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In teaching a student the other day, I came to realize one of my own truisms; 1/10th of a second is my favorite shutter speed. This is not to say that I don't have a fondness for good old 1/60th or even the sparkiness of a nice 1/250th flash sync speed. I do, in fact, like a lot of shutter speeds and tend to not use 1/10th all that much. But if I were to pick a favorite, 1/10th is at the top of the list. Curious how I came to this conclusion? Read on to find out...
A lot of photography is about stopping motion or action. Indeed, crystal clear and razor sharp photos typically require little movement (or a shutter speed in the one-thousands). Picture a beautiful, wide-open landscape with distant mountains in the background and a placid lake in the foreground. Idyllic. From a photography perspective all seems right and a quick photo is shot before moving on.
It's not until later, at home, that the photographer realizes a number of the tree tops are slightly blurred from moving in the wind.
Many photographers would throw away the shot if there was any blur. After all, blur typically means imperfection or lack of skill. We often strive to keep out all blur and for the most part I agree; reducing blur is the goal.
However, my hypocrisy with blur begins when things start getting interesting. I don't believe all photos need to be 100% tack sharp and frozen perfectly. I believe there is room for creative use of blur. Where it comes into play most, is highlighting the action of a scene. For instance, take a look at this photo of a belly dancer in a drum circle from Costa Rica.
This photo is actually a demonstration of blur and using available light (covered later). When I used the flash in this situation the result was colorful and more crisp, but lacked the rhythm and movement of the night.
I have other photos shot at slower speeds with even more motion, but for now, 1/10 worked well in this instance to add in some blur to the dancer, the drummers' hands and the foreground musician shaking her instrument at left. 1/10 was a bit of necessity in this instance as the aperture was at f/2.8 and the ISO already high at 3200.
A second example is a windmill along the road in New South Wales, Australia. Shots at higher speeds stopped the motion of the windmill too much and made it lifeless. Bringing the shutter speed down (and the aperture to f/32, ISO 50 as I had no neutral density filter at the time, which would have helped) gave the windmill just enough time to come to life.
Without a doubt fire is excellent to capture at slower shutter speeds. While there are spectacular instances of fire caught at high speed, such as a performer blowing a fireball, slow speed flames allow for greater latitude in glow and mood. For fire, 1/10 of a second stands as a good starting point more than anything.
Too long of a shutter speed will cause extra overlap in the flame movement and may make the scene too chaotic or over exposed. Too short of a shutter speed doesn't give the flames time enough to move and dance. Take for instance this first shot taken in a monastery in Nepal.
This shot was taken at ISO 3200, f/5.6 and 1/50. While it also suffers from just a bit of camera shake (the type of blur we're not going for) due to the nearly suffocating yak dung fire smoke in the kitchen at the time, the flames are not leaping as high and, to me, do not radiate the heat the fire was giving off at the time. Now a second shot with a table used for stabilizing.
Shot at ISO 3200, f/14 and 1/10, this second shot has more life and vitality. Another quick example.
Again, steadiness was lacking in this first shot of a rakshi still in Nepal. ISO 1600, f/3.5 and 1/40.
The better photo, with a bit more stability, shot at ISO 500, f/3.5, 1/10. Besides the decreased blur, the slightly longer shutter speed allowed flames to leap out of the fire pit more than in the first photo. An added bonus is that 1/10 allowed the smoke to take on just a bit more blur and add atmosphere around the solid and unmoving still.
Depth of Field
With proper exposure, as the shutter speed moves in one direction, aperture or ISO need to move the other to keep the exposure triangle balanced. Thus, at times, the shutter speed inadvertently becomes slowed as more depth of field is required via a higher aperture setting. Sometimes 1/10 is not the goal, but it becomes the de facto setting.
In the image above I was choosing a high aperture to increase the depth of field. In the end, 1/10 was what the camera selected while in Aperture Priority mode. Shutter priority can also be used when both depth of field and blur are desired, such as this shot of a waterfall and the moon in Nepal.
