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Camera Settings to Use for Awesome Slow Shutter Shots!

At its most basic, photography lets us preserve images of things the way we see them. But that might not be enough to capture certain aspects of the scene. For example, how do you really capture the idea of someone running fast? Using a fast shutter speed to get a sharp shot wouldn’t convey the sense of motion or speed. Here are two slow shutter techniques that can do just that, and some tips for making the best out of them. (Edited by studio9)

Panning shot of runner

A panning shot of a runner on a race track.

 

Technique 1: Motion blur

Motion blur happens when an object moves so fast in relation to the camera’s shutter speed (exposure time) that it appears as a blur. It can happen by accident with unwanted results, like when a portrait subject moves just as the shutter goes off! You can use the same effect to your advantage: Just control your shutter speed, and motion blur becomes your tool for expressing movement.

It's relatively simple technique. Your goals are to:
- Use a sufficiently slow shutter speed so that the moving subject is blurred, creating a sense of movement
- Keep the background still and sharp. If both the moving subject and the background are blurred, the shot will look out of focus

Slow shutter shot against graffiti background

FL: 35mm/ f/6.3/ 1/8 sec./ ISO 125

The shutter speed used here was 1/8 of a second, just a notch slower than the 1/10 second guideline.

 

What basic settings should I use to create motion blur?

Shooting mode: Tv mode

To create motion blur, you need to control the shutter speed. Shutter-priority AE mode (TV mode) lets you determine the shutter speed yourself, while the camera automatically sets the aperture.

 

Shutter speed: Try starting with 1/10 second

The shutter speed to use depends a lot on the speed of the subject’s movement as well as your individual preference. But if you’re unsure about where to start, try 1/10 of a second.

From our experience, we’ve found that 1/10 second creates sufficient blur even if the subject is moving at walking speed. At the same time, it should still be fast enough to keep your background still. Just make sure that:
Image stabilisation (IS Mode) is on,
- Your camera is held steady, and
- You are not using the telephoto end of your lens (Focal length matters. We'll explain why later).

From there, you could adjust the shutter speed as necessary. If you think the shot is too blurry, try going 1 stop faster (1/13 second). If you want a stronger motion blur, try 1 stop slower (1/8 second).

 

ISO speed: Use ISO Auto if you’re not sure

It can be a bit tricky to get the exposure right in Tv mode. If you are not feeling confident about using it or not yet quite familiar with the concept of ISO speed, you can just set the ISO speed to "Auto". If you are determining the setting manually, be careful not to exceed your camera’s auto exposure limit.

 

Focusing: Pre-focus, and then lock focus

Slow shutter shot of legs of passers-by

FL: 24mm/ f/22/ 1/8 sec./ ISO 160

 

Focusing: Focus on the background, or pre-focus on where subjects will pass
The shutter speed used here was 1/8 second (FL: 24mm). You can see that the ground is still, but the legs of the people walking by are blurred. Here, I used the pre-focus technique: I estimated where the subjects would pass by, focused the camera on that spot, locked focus by half-pressing the shutter, and then released the shutter when they approached it. You could also establish focus on the background. The subject will become blurred due to the movement.

Tip: Don’t mistake 1/10 second for 10 seconds!
Some camera models display 1/10 second not as a fraction but simply as 10. As opposed to that, 10 seconds is displayed as 10” (note the double inverted commas). Be careful not to mix them up!

 

How do I make my motion blur shots better?

Using a slow shutter speed increases the chances of camera shake. When everything is blurred, it's hard to tell that the motion blur is intentional—the entire shot just looks out of focus! That's why preventing camera shake is vital to get a good motion blur shot.

1. Always firmly secure the camera. Assume a stable shooting position, and use a tripod where necessary.

2. Be gentle when you press the shutter. You might want to consider using the self-timer or a remote switch especially for longer exposures.

3. The focal length matters. The more telephoto you go with your shots, the higher the chances of camera shake. To prevent this, we would recommend using a focal length in the 24 to 50mm range at 35mm film-equivalent (16 to 35mm on APS-C-sensor cameras).

Fountain in a park

FL: 85mm/ f/32/ 1/10 sec./ ISO 199

I shot this by hand. 1/10 second was just enough to blur the flow of water from fountains and waterfalls. To achieve an even silkier effect, I would have shot at 1 second, but that is best done with a tripod—especially with a longer focal length like 85mm!

Here are some more examples of what you can do with motion blur:
Sports Photography: How to Emphasize Speed by Contrasting Stillness with Motion
[Advanced technique] Slow Shutter Art: Creating Surreal, Spinning Radial Blurs

 

Technique 2: Panning

This technique is a bit more advanced. In contrast to the previous technique, you keep the subject relatively sharp while you blur the background. This is called “panning”.

Panning shot of runner on track

FL: 33mm/ f/2.8/ 1/10 sec./ ISO 2500

 

What basic settings should I use for panning? 

Camera settings: The same settings for motion blur technique apply

Just like for motion blur technique, you can try 1/10 second for a start. This was what I used for there above image of the runner (FL: 33mm).
You might need a little practice as panning technique is slightly more technically demanding. Even if you are unable to do it straight away, don’t despair. Just keep practising!

