter speeds, from 1/60 to 1 sec. He suggests going into your backyard and shooting handheld at 1/4 or 1 sec. to create movement. The results are unpredictable, but experimenting like this often results in a fresh approach to shooting familiar subject matter.
When he wanted to convey the feeling of flying down a tree-lined country road, instead of shooting from the passenger seat, Peterson laid flat on the car’s roof and shot at 1/15 sec., which blurred the trees and gave the image a sense of movement.
When you’re tracking or panning a subject, the slower the shutter speed, the more blurred the background becomes until it’s just streaks of color and tone. You can effectively pan at 1/30 sec., but for more creative results, try slowing down to 1/15, 1/8 or even 1/4 sec. The more busy and colorful the background, the better the panned subject will look in front of it. Experiment with different shutter speeds and check the blurs you’re getting on the LCD. This is a great advantage for digital shooters because you can try out speeds and see the results immediately to know if it’s the right shutter speed.
In Times Square, Peterson panned a white stretch limousine against a lively backdrop of colorful neon signs at 1/15 sec. Moving his camera from left to right and at a diagonal, the limo stays relatively sharp against a streaky background, creating an image with a sense of movement and speed.
On a rainy day, he panned a busy sidewalk of pedestrians carrying bright umbrellas and walking by colorful newspaper stands. He handheld the camera at 1/30 sec., aimed directly at the sidewalk and followed his subjects. The resulting photograph is full of energy and life.
Peterson also suggests vertical panning the next time you go to an amusement park or a playground and find yourself near one of those "free-fall" rides or a seesaw.
Paint With Shutter Speed
Spinning, zooming and even jerking the camera to capture motion while using a slow shutter speed takes you a step further into the realm of the abstract. Set a correct exposure that allows you to shoot at 1/4 or 1/2 sec. At the moment you hit the shutter, twirl, jiggle or jerk the camera up and down, side to side or round and round.
A flower garden is probably the best place to try this technique. Peterson photographed one at a shutter speed of 1/4 sec., and as he pressed the shutter, he rotated the camera in a right-to-left circular motion as if he were drawing a circle. At the same time, he used his other hand to zoom out his 12-24mm lens. He repeated the same technique, but changed the exposure to ƒ/22 at 1 sec. to make an even more abstract composition.
Instead of a classic fall shot of a tree’s colorful leaves in sharp focus, Peterson used a 1/30 sec. shutter speed while looking up at the tree with his wide-angle lens and spinning on his heels as he hit the shutter. Harbors, fruit and vegetable markets, and big crowds also make for good subject matter with this approach, as well as low-light photography where shutter speeds can range from 2 to 8 sec.
Another way to paint is simply by zooming your lens, with or without a tripod. Peterson recommends framing the composition at the widest angle of any given zoom and then moving toward the longer end in a fluid smooth motion. At a St. Patrick’s Day parade, as each group of police officers or firefighters walked by, he panned from right to left at 1/2 sec. while zooming his 70-200mm lens. This caused some cool shapes and color patterns to form.
For longer exposures of 4, 8 or 16 sec., try taking multiple exposures. While photographing Seattle’s Space Needle at night, Peterson set his exposure to ƒ/16 for 8 sec., fired the shutter and slowly began turning the zoom from 120mm to 200mm over those 8 seconds. The effect is that the Needle and surrounding buildings look as though they have exploded. For a second attempt, he took three exposures at three different focal lengths over 8 seconds. He fired the shutter, waited two seconds while the exposure was recording the scene and quickly zoomed to the next focal length. The result looks cleaner than the first version.
Attach The Camera To Anything That Moves
Using a clamp to attach the camera to different objects opens up new points of view from which to shoot. To get a view of a street from the perspective of a broom, Peterson attached a Manfrotto Magic Arm to the broom handle with the camera and a fisheye lens. He pre-focused the lens and started firing the shutter at 1/4 sec. With the broom handle in his left hand, he made gentle sweeps across the street.
In another shot, Peterson attached the camera to a shopping cart handle and photographed his friend’s daughter as she was being pushed through the grocery store, tripping the shutter with a cable release. The result makes you feel like you’re whizzing through the store with her.
For a simple city skyline, Peterson advises setting the aperture to ƒ/8, raising the camera to the sky and adjusting shutter speed until a correct exposure is indicated. If after you’ve set the exposure the meter says the scene is
underexposed, ignore it and shoot. Although the meter perceives them as dark buildings, they’re not as dark as the meter reading. If you’re shooting a scene with motion, set the aperture to at least ƒ/11, maybe ƒ/16, which increases the exposure time to 8 to 16 sec. The longer the exposure, the more motion will be recorded in the image.
Bryan Peterson has been a photographer for more than 30 years and has taught photography for 20 years. His other books include Understanding Exposure, Beyond Portraiture, Learn To See Creatively and Understanding Digital Photography. To see more of Peterson’s work, go to www.bryanfpeterson.com.