Fun With Slow Shutter Speeds

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Creating images that are tack sharp is, of course, a skill that every photographer must master.  But high precision and accurate photography is demanding and it grows tiresome and stressful.  Enter Slow Shutter Photography, the Jazz of the photo world.  Every photographer at some point in their practice tinkers and plays with slow shutter speeds.  Not out of necessity – but because it’s a great way to paint abstract and impressionist images with a camera.  It’s loose, it’s less defined and it’s fun – both for the photographer and the viewer.  So here are just a few applications for slow shutter speeds in your photography.  I hope this inspires you to experiment with your own tricks.

Rear Curtain Sync

"Carousel" by D. Travis North

“Carousel” by D. Travis North

What is it? Rear Curtain Sync actually refers to your flash.  But disregard everything you think you know about flash photography:  Rear Curtain Sync will not freeze everything in the shot.  Rear Curtain Sync gives you the best of two worlds:  Slow Shutter photography, but being able to nearly freeze a subject.  Note I said nearly:  Your subject will never be perfectly crisp, but that’s the point.

Good For: Capturing emotion and movement, especially in crowds.  This technique is common when a photographer is trying to capture dancers or musicians.  The viewer will be given just enough detail to identify the subject, but the finished image will still exhibit just the right amount of movement to tell the story.

Outside the Box: The cliché shot is the bride and groom dancing amongst their celebrants.  It’s effective, but many photographers use the technique only for that shot.  Try experimenting with using the technique with machinery, kites, toys and otherwise.  I like to use this technique with colored filters to get some really interesting Jello inspired compositions.  This is also a great technique to mix with many of the other techniques mentioned below.

Panning

"Happiness in Motion" by D. Travis North

“Happiness in Motion” by D. Travis North

What is it? Panning is when your camera (and most likely the photographer) is moving – typically tracking the subject – while the shutter is active.  The tracking isolates the subject on a blurry background.  Panning takes practice because while you’re tracking the subject, the shutter will be closed.

Good For: moving subjects such as the carnival ride shown here, cars in a high speed race, or even children running.

Outside the Box: The real benefit of panning is the background that you get…it’s blurry, interesting, and it looks completely abstract.  If the background of your subject is busy, you may want to put your subject in motion.  If that’s not possible, consider making yourself move.  As another idea, I watched as a photographer carefully shot slow shutter shots on a tripod from a trolly through old city.  He was nice enough to share the results with me – he made the city look like a watercolor painting in-camera.  Now that’s fun.

Zooming

"Tunnel Warp" by D. Travis North

“Tunnel Warp” by D. Travis North

What is it? Zooming is not unlike panning in that the camera is the object in motion.  The difference is that while panning utilizes a lateral movement, zooming utilizes the Z coordinates, moving toward or away from the subject.  This can be accomplished in two ways:  with a zoom lens, or by physically moving towards or away from the subject.  The trick is to try to keep your camera as steady as possible while doing so or you’ll get some poor results.

Good For: Creating truly abstract images, vertigo effects and extruding depth from your otherwise flat shots.  Tunnel Warp, shown here, was shot from a moving vehicle to add interest to an otherwise boreing subject.

Outside the Box: I already mentioned that you can shoot from a moving vehicle.  As my wife rarely lets me drive (she claims it’s due to motion sickness, but I think she doesn’t like my driving), I am often shooting as a passenger.  It’s not a bad way to pass the time.  But zooming is also a great, modern way to direct your viewer’s eye to a specific point.  Don’t assume that your subject will be blurry – things at the center of the shot tend to read very well even with the slowest shutter speeds.  Try mixing zooming with a rear-curtain synced flash to make that subject pop.

Chaos

"Boardwalk Disco" by D. Travis North

“Boardwalk Disco” by D. Travis North

What is it? In and of itself, it’s not fair to consider Chaos a technique all to it’s own.  Truth be told, it’s really just any bizarre experiment utilizing any of the above techniques – either alone or combined with others – to create abstract photographs with no real clear subject.  I would include in this category a number of risky camera experiments that I would never conduct on my own with my equipment, such as camera tossing.  As for me, I tend to experiment with less distructive practices, such as running with my camera, or intentionally over-exposing the shot to get blurry and unintelligable shapes and patterns.  But these shots are not planned, so the quality of them essentially comes down to luck and chance (thus why I refer to it as the Chaos technique).

Good For: Stress Relief, abstract photographs and some of the most unique colors you’ll ever see in your shots (from blending).  Note that this is also a good training excercise, forcing yourself to select your favorite compositions from the many shots exhibiting often unidentifiable objects.

Outside the Box: By nature, Chaos is already outside the box.  But what’s really unique about this technique is that 99% of your experiments will be absolute junk.  But every once in a while, you’ll find a jem that somehow speaks to you, and that’s worth it.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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