 

The key is in the technique: Move the camera in sync with the subject

Panning involves moving your camera in-sync with a moving subject. Sounds easy, but requires lots of stability and coordination! For detailed instructions on the shooting stance you should take and how to move the camera, check out: How Do I Take Panning Shots?

If the speed of the subject perfectly matches the speed at which you move (pan) the camera, the moving subject will appear still, while the still background will appear blurred. Perfect for creating a sense of speed.

 

Focusing: Focus on the subject. Use pre-focus or the AF tracking mode

Unlike motion blur technique, you want to your subject to appear relatively sharp. Therefore, your focus must be on the subject.

It is fairly difficult to establish instant focus on a moving subject. There are two ways you can do it.

 

Option 1. Use the same pre-focus technique as you did when creating motion blur.

Step 1: Predict where the subject will pass, and then establish focus on that location.
Step 2:You can  keep the shutter button at half-press as you wait for the subject to approach. But if that's hard, switch your camera to MF (Manual Focus). This locks the focus so that it won't change. 
Step 3: When the subject moves into the spot, fully depress the shutter. 

 

Option 2: Use your camera’s AF tracking function (AI Servo AF or Servo AF on Canon cameras).

How well this works depends on your camera as well as the scene. If you are using a newer, higher-end camera, you will be able to customise the tracking characteristics to better suit the subject and scene. On some older camera models, tracking might not work as well for certain scenes. If you have difficulty with the focus with this method, go back to Option 1. 

 

Panning shot of fish

FL: 47mm/ f/13/ 1/10 sec./ ISO 1250

Migratory fish such as tuna and Japanese amberjack swim a fixed course at a fixed speed. Knowing this makes it easier to pre-focus and take panning shots of them!

 

Take burst shots

Even those who are skilled at panned shots can find it difficult to freeze an object in motion in a single shot. It helps to take a lot of shots in burst mode.


Quick tip: Shoot a little wider at first, and then crop the edges away. That gives you extra allowance when you pan your shot.

 

How can I make my panning shots better?

1. Don’t just use your hands to move the camera.

For a more stable shooting position, move your body from the waist while keeping your hands and head still.

 

2. Practise to sync your panning movement with the subject.

That’s the key to getting a good panning shot, but it also requires lots of practice to master! Don’t worry too much about trying different compositions at first, just try to keep the subject in the centre. Your practice will eventually pay off.

Panning shot of crows

FL: 105mm/ f/22/ 1/10sec./ ISO 50

I wasn’t able to track the subject as well as I wanted to for the picture above, but you can see that even a panned shot of a crow looks attractive. I shot this with my usual go-to shutter speed of 1/10 second (105mm). It’s amazing what you can do at that speed!

Check out these articles for more examples of what you can do with panning:
Panning Tips for Capturing Dynamic Images of Wild Birds in Flight
What Unique Images Can I Achieve With Circular Panning?
How to Make the Best of an Extreme Sports Shoot

 

Troubleshooting: Common slow shutter speed problems and how to solve them

1. The f-number keeps flashing on and off

In Tv mode, this means that the shutter speed that you set is so extreme, you would need an aperture setting outside the camera's range to ensure correct exposure.

Tv mode allows you to set any shutter speed within the camera's shutter speed range (1/4000 sec to 30 seconds for most cameras), regardless of the environment.
In other words, if you are shooting with a slow shutter, the camera won't stop you from setting shutter speeds that are so slow that too much light enters the camera, resulting in a shot that is completely overexposed (blown out).

"But won't the camera set the appropriate f-number to control the exposure?", you ask. While that's true, there might be so much light entering the lens that even the minimum f-number is insufficient. This is when the f-number displayed inside the viewfinder and on the LCD will flash on and off.

Note: This will also happen if you set a shutter speed that is so fast that the widest aperture setting is not enough to prevent a shot that is nothing but crushed black.

What to do:
Try lowering the ISO speed. However, depending on the environment, that might still not be effective. Alternatively, use a suitable ND filter. This will reduce the amount of light entering the lens, allowing you to set slower shutter speeds.

 

2. I can't set the shutter speed to 1/10 sec, no matter what I do

This usually happens on sunny days. There is so much light entering the lens that the camera doesn't let you set a shutter speed slower than a certain value. This is its attempt to prevent shots from becoming overexposed.

What to do:
As above, try using a neutral density (ND) filter. Tip: Make sure you get a filter that fits your lens diameter.

About ND filters

There are different types of ND filters that reduce light to different degrees. If you are using one for the first time, an ND8 filter is good to start with. It reduces light by 3 shutter speed stops, i.e., you were only able to shoot at 1/60 second without it, it would allow you to go down to 1/8 second. 3 stops should be sufficient for most everyday scenes.

When buying an ND filter, make sure you get one that fits your lens diameter. It is possible to get a filter that fits your largest lens and then use step-down rings to convert it for your smaller lenses, although this might come with its own issues. 


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