“Unseeing” Photo Challenge Assignment 5: Shutter Speed

For this Outdoor Photography Guide Photo Unseeing Challenge assignment, let’s get creative with shutter speed! Cameras don’t record motion in a way that corresponds to human perception. At one extreme, a camera can freeze the motion of a moving subject, preserving even the tiniest slice of a fleeting moment for eternity. At the other, a long exposure reveals the culmination of motion over time. Either way, what the camera sees is fundamentally different from what we see. So, if you really want to learn how to unsee, it makes sense to master this truly unusual aspect of the photographic process.

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The ability of cameras to freeze time when using short exposures can fundamentally and artistically transform your subject. One thing to consider when using shorter exposures: you need to become a master of the moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most famous practitioners of the art of photography, coined the phrase “the decisive moment,” referring to the peak moment when two or more disparate elements interact in a meaningful way. Photographers like Cartier-Bresson relied on capturing decisive moments—capturing convergences of motion, shape, and mood—to create their art, and to reveal the essence of their subjects. The moment becomes the transformative event, revealing as much about the artist as about the subject.

I used a very short exposure—and impeccable timing—to capture this white pelican flipping a fish into its throat. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens, 1.4x extender, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/5000 second.

Cameras record time in a way that is totally different from human perception. We see the passage of time much the way a video camera sees it, as a continuous and seamless transition from one moment to the next. Your camera, on the other hand, records each moment one on top of the other, creating a cumulative representation of all the moments that occur during the exposure, blurring and blending them together as one. While long exposures can be unpredictable and risky, motion-blur can add energy, direction, and depth to photographs. A very common example of using motion-blur is stream and waterfall photography. Such images are relatively simple to make: just put your camera on a tripod and exposure for one-quarter second or longer. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg—to really move away from your comfort zone, you need to try motion-blur with elements other than just moving water. Done correctly, moving elements can create an impressionistic blur that add mood and additional compositional interest to your photos.

Waterfalls are a common long exposure subject—but you don’t want to be merely common, do you? Cascade River State Park, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1.3 seconds.

It is important, however, to keep in mind that no matter how long your exposure or how much movement there is in the real world, your resulting photo will always be completely static. So, a long exposure itself won’t create motion; rather, if you want the viewer to perceive motion in your photograph, you need to create the illusion of motion, movement, and energy. Our job as photographers is to find a way to recreate the sense of energy and motion that we perceive in the real world. That’s accomplished through creative use of composition.

The dynamic placement of compositional elements creates a sense of movement in this photo, not the 30-second exposure. Masai Mara, Kenya. Canon 1DXII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, flash, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 30 seconds.

Several tools and techniques are available to achieve long exposures. Shooting in low light (such as twilight) helps considerably, as exposure times of several seconds or minutes long may be required. Neutral density filters (which block light coming in through the lens) are useful for lengthening exposure times. You can use low ISO settings and small apertures to reduce the light. The trick with photographing moving subjects is to strike a proper balance between stop-action and motion-blur. Too little motion, and the subject appears frozen. Too much motion, and the subject loses texture and detail. Somewhere in between is usually just right—but of course, that “just right” spot is very subjective, giving you plenty of wiggle room to explore your own artistic vision. Experiment freely with different exposure times to get the look you desire.

I experimented with several shutter speeds until I determined that an 8-second exposure would be best to create a dynamic “streaking” effect for the lava flying through the air. Yasur Volcano, Vanuatu. Canon 5DIV, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 8 seconds.

Another cool way that cameras don’t see motion the same way humans do? Cameras can simultaneously record movement and freeze action. For example, with this photo of a cheeky wild orangutan baby, I fired my flash during the exposure as he swung past me in the forest, panning the camera with his movement. The result is a photo that both shows motion blur (the background blurred by my rapid panning motion) and the orangutan frozen in mid-swing by the quick flash burst. By getting creative with movement, I was able to create a more dynamic, energetic, and interesting representation of my subject.

I experimented with several shutter speeds until I determined that an 8-second exposure would be best to create a dynamic “streaking” effect for the lava flying through the air. Yasur Volcano, Vanuatu. Canon 5DIV, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 8 seconds.

Another cool way that cameras don’t see motion the same way humans do? Cameras can simultaneously record movement and freeze action. For example, with this photo of a cheeky wild orangutan baby, I fired my flash during the exposure as he swung past me in the forest, panning the camera with his movement. The result is a photo that both shows motion blur (the background blurred by my rapid panning motion) and the orangutan frozen in mid-swing by the quick flash burst. By getting creative with movement, I was able to create a more dynamic, energetic, and interesting representation of my subject.

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About the author: Managing Editor of Outdoor Photography Guide, world-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to leading photo magazines including Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, and Landscape Photography Magazine. You can see more of his work and download his free photography how-to eBook “Essential” at www.ianplant.com.

Ready for your next assignment? Here’s what’s coming up next:

Assignment 1: Lenses
Assignment 2: Exposure
Assignment 3: Perspective
Assignment 4: Focus
Assignment 5: Shutter Speed
Assignment 6: Supplemental Light

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4 Responses to ““Unseeing” Photo Challenge Assignment 5: Shutter Speed”
  1. Anthony Campbell

    Just absolutely stunning pictures, I hope to achieve this level of photography soon.

    Reply
  2. Sharon

    Your pictures are amazing and you get to go to the most beautiful places. I hope you realize just how truely blessed you are. My only opportunity to take pictures of different places is when we go on family vacations. I hope to branch out more and explore places closer to home that I have not been before so that I can find new things to take pictures of. Thanks for what you do to help others become better photographers.

    Reply
  3. Mark Clark

    I enjoy these challenges. They inspire me to experiment more. Being relatively new to the DSLR world and still bordering on being overwhelmed at times, these challenges are a bit of a break.

    Reply