7 Best Beginner Tips for Using Fast Shutter Speed in Your Photography
Shutter speed is a fantastic thing! By choosing how to set your shutter speed, you can create an image that either uses a fast shutter speed to stop motion or a slow shutter speed to enhance motion. Today we’ll talk about using fast shutter speed to freeze action.
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Tip #1 – Understand the Shutter – What Is It and What Does It Do?
A Primer on Shutter Speed
Before we get started, let’s have a quick review of shutter speed and how it works! First, know that a series of blades live inside your camera. These blades are called the shutter. This mechanical shutter aims to let light into your camera lens. Of course, we know that photography is all about light, so it stands to reason that the shutter and what it does is essential.
Brittanica.com uses this definition: “Shutter, in photography: A device through which the lens aperture of a camera is opened to admit light and thus expose the film (or the electronic image sensor of a digital camera)”.
You can control the shutter in two different ways. First, by deciding how far you open the blades, called aperture. Second, how long the blades stay open, called shutter speed. If you’d like to learn more about aperture, click HERE. Today, we will talk about shutter speed settings and how it affects your images.
Understand How Shutter Speed Works
A high shutter speed will open and close your shutter quickly. Today’s DSLRs and mirrorless cameras usually support the fastest shutter speed of up to 1/4000th of a second. Imagine those blades opening and closing at that speed! Technology is impressive, isn’t it!?
When those blades quickly open and close, any movement you’re photographing freezes in the frame, and you get a crystal-clear image. Here are some great examples of sharp images frozen in time, captured with a fast shutter speed.
Tip #2 – Practice in a Controlled Environment
I had a special request to show how to freeze pouring liquid in action, so I’ll use some handy (and not very fancy) images of running water to demonstrate how to freeze motion.
Freezing Motion by Pouring Water
The best way to learn a new technique with your camera is to set up a practical experiment and practice in a controlled environment before the pressure of an actual event. In this case, we will learn by pouring some water into a glass. Before you begin, you will want to gather a few items for your setup. Here’s a list:
- a tripod to avoid camera shake
- lens of your choice (I used my handy f/1.8 50mm lens)
- remote trigger (THIS ONE is my fave)
- bright light – either a brightly lit room or a light source (I love “>this inexpensive studio light)
- a towel (in case things get messy).
Tip #3 – Remember the Faster the Action, the Faster the Shutter Speed
The basic idea for freezing motion is that the faster the action, the higher you need to set your shutter speed.
For example, when photographing my kiddo running around the soccer field, I generally try to start with my shutter speed set at about 1/600 sec. 1/600 sec isn’t the fastest shutter speed, but it is fast enough to capture kid action. He’s in the fifth grade, and these kids don’t move as quickly as the pros in a major league soccer game.
This quick shutter speed freezes just about any moving subject on the field for fifth-grade soccer. If I were on a pro field capturing Beckham bending it, I’d want a much higher shutter speed right off the bat.
Tip #4 – Translate Your Practice to the Real World
Liquids are Just Like Soccer Players When it Comes to Fast Shutter Speeds
You can apply the same example to many different types of liquids. Water is a faster-moving liquid than, say, chocolate syrup or gravy, so you’ll need a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement.
The basic rule of thumb I use when photographing water is to start with my shutter speed set at around 250. You can probably get away with a little slower speed with a slower liquid, but this is a good starting number.
Tip #5 – Don’t Forget about Exposure
You may have already considered that when you change your shutter speed to freeze action, you may have to change your other camera settings. It makes sense. After all, the exposure triangle works together to achieve the proper exposure.
So, let’s talk about getting the correct exposure when you freeze action. If you are new to understanding the exposure triangle, click HERE for a great lesson. I’ll wait while you read.
Understanding Manual Modes and How They affect Exposure
Many people begin learning how to control the exposure triangle by shooting in a partially manual mode, such as shutter priority mode. This mode allows you to choose the shutter speed, and the camera will automatically set the ISO and the aperture based on your choice of shutter speed or the length of time that the camera shutter is open. However you begin, it’s a good idea to learn so you have the option to get your camera off of the automatic mode and into one of the manual modes, so you can control your camera instead of allowing your camera to control you.
All set? Great! When your first concern is to freeze (or stop) action, you’ll first want to set your shutter speed. Use this chart showing different shutter speeds as a great starting point for what kind of action you’ll be shooting.
Next, it’s time to adjust your aperture and ISO settings to achieve the correct exposure. Once you choose your shutter speed, then consider aperture. You will want to get the right amount of light into your camera, and since you’ll be having your shutter open and close quickly, you’ll want to get as much light as possible into your lens by opening your lens nice and wide. Remember that the lower number means a wider open aperture.
To avoid a grainy image, you’ll want to keep your ISO low. You will need to find a nice balance between low ISO and high aperture.
In the pouring water example, I ended with my shutter speed at 320, my aperture wide open at 1.8, and my ISO set at 400. You can learn more about these basic terms in Ten Need To Know Photography Terms for the Beginner.
Tip #6 – Use the Correct Shooