Life in the slow lane: creative tips for long exposures
When most people start out photographing people or wildlife, they’ll normally find themselves going for a fast shutter speed to try and freeze the action. The great thing about this is that when it’s done well, it allows us to gaze upon incredibly fleeting moments or see things we might not have normally been able to see.
Making the decision to slow things down however – either a little or a lot - opens a huge array of creative possibilities that just aren’t possible with a fast shutter speed.
In this article I’ve shared a variety of ways you can think about using a slow shutter when photographing people or wildlife. Some of them are relatively easy, but others might (as they do for me!) frustrate you, however they can be great tools to have in your photography kit. Let’s take a look.
First things first – some movement theory
When the shutter speed is ‘slow’, (and of course the term ‘slow’ is a relative term), images in a frame can start to get blurred. This blurriness often suggests motion, adding a dynamic element to an image.
But how blurry and what the image looks like is not just as simple as applying a particular shutter speed at a certain focal length for a particular subject’s speed. Blurriness (assuming the camera is being held still) actually depends upon a combination of three things: the speed of movement, the direction of movement, and the size of the subject in the frame.
For example, imagine you are standing behind a cyclist that is 100m in the distance. You’re shooting with a 50mm lens and they are travelling away at 30km/h. Using say a ‘slow’ one second exposure, their movement may not even be visible.
But if you were to keep everything the same but were much closer, say five meters away, the results would be quite different. In fact, you’ll certainly see some blur. Now, let’s say you are to the side and this time still five meters away as they cycle past. They will become a blurry streak.
The other thing to keep in mind is that creating a feeling of movement using a ‘slow’ shutter speed is not always just about the main subject moving in the frame. It can also be created when there is movement around your subject or even by moving the camera or lens.
Add to this the potential to play with some combination of all the above, and the possibilities are pretty numerous for being creative with shutter speeds.
With your camera static
When the camera is static and you’re using a slow exposure for creative effect, something needs to be moving in the frame. This can either be the main subject or the environment they are placed in. Let’s look at three techniques to try.
i) Movement within a static environment
This is a classic technique for landscape photographers wanting to give a sense of movement to water or clouds, or even smooth out the water and clouds. However, it can work well with people, giving some extra life to a bustling street scene, whilst still ensuring that the subjects are recognisable, such as the image below. You’ll need a tripod for best results.
ii) Movement in a static environment – add flash
Similar to the technique above, you can use a slow shutter speed, but then combine it with flash. This will freeze the slower moving parts of a subject, but still allow some blur in the faster parts. Sometimes called flash and blur - although normally the flash is set as a rear curtain fire, so it’s really a ‘blur and flash’ – this technique can even make a slow-moving object feel really dynamic (see the image above as an example).
iii) Moving environment, static subject
Finally, if your subject is relatively stationary but the setting is moving - say it’s raining, or there is water running down a window - using this technique creates a really nice juxtaposition, where the key subject appears calm and still, whilst the world around them is dynamic. It’s currently one of my favourite techniques when using a slow shutter speed, and I now relish taking photos in the rain because of it.
To master this, you’ll need a bit of trial and error with what shutter speed works best, so hopefully your subject remains still!
With your camera moving
Another option is to create or add to action by moving your camera. Two ways you can do this are by either panning across a scene or by zooming your lens during. You could of course combine these two – pan and zoom – but that has never worked well for me.
When using the panning technique with a moving object, you have a couple of options. The first is to try and track the object tightly as it moves so in effect it appears static. The other option is to track the object loosely so the key subject is ‘relatively’ stationary, but the background is really blurred.
I) Panning – tracking your subject tightly
If you pan and track a moving object and can keep up with it while the shutter is open, you will get an image where the subject is sharp, but the background and foreground become blurred.
This technique is difficult however, because panning at the same speed as a moving object can be really tricky, as can be hitting focus. You can however make your job of getting focus easier by shutting down your aperture, say to f/22.
This smaller aperture will give you a better chance of getting your subject sharp because the Depth of Field (DOF) – and so what is in focus – is not as shallow as it might be at say f5.6.
At the same time, you will still get that feeling of separation from the background as it will appear blurred.
The other advantage of shutting down your aperture is that you will likely avoid the need for an ND filter to overcome a slow shutter speed that can overexpose your image.
II) Panning – tracking your subject loosely
When panning, you don’t have to track your subject perfectly, and it can actually be less stressful and give you more interesting images if you adopt a more relaxed approach. Doing this you may also find the key subject and background get a nice ‘washed-out’ feel. Remember with this technique that unless you’re trying to create something completely abstract where nothing is recognisable, you’ll need to get the shutter speed and panning speed just right.
Try to keep the key subjects (or at least one of them) sharp enough to be recognisable. I’ve found this technique easiest when there are multiple subjects moving at slightly different speeds or directions, because you’re more likely to get at least one of the moving subjects sharp(ish) and therefore recognisable.
When everything is static, you still have the option to zoom the lens during a long exposure, creating an ‘explosion’ effect. If you try this, you’ll find that what’s in the centre is relatively sharp and recognisable, but the rest becoming less so as you move towards the edge of the frame.
What I’ve found can make this even more interesting, is in post, cropping so the centre of the ‘explosion’ if off centre. I’ve played with this a lot when I’m in the field waiting for some other action to happen.
A couple of things to keep in mind if trying this. Firstly, use a tripod for stability so the centre point stays in the centre, and secondly, look for a scene with a lot of repetitive detail in the frame and a good colour palate.
When people think about taking photos, and especially people or wildlife, one of the last things they think of introducing is a slow shutter speed and blur. But slowing things down opens up such a huge array of creative possibilities.
Yes, you’ll need to be prepared for lots of failures, as there are so many variables at play to get these techniques to work well, but that’s OK. I promise, when it works, you’ll be happy with the result, and it will often make your images stand out from those who might be with you shooting with a fast shutter. ❂
About the author: Doug Gimesy is a professional award winning conservation & wildlife photographer based in Melbourne. See more of his work at gimesy.com, and on instagram @doug_gimesy.