Using Available Light
Sometimes the circumstances dictate a slower shutter speed, and adaptation is required (I have a few tips for handling this shutter speed below). Aperture is open all the way and ISO is increased to the maximum, possibly beyond a comfort zone. Flash is abhorred for whichever reason given the situation. Often available light is the most pleasing.
If available light is the most pleasing, use it! In this case, 1/10 is again a good starting point and by no means should be considered law. It will depend on how much movement is acceptable to the photographer as well as the ability to hold focus on the non-moving objects in the frame.
For instance, the movement in this shot of a palace ceiling in Morocco did not, for me, detract from the overall artistry of the handiwork. It also allowed the stained glass windows to keep their brilliance and I feel the human element, even blurred, brought the image to life unlike images containing no humans.
If an object is harshly backlit, a slower shutter speed can also be used to bring out details while finding an acceptable level of highlight blowout in certain areas of the frame. A dinner at Semiahmoo Resort in Washington state sat perfectly in the setting sunlight when placed in front of me. As well as taking a shot from the lit side, I decided to see how the dish looked backlit.
While this shot needed help in post production (I should have used spot metering instead of evaluative) I am still happy with the outcome and spur of the moment chance to capture the dish in a different light.
Waterfall photos, and their silky renditions, start around 1/10 depending on the speed of the water. While it often can be useful to choose a slower shutter speed, 1/10 will get the job done with a wide variety of waterfalls.
Here, as with much photography, the effect is highly subjective in nature and that is why I reference 1/10 as a starting point. Experiment with slower and faster shutter speeds to find a comfortable area with personal appeal.
Tips To Help Shoot At Slow Shutter Speeds
Shooting at 1/10 of a second takes some effort, especially without the use of a tripod. Below are a few tips to help produce quality photographs with or without the assistance of a tripod.
The best solution for shooting at this speed is to grab a tripod or, at minimum, a monopod. Barring either of those, find a solid surface to place the camera. Some photographers have been known to use a beanbag or coat on a non-level surface in order to position their camera appropriately.
A tripod or other solid surface is the best bet for shooting at 1/10 of a second. A special note; turn off any image stabilizing features of the camera or lens while using a tripod as it may, inadvertently, cause blur as it attempts to compensate for movement which is not there.
The next step while using a tripod is to utilize a mirror lock-up feature if the camera has it. This is rarely used by most camera owners and its activation may be buried deep in the menus of the camera.
A minor amount of vibration during the shutter release sequence happens when the mirror providing an image to the view finder, flips up to allow light to strike the shutter, which then activates for its given amount of time, allowing light to strike the image sensor.
When the mirror flips up out of the way, the minor vibration can be enough to be noticed on slower shutter speeds as ever-so-slight blur. None of the images above used this feature (they were all handheld, except as noted) and they all could have gained a bit of clarity if they had.
Remote Shutter Release
Next, a remote shutter release, be it infrared or wired, should be used to trigged the shutter. This device removes the slight movement created while manually pressing the shutter release on the camera body. If a camera does not have a remote shutter release available or if one is not handy, a self timer can be employed.
Self timers are an excellent way to reduce camera shake, especially when coupled with the mirror lock-up. Manufacturers have also caught on to the use and now offer a shorter two second version of the classic ten second self timer, originally intended to allow time for the photographer to appear in the image.
Breathe And Press Through
If handholding is the only option for a slow shutter speed shot, remember to breathe. Exhaling while activating the shutter release helps reduce camera shake as the body is more relaxed on the exhale. Resist holding a breath in anticipation of the “click" movement.
Along those same lines, press through the shutter release when activating it. By this I mean don't press down hard and then withdraw the finger as one might tap a piano key. Press smooth and steady, through the activation point, in order to not jolt the camera while snapping a shot.
If no tripod is available, the next best thing is the use of quality Image Stabilization(IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR). In some cases, lens IS/VR can make a two stop improvement, taking 1/10 closer to 1/40, and that speed works easily for lens focal lengths to about 50mm without much effort.
With practice steadying hands and breathing through the shot, longer focal lengths can be used. IS/VR is no replacement for a steady surface, yet it can help improve a shaking situation.