Thursday, August 27, 2009

Using Longer Shutter Speeds


The two most obvious reasons for using a longer shutter speed (This means your camera's shutter stays open longer giving the light more time to reach the lens.) are low light and falling or running water.

In either case you will need a stable shooting surface for your camera. Most commonly, this would be a tripod. However, any non-moving surface will work. It is also best to remotely trigger your camera, instead of depressing the button. Even this slight action can cause camera shake, resulting in a blurry image.

Here's a good tip. If your camera does not have a remote shutter release, use the timed shutter. Most cameras have the option for 2 seconds or 10 seconds. Simply set the timer and step back.

Night Fountain, Port Orleans Hotel, Riverside, Orlando, Florida
Night Fountain, Port Orleans, Riverside

To photograph running water during daylight hours you will need a Neutral Density filter. Depending on your type of camera, these come in rectangular format or circular. They also come in different densities. I prefer to use either a 4x or an 8x. Neutral Density filters can be very expensive. However, a lot of the less expensive models will work just as well. I purchased a used Soligar 8x circular ND filter from a local camera store for only $10.

Often the use of a polarizing filter in combination with a Neutral Density filter is a good idea. Polarizing filters cut glare from water surfaces. This is especially helpful when photographing running water as it will remove distracting surface reflections.

Remember though that the darker the filters the less light that will reach your lens and the longer you'll need to make your shutter speed!


The length of your shutter speed will greatly depend on what you are photographing. For running water, I have found closer shots require longer shutter times than distant waterfalls. In general, the larger the waterfall, the faster the shutter speed you can get away with. Shooting digital is great for this type of photography because you can take several images with different shutter speeds and compare the effects later.

Surprisingly, the best type of light for photographing running water is diffused light. Gray, cloudy days work best. Sunny days often cause too much shadow casting which can confuse the camera's metering system. However, this is not always the case. In the photograph below, there was quite a bit of light and I used its intensity to my advantage. I also selected a slightly faster speed than I would normally use to achieve the effect of water hitting off the rocks. My camera was resting on the ledge of a fountain at the time.

Splish and Splash
Splish and Splash

There are so many uses for longer exposures. The photo below was taken well after dark on a moonless night. A one minute shutter speed allowed the distant lightning storm to brighten the sky as if it were daytime.

Distant Lighting Storm, 1 minute exposure
Distant Lightning Storm, 1 minute exposure

I am continually surprised by some of the photographs I create when I practice using longer shutter speeds. I think that is part of what keeps me coming back. It is an easy enough choice to forget and yet such a simple thing to do with often such great results!

Suzanne Williams Photography
Florida, USA

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.

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