I always carry a camera. Doesn’t this pic shout “Travellers”? No comfortable seating; he is on his smartphone; she is looking at her fingernails; aircraft operations go on slowly in the background. A big but not too busy airport (Las Vegas? No. So where? I cannot remember). Where are they going? Where is their carry-on luggage? Questions.
“Shutter speed” isn’t all there is to shutter speed.
Uh oh. Michael is The Oracle. What on earth does he mean by that confusing statement?
Well, let’s have a look. Let’s set up a couple of gelled and gridded speedlights (using Honlphoto grids and gels) and get a talented life model. Which is exactly what I did in August 2012 at Brock University, during the 5-day flash course I was teaching for the Niagara School of Imaging.
But wait. Because I want to show you the setup, let’s allow in some ambient light. To achieve this we use a really slow shutter speed, of 0.6 sec. More than half a second, in other words. That lets in some ambient. Not a lot, but enough to see the classroom, some of the equipment, and so on.
The picture, showing the setup with the two flashes, below. Look at the two little gelled speedlights, can you spot them? Purple gel on the left and yellow gel on the right:
OK. Great. Blurry as heck, of course: 0.6 seconds is ridiculously slow. Impossible to hold still. Right?
But wait. Lots of blur, yes, all over the picture, but look carefully. Click on the image to see it full size, and now look carefully at the model. What do you see?
She is sharp. No blur on her: she is tack sharp. There’s blur all over, but not much on the actual subject. A little “ghosting”, but she is substantially sharp.
But that’s impossible: the shutter speed was 0.6 seconds. So she must be blurry! Right?
So that’s where I say “‘Shutter speed’ isn’t all there is to shutter speed”. The shutter speed may be 0.6 seconds, but the model is lit primarily (almost exclusively) by the flashes. And the flashes flash at 1/1000 second or faster. At 1/4 power, they flash for just 1/4000 second. So while the shutter speed may be 0.6 seconds, as long as the subject is lit only by the flashes, our effective shutter speed is 1/4000 second!
And that is why you see a sharp model: there is very little ambient light on her, so the effective shutter speed is determined almost exclusively by the flash speed. Which is very rapid.
So now let’s do a normal shutter speed, of 1/125 sec, so the ambient light is cut out. And here is the finished product:
So anyway. This is a studio shot. So I want no ambient light: the second picture, in other words. But when I shoot an event, like a wedding reception, I want to let in some ambient light to avoid those cold, black backgrounds. Instead, I want a nice warm background. To achieve that, I am happy to shoot with shutter speed as slow as 1/15 or 1/30 second. And now you know why I can get away with that.
You have all heard about the grassroots campaign against dihydrogen monoxide?
This chemical, which if ingested in large quantities can be deadly, is present in most manufactured foods. It is even in our water supply.
Which is not strange, considering the fact that “dihydrogen monoxide” is just another way of saying “H2O”, i.e. water.
The reason this joke works is that people have been conditioned to like “natural”, eat “natural”, and to resist anything artificial. As though Ebola, disease-carrying mosquitos and bone cancer aren’t “natural”!
And we see the same in photography. Oh so often do I hear people proudly proclaim that they use “natural light”.
That is fine, nothing against that. I use available light quite often. But to be proud of it? To me, that’s like proudly saying “I am walking to Rome!”. Personally, I’d rather be carried there on a luxury yacht, or in a Saudi royal’s personal 747 with golden faucets. And similarly in photography I use the tools that suit my needs. Whether they are “natural” or not. I am as happy using flashes as I am using sunlight. Except flashes give me more options in more conditions.
So I’d say, use what works for you. Whether it is “natural” or not. And learn all types so you have the option when needed.
As every photographer knows, you use shutter speed to either blur, or freeze, motion. That is what the shutter is for, creatively speaking.
A slow shutter speed, like 1/10 second, gives you blurred motion, as in this photo I took at a country music event the other day:
While a fast shutter speed, like 1/800 second, freezes motion:
See the difference?
Q: If picture 2 was taken at 1/800 sec, why is it not darker than the first picture, which was taken at 1/10 sec? Over six stops darker?
A: Because at the same time as selecting a faster shutter speed, I selected a larger aperture: f/1.4 for the second picture, as opposed to the f/22 I used for picture 1.
Anyway. Here’s the core question I get quite often from students:
What drives the decision “do we blur or freeze?”
First, a flow looks better blurred, while something that happens as a moment in time looks better frozen. So generally speaking, for a fountain like this I would use a slow shutter speed.
What constitutes “slow”? See this excerpt from my Book 7, Pro Photography Checklists: 100 checklists, summaries, and Best Practices.
So, OK, slow or fast determines motion: blur or freeze. But there are other considerations. Like “do I want a blurred background” (which would mean a low f-number, which in turn would mean a fast shutter)? And like aesthetic considerations: the frozen fountain looks kind of cool, in this particular case.
And so it is with many photography decisions: you have a rule of thumb, a starting point; but then you interpret that creatively. That goes from everything from motion to colour to the rule of thirds. You are the creative driver, not the book or the camera or social pressure.
So if you have a reason to not use some established rule or starting point, then by all means do what you want. (In the absence of such a reason, though, go with the recommended Best Practice or Rule of Thumb.)
Why do we like prime (non-zoom) lenses? Like the 35mm f/1.4 Canon lens I used for today’s snaps of the granddaughter, who is almost two? Because they rock, that’s why.
With a prime lens you get:
- Sharpness. Typically, prime lenses are very sharp.
- Consistency: unlike with a zoom lens, every shot in a shoot is the same in its tolerance for motion, in its depth of field, in its look-and-feel, and in its showing of perspective.
- Large aperture (low “f-number”).
- …meaning blurry backgrounds when you want them, like in the snaps above.
- …and meaning fast shutter speeds (over 1/1000th sec in these shots, at 200 ISO).
- The ability to shoot indoors without a flash.
- Low weight.
- Less to worry about.
Today’s shots? Simple snaps. Taken in Aperture Priority mode because I had less than a second to shoot. Although I generally shoot in manual exposure mode, there’s always the exception, and this was it.
I was in “One Shot” AF mode (“AF-S”, in Nikon terms), which works fine if you are quick, even with a moving baby. Yes. I could have used “AI Servo” (“AF-C” for Nikon users), but again, there was no time. Seize the moment!
What is important is that I focused (with the focus button on the back of the camera, rather than the shutter button) really quickly. Using one focus point, aimed at, you guessed it, the child’s eyes.
The sequence: Aim at eye—Focus on eye—Recompose—Shoot. And all this within a tenth of a second, because almost-two-year-olds do not sit or stand still. Sounds difficult? It is, but with a little practice you can do it.
So at f/1.4 I got two big advantages. First, the large aperture results in a nice fast shutter speed, so there is no motion blur, and there is no need to raise ISO, so I get great quality. Second, the large aperture gives me a super blurry background, which is great, because since this was in a living room rather than a studio, the background was messy. Blur it out and it doesn’t matter; and the subject stands out from the background too. A win-win-win.
Just remember: focus quickly, and make sure the eyes are sharp. The rest is optional, pretty much.
And then you can concentrate on what is important. The baby. Not the f-numbers, the focus points, the lens’s bokeh quality, or other technical properties of your equipment. Those are just tools. The child and the moment are what it’s all about.
Depict your life. You have just one, and it’s great if you can make a record of the things you do and see. Years from now, my granddaughter will be happy to have good pictures of herself as a young child.