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Capturing movement using shutter speed settings

Movement as a creative element in an image makes it interesting. In my world interesting equals fun. So, playing with camera controls to produce images that are not what we see with our eyes and even otherworldly is the best fun.

There is so much more to knowing how to use shutter speed in manual mode, than just achieving the correct exposure, or capturing the kids without blurring them. Shutter speed is a great way to get creative with movement, bring drama to your photos and have some fun with your photography.

There are many routes you could take to portray movement creatively in your photos. Today we’re going to look at three of them:

  1. Freezing Movement
  2. Blurring Movement
  3. Zooming Movement

Let’s start capturing movement with the shutter speed technique you’re probably most familiar with. We’ll build up and finish off with the really exciting stuff, so stay with us to the end.

1. Freezing Movement

You could choose to freeze movement with a faster shutter speed or the use of flash. There’s a reason why teenagers love the “jump shot”. You know the one – on the count of three everyone jumps in the air and the photographer takes the shot. It is the idea that for an instant they are suspended in mid air, like magic.

When I photographed professional ballet dancer, Dani, the jump shot grew up and became oh so elegant. I just love photographing dancers! So many endless opportunities for gorgeousness.

Because we were shooting in a public park, where setting up lighting would have entailed purchasing a permit and jumping through hoops, I decided to go with natural light.

For this shot I was able to set a high shutter speed to freeze Dani’s movement as it was a bright sunny day.

fast shutter to freeze movement Camera settings: shutter speed - 1/1000, aperture - f4, ISO - 640

One thing to bear in mind with freezing a subject’s movement. There are times when not all of a person is moving at the same speed, such as a person cycling or someone running. Their legs, and in the case of the runner, and arms will be pumping and therefore moving faster than the rest of them. You might need to take this into consideration when deciding on your shutter speed, or you could allow their limbs to blur with a less fast shutter speed to highlight their movement.

2. Blurring Movement

For really interesting photographs, you can allow movement blur by using a slower shutter speed. I’m not just talking about making waterfalls look like a creamy blur.

Let’s look at bringing blurred movement into portrait photography

Have a look at the image at the top of this post. In this example I asked Nicole to hold her position and took several shots while the ride behind her was going. The reason it took several shots, was that there were people on the ride, so I had to take that into account. I wanted to capture the swirl of colours rather than fuzzy dark blobs.

The camera settings for blurring the ride’s movement, but not Nicole, were: shutter speed – 1/80, aperture – f9, ISO – 200.

It worked because I was able to use a shutter speed that was slow enough for the ride to blur, but wasn’t too slow. So, I avoided the potential for camera shake and subject movement.

Look for relatively fast moving objects and place your subject in front of them. Here are some examples:

  1. A fairground ride
  2. A train
  3. Traffic

What about landscapes?

Portraying movement in the landscape is another very satisfying way to photograph and create otherworldly images.

If you ever want to burn a couple of hours, this is the most productive, absorbing and fun way to do it! I went down to the beach in the golden hour and got so carried away that I shot through golden hour, then blue hour and came back when it was pitch black.

For this you’re going to need a tripod and a remote control, or use your self timer (which is what I did).

The tide was just on the turn and starting to come in and it was quite windy, so the surface of the water was rippling. It had been pouring down most of the day, so the sand was quite wet and therefore reflecting the colours in the sky.

swirling water blurred with slow shutter speed Camera settings: shutter speed - 2" (seconds), aperture - f22, ISO - 200

Landscapes are not just for scenic views. Urban landscapes and cityscapes are amazing playgrounds for the slow shutter photographer.

In urban night photography car tail lights that flow like a long red ribbon through a photograph always grab a viewer’s attention. Again it is the idea of being able to see what our eyes can’t see. You will of course need a tripod and a way to trigger your shutter without touching your camera – remote control or the self timer is the way to go.

Side note:  You wouldn’t believe how slowly people drive when they see somebody standing next to the road with a camera! Which is kinda helpful, actually – they don’t disappear out of shot too quickly.

On my way back from the beach I set up my tripod on a bit of pavement that stuck out into the road a bit at a pedestrian crossing. Getting part way into the road safely (!!) helped with the composition.

car tail lights Camera settings: shutter speed - 4" (seconds), aperture - f16, ISO - 200

3. Zooming Movement

There’s nothing quite like zooming the lens during a long exposure to get dreamy abstract landscape images. Owning a DSLR with a zoom lens and not giving this a go is like having a cheesecake in the fridge and not eating it.

For these photos I didn’t need to use any filters, such as a neutral density filter or a polariser, to block out light as it was already beyond sunset and getting dark. If you try this during the day I’d recommend using a neutral density filter. A tripod, however, was essential.

zooming to blur movement Camera settings: shutter speed - 1.6" (seconds), aperture - f18, ISO - 200

The best shutter speed to use for zooming movement is anywhere between 1/15th and 2 seconds. The trick is to zoom smoothly to try to reduce camera shake, but also to get a smooth, steady zoom.

On that dreamy note, I will finish off by saying get out there with your camera and your tripod. Have some fun, get the creative juices flowing and start capturing a totally different view of your every day surroundings.

Shutter speed - so much more than just an exposure thing.Click To Tweet

Next time we’ll look at other ways to bring movement to your photographs.

We’ve got a great post that goes into detail on shutter speed and the exposure triangle – The Exposure Triangle – what role does shutter speed play?

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If you have any questions about capturing movement using shutter speed settings – fast or slow – let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our movement tips have helped you to understand how to use your DSLR camera creatively, share that too.

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