How to Capture Movement Effects by Playing with Shutter Speed

We talked about the Exposure Triangle in a previous article where shutter speed was defined as one of the three elements that control how much light is caught by the film or sensor. Let us now look closer at how shutter speed works and the different ways we can use it to produce movement effects.

Shutter speed is measured by seconds or fractions of seconds. For example, you may leave the shutter open for 1/500 which means a five hundredth of a second or you may decide on one whole second. Shutter speed options vary in cameras. Compact cameras might not have a wide range of shutter speed measurements compared to DSLRs.

Aside from its relation to light, shutter speed can also be used to manipulate the appearance of movement in a shot. A fast shutter speed (such as 1/1000) can capture movement so quickly that the moving object can seem frozen and a really slow setting such as four seconds can intentionally blur the action for artistic effect.

Some cameras are capable of leaving the shutter open for a very long time. This is often called the B setting and by using it, you can keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release button remains pressed. This is usually used for astrophotography (such as shooting star trails) and for particular effects such as light painting.

There are many popular in-camera effects that optimize shutter speed settings:

Motion blur – this is simply moving the camera while using a slow shutter speed to create interesting blur effects. Motion lines appear when the lens moves and these can be straight or wavy or just a haphazard pretty mess.

 Frozen action – by using a very fast shutter speed, you can freeze actions while keeping the subject in sharp focus. This is great for sports and nature photography where the subject is usually moving fast. Capturing them in mid-motion can make for very interesting shots.

Panning – this is when you focus on the subject while it is moving and while the shutter is open for a few seconds. Usually, it is easier to achieve if the panning motion is side to side. It is more challenging if the camera pans vertically. If done correctly, the result is a clear subject with a blurred background. An example would be a racing car in focus while the track has become blurred and shows motion lines. These lines can give the viewer the impression of just how fast the car is zooming by.

Zoom blur – this effect is more effective with a zoom lens and a tripod (or any steady surface) since the motion lines will come out straighter. Using a relatively slow shutter speed, use the lens to zoom away or towards the subject. If you don't have a zoom lens, manually move the camera instead. There is a chance the camera shake will be very visible, although interesting results might also come about.

If you want to keep your images sharp, your camera has to be as steady as possible, especially with the slower shutter speeds. Using a tripod or a steady surface will allow longer shutter speeds while maintaining clarity and focus. If you are holding the camera, make sure you are using the fastest shutter speed possible without compromising a decent exposure. Since less light is let in with faster speeds, you have to make up for it by adjusting the other two elements: aperture and ISO.

Try to experiment with the various shutter speeds because the image can appear different with every fraction of a second. By using it to show fascinating action effects, you can enhance the viewers' experience by giving them the visual illusion of movement.

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