The Art of Slowing Down By Shelley Reis
Every image tells a story, and the stronger the story the better the image. The story doesn’t have to be dramatic and intense, it just needs to be told well. When movement forms a strong part of the narrative a slow shutter speed can be used to creatively capture the mood and enhance the story.
I am going to cover two different techniques to utilise a slow shutter speed – long exposure and panning.
When you want to create a sense of chaos or heighten the contrast between fast and still elements in the frame a long exposure can be used. This can be an interesting way to capture fast-moving water and gives a dreamy and nostalgic quality to the image. The shutter speed you choose will depend on the speed of the movement within the frame as well as how much of the background context you wish to retain. If there are human subjects in your frame and you wish to keep them relatively still I would go no slower than a shutter speed of 1/20-1/30 seconds.
A very important part of any long exposure is having a very steady hand. If you are hand holding the camera, try to brace your elbows in to your side and pull your camera in hard to your face or if possible rest your camera on a hard surface to keep it as steady as possible. Alternatively a tripod can be used and is essential for long exposures slower than around 1/10 seconds. Many landscape photographers shoot long exposures of 5 seconds or longer and even the pressing of the shutter would introduce too much camera shake, so a remote trigger would need to be used in that case.
If there is abundant available light, a long exposure can be tricky to achieve without being overexposed. To balance the slower shutter speed I often increase my aperture as high as my lens will allow me (f/16 on most of my lenses). In very bright conditions an ND filter might be the only way to achieve proper exposure. For this reason, I usually only shoot long exposures at the end of the day, around sunset, or in shadowy or very cloudy conditions.
The most important thing that I am looking for when I am shooting a long exposure is a contrast in movement between different elements of the frame. For example, in the image below the subjects are relatively still and the ocean was moving quickly around them. The use of a slow shutter isolates and intensifies my daughter’s gaze and the connection between her and her Dad.
The image of my son at the Fair (shot at 1/20 seconds) tells a strong story because there is a sharp contrast between the speed and implied chaos of the carousel moving behind him and the his stillness as he waited in line.
Alternatively, long exposures can be used where there is little contrast in the speed of the subjects to create very artful, abstract and ethereal images.
Panning is a creative photographic technique that can be used to convey a feeling of movement. The aim when panning is to keep your subject relatively sharp and in focus while creating a motion blur effect in the rest of the image. This is achieved by ‘panning’ or moving the camera in a horizontal direction at the same speed as the moving subject as you release the shutter, using a relatively slow shutter speed.
Panning can produce amazingly eye-catching images and it can be great to use when the movement in the image is an important part of the ‘story’, but it works best any time you wish to imply movement of a particular object in the frame and when that movement is on a relatively straight trajectory.
The Basic Settings
The most important camera setting to consider when panning is the Shutter Speed. In choosing a shutter speed you should factor in how fast the object is moving and how much ‘blur’ you are hoping to achieve. The faster your shutter speed is, the easier it will be to pan them successfully however it is a trade off as the implied motion at a faster shutter speed will not be as dramatic. For panning an every day situation – such as children swinging, or running, I typically choose a shutter speed between 1/15s and 1/30s. If you are hand holding the camera, a shutter speed any slower than this would likely mean that even the slightest camera shake would affect the crispness of your image.
For movement that is a little faster – such as someone riding a bike – a faster shutter speed such as 1/30s to 1/60s would be sufficient, and for very fast-moving objects such as a moving vehicle a shutter speed in the range of 1/125s would likely be necessary.
Aperture is the second most important setting choice when panning. Depending on the light that is available when shooting I prefer to close up the aperture. If there is plenty of light available I will typically max out my f-stop. The wider depth of field provides a greater margin for error and increases the likelihood that my subject will be in focus.
The focal length of the lens you are shooting with as well as your distance from the moving object will also affect your ability to nail focus at a given shutter speed – the longer your lens and the closer you are – the more difficult it will be, so when starting out it can be a good idea to choose a wider lens, and/or stand further away. I typically use a 24mm or 35mm prime lens for my panning shots as I find they yield the most successfully panned images.
Technique and stance
The way you move along with the subject will impact the success of your images. Shooting at a slow shutter speed means that any additional camera shake is likely to render the images unusable, so a steady stance is very important. The only movement we want is horizontal and in line with the subject. Stand with your feet apart so they are approximately as wide as your shoulders and you feel stable, pull your elbows tightly in to your sides, and stand parallel to the trajectory of the moving subject. If you were shooting at a very slow shutter speed and feel your hand is not steady enough, you could alternatively use a monopod to help reduce camera shake.
Once you’re stable and ready, keep your camera level with your subject and as the subject enters the frame press the shutter half way. Begin twisting your body in line with your subject before pressing the shutter all the way down when your subject is directly in front of you. It’s important to keep moving with the subject even after the shutter has fired. It is a ‘sweeping’ motion that begins before the shutter has been released and continues on after.
The two biggest things to be mindful of are that the subject remains on the same focal plane throughout your panning and that you are moving your camera at the exact same speed as the subject is moving.
Handy tip: If you’re having trouble moving and looking through the viewfinder at the same time, put your camera into Liveview mode and experiment with it that way!
Failure – the most important part!
Failure is an essential part of the creative process. We cannot grow if we never fail. Every time you go out and shoot or edit you will learn something, even if it is what doesn’t work.
Letting go of the idea of perfection, when panning or shooting long exposures, is imperative. Even a well-practised ‘panner’ won’t nail the shot every time, or probably even every second time. Remember, it is unlikely that the subject will be totally tack sharp most of the time – so just remember it’s more about the subject being sharp relative to the background. Panning takes quite a bit of patience but if you approach it as an experiment and persist through the many inevitable ‘failed’ shots, then it is going to be a lot of fun.
Where to find me
Online workshop, Art & Soul: Adding Depth and Emotion to Storytelling Images, available for purchase from: the-narrative-society.teachable.com/p/art-and-soul-adding-depth-and-emotion-to-storytelling-images