For many photographers, darkness is their worst enemy. After getting a basic understanding of how cameras work, the next things photographers must understand is how to operate in low light. Most new cameras have advanced dedicated flashes (sometime built into them), which can make dark situations easier to shoot in. But almost all modern cameras also have slow shutter speed settings that extend to eight seconds or beyond.
Camera makers don’t put these shutter speeds on cameras for fun, they are there for a reason. In this tutorial, I hope to help those who are afraid of the dark to overcome their fear. With a few easy steps, tricks and tips, you can start to master slow shutter speeds and actually use that long neglected function of your camera.
Problems Caused By Slow Shutter Speed
Blur, right? What’s so hard about that? Using slow shutter speeds makes things blurry. But really motion is the problem. Using slow shutter speeds doesn’t stop motion. When photographing someone walking down the street, the subject will move a very small distance in 1/60 of a second. But in half a second he/she could move half a meter, and that’s what the camera is recording. We call this “motion blur.”
The motion of the subject can often not be changed, but there is also another source of motion. The photographer also moves slightly in half a second. We call this “camera shake,” and it is caused because no matter how steady our hands are, we cannot hold something motionless for very long. So basically, we have two things to worry about: the camera moving and the subject moving.
Overcoming Camera Shake
So now that we’ve established the two main issues caused by using slow shutter speed, we’ll attack them separately. The first thing to understand is the relation between shutter speed and the lens focal length. As a general rule, you want the number of your shutter speed to be higher than the millimeter length of your lens to overcome camera shake.
If you are using a 50mm lens, you will experience noticeable camera shake at shutter speeds lower than 1/60 of second. When using a 28mm lens, you should be able to shoot at 1/30 of a second. If you have a 100mm lens, you’ll want to shoot at 1/125 of a second or faster. When shooting at speeds slower than these, something has to be done to steady the camera further.
Here is the general rule about tripods. They can be cheap, light or stable… pick any two. A cheap, light tripod will not be stable, but a heavy, cheap tripod will be. You can get both light and stable, but you’ll have to pay for it. To get the best results from a tripod, don’t activate the shutter normally. The action of pressing the shutter release button will still shake the camera. There are two ways to get around this.
First, use a cable release. Older cameras have standard sockets for basic releases, but for new cameras, a proprietary electronic cable release must be purchased. These can be expensive. But the other option is to simply use your self-timer. Activate the timer and step away. Also remember that tables, sandbags and even the ground can be used as an improvised tripod.
I also want to mention briefly that monopods are really meant to help support large telephoto lenses. While they may help steady your camera slightly, it’s not what they are designed to do.
Using your camera strap as a support device is not as effective as a tripod, but I learned this approach from someone who was an expert marksman. I’m talking guns here people, so those of you from non-gun-toting nations, please bare with me. Snipers, that’s right, snipers and other competition shooters use tight straps so their weight of their bodies are used to steady their guns.
Your chest is much more steady than your hands, think about it. See the photo below on how to wear your camera strap correctly to achieve this effect. Another tip from gun folks is to watch your breathing. Snipers take in a breath, then they let out half of it, and take their shot. While I can’t explain the physics behind this, I think it’s a good idea.
For your next tip inspired by the military, if you can’t hit something with one shot, use a machine gun and take lots of shots. My best weapon against blurry photos is my motor drive. You’re probably thinking that this is a cheap way out. “Sure, if you take enough photos, one will be in focus.” But there is a little bit more to this technique.
As you depress the shutter button for your first shot, that motion will shake the camera. But as the camera continues shooting your hand will steady out because it isn’t pressing anything. By your third shot, the camera should be stable. But you’ll notice that your last frame will be shaky again because of the motion caused by letting go of the shutter.
Overcoming Motion Blur
Just to refresh, camera shake is caused by your movement, and what I’m calling “motion blur” is caused by the movement of your subject. No matter how steady your tripod is, fast moving objects like a car will be a blurry mess if exposed at a half second. But there are a few things you can do to work with a moving subject instead of fighting against it.
Panning is a technique that allows your subject to be in focus while the background will be blurry. This technique is great (and often used intentionally) for showing motion. The basic concept is that by panning your camera, or moving it with your moving subject, you can keep your subject at the same place in your frame allowing it to stay in focus.
There are a couple of things to remember here. First, this usually only works for subjects moving in a straight line. Second, any parts of your subject that aren’t moving in the same direction will be blurry. If you taking a panning shot of a runner, the arms and legs of the runner will probably be a little blurry because they aren’t moving in exactly the same direction as the torso.
Third, remember to keep your camera nice and steady and level as you follow your subject so you can keep that subject in the same part of the frame the whole time. If you pan too fast or too slow, it won’t work. Lastly, don’t use your hands or arms to move the camera. Swivel from your hips to create the smoothest motion possible.
Isolating the Stationary
When shooting in fast moving situations, sometimes it can work to find something that isn’t moving moving to focus on. Use that low shutter speed and one of the camera-steadying techniques above and let all motion be blurry. This will isolate the thing that is still. This technique can be used for a lot of different situations. Sometimes the motionless focus of the image is a person who isn’t moving when everyone else is. But a building or tree or statue could work just as well.
Changing Angle to Minimize Motion
This technique is a little hard to explain, but hopefully in combination with the photos, it will make sense. When something is moving perpendicular to you, all of its motion will appear in the photo. But if something is moving toward you, it’s motion will not be as evident. Not to be too redundant with the gun analogies, but imagine how much easier it would be to shoot a target moving directly toward you than a target that you have to follow laterally across your field of vision.
The same applies to motion in your photography. A bicyclist photographed at a slow shutter speed coming straight toward you will look less blurry than one photographed in profile traveling at the same speed.
I hope these tips will help you in your photographic journey, I know that they have helped myself a great deal. You may even find yourself using slow shutter speeds in bright situation, just because you want a specific look to your shot!