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The ‘what’s’ and ‘why’s’ of slow shutter photography

By: Mark Watson

Often, we browse through YouTube and Facebook to learn about different aspects of photography. If you can’t afford to go on a photography course then YouTube is usually your best bet for finding information. However, it can be hard to find the gold amongst the rubble, and you can often find yourself unsure about the techniques described. Trusting the content is also a problem, where there’s often a fine line between someone’s opinion and the correct way of doing things. With proven techniques, where the photos do the talking and you can see for yourself what works and what doesn’t, we have attempted to provide you with information you can understand and make use of. We have compiled a list of "what’s" and "why’s" for you to consider when taking slow shutter shots, that will get you outside, investigating, inventing new methods that work well for you and in the end, create stunning images that you will be proud of.

What will you need ?

A DSLR camera kit:
A basic DSLR camera is essential, equipped with ISO, aperture size and shutter speed controls. You will use these 3 main functions in the manual mode setting, adjusting them to suit the needs of a slow shutter shot.

A tripod:
When taking a photo with the shutter speed set to anything slower than around 1/25s you should be using a tripod. When you consider that some of my photos use 30 second exposure times, the tripod is essential in keeping the image sharp where you want it.

A neutral density filter:
We will go into this in more detail in the why section, but a ND filter is essential for slow shutter photography as it reduces the amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor when the shutter is open for long periods of time. Without this, the camera would allow too much light in during the 30 seconds exposure and the image would be almost pure white with no detail.

A keen eye for composition (we have a neat trick for you here):
Don’t underestimate the need for a keen eye when it comes to composition. This includes zooming in to crop the image, the angle of you in relation to the subject/light source and finally the scene, in order to get a foreground, midground and background detail in the shot. A neat trick is to take a small photo frame with you. Just like an artist eyes up a scene to paint, you can eyeball the area you want to photograph with the frame. Set at a certain distance from you, you can test out the composition you may get with the camera before you set up the tripod and camera to make sure you’re happy with it.

Why do you need these?

Why use slow shutter?
Slow shutter photography is one of my favorite techniques that I use to take my waterscapes up a notch. It increases the impact of the scene and gives it some artistic flare that can separate you from more traditional imagery. It can give very abstract effects to a photo such as a candy floss effect on waves, a glass effect on a lake, or at night it can give amazing effects of motion blur and painting with light. This area of photography is highly experimental and thus very rewarding.

DSLR Camera.
A DSLR camera with the 3 main adjustments, used in manual mode, allow you to set up the camera correctly to capture a slow shutter shot. The settings usually call for a reduction in shutter speed, an ISO of around 200 and an aperture size (or f-x rating) that is adequate for the ND filter you have chosen. We will go further into what a ND filter is and why you can choose variations below.

A tripod is used so that the camera can open its shutter for prolonged periods of time without allowing the camera to move at all. You can test this yourself, set your camera to ISO 200, shutter speed to 1" (1 second) and the aperture to match the surrounding light levels in your location. Now take the shot from your hand, holding the camera without using the tripod, you will find that even at 1 second your image will become blurry and unclear. This is the reason for the tripod.

ND Filter.
As mentioned above, the ND filter is required when taking these types of shots. Think of it as a form of sunglasses over an eye, reducing the amount of light that enters your eye (or sensor in the camera) and therefore allowing you to keep your eyes open without having the light blind you. I usually take longer exposure photos, so I use a dark ND filter of 2.0 which therefore allows me to take 45-75 second exposures without allowing too much light through, giving a moving object in the scene, such as water, a blurred effect.

If you want just a slight blur in your image, for example to blur some reeds that are blowing in the wind whilst keeping the entire shot in focus, you would use a 0.5 ND filter and set the camera aperture speed to something like 10 seconds with an ISO of 400. A great tool to use for calculating this is the Exposure Calculator App (see below for some examples).

Here are some simple examples of the types of settings you will need for different ND filters and their different shutter speed requirements. Note that with a stronger ND filter the shutter will have to stay open longer to allow more light in, whilst allowing for a stronger blurred effect in the image.

Shutter speed ND Filter strength (medium) Aperture size

10 seconds 0 11.0
20 seconds 0 16.0
30 seconds 0 20.0

ND Filter strength (strong)

83 seconds 0 11.0
166 seconds 0 14.0
266 seconds 0 20.0

This is one of the main things that can be easily overlooked. The composition of the image can either ruin it or make something insignificant appear visually inspiring. The way that you balance the image is key here, you need to be wary of the foreground, the midground and the background, whilst ideally adhering to the basic rule of thirds.

I find this very helpful in planning how to position myself before I take a shot, checking how things should be positioned in the photo and thus angling the camera and myself to achieve this. The idea is to have the subject a third of the way into the picture frame whether it be top right, top left, bottom right or bottom left. Sometimes this just doesn’t work and so you must work with your own initiative/instincts to get that shot you want.

A brief walk-though/checklist on composing your picture.

Choosing a location:
I often choose a location that I walk through when I’m out hiking, that way I can check during my walks where might be a good spot for a shot, taking photos of possible locations with my phone to refer to later on. Other than areas that are local to me, I rely on google maps/Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest and places on the National Trust website to inspire me. Although I haven’t camped out yet, this is on my list of things to do so that I can get that golden hour early in the morning or late evening. Try to find a location with something in motion, such as animals, water, traffic, grass etc. to enhance the effects of a slow shutter shot.

Setting up the camera:
After you arrive at the target location, it’s time to set the camera up so that the shot is properly exposed and of good composition. I usually do a few off-the-hip test shots and play around with the settings and effects before I decide on the ones I’m happy with.

Compose the image:
Once the settings are close to what you want, you can get into the composition of the photo, as noted above. Follow the basic steps I mentioned and keep experimenting with camera height, angle and props to make the image more dramatic.

Setting up the tripod:
Ok, so you know where you want to take the first shot from, now it’s time to get that tripod set up so that you can guarantee no camera shake. Using the tripod can also lead to more great photos like the first. By simply moving the angle (up, down, left or right), or by adjusting the tripod height, you can get some nice images that flow together or can be stitched into a panoramic.

Taking the photo:
So, you can either set the camera to a timer delay of 10 seconds or use a trigger button to take the shots you like. I usually take the first shot, then adjust the settings to experiment with exposure, lighting, shadows and highlights etc. until I get that shot I really like.

Check for clarity/composition and exposure ready for post processing:
Double check that your photos have been saved in RAW format, that you have high quality JPEG settings turned on, and that you’re happy with the overall look of the image. I typically check that the image clarity and sharpness is focused in the right area, then if I’m not happy I can change the focus box to where I want. As a final note, these steps are just a guideline, they don’t always work and perhaps a fire-from-hip method can work better to catch moving targets or compositions you couldn’t have envisaged.

Hopefully you now know the basics of how to take an inspiring shot that you can be proud of. Going over the basics of what you might need and why, how to create a simple setup before you take the shot and how to set up the camera has hopefully given you the knowhow you needed. Inspiring you to go out and try it for yourself is my main aim, there are many places to try this out, even within your own home – there are moving objects all around us! Good luck!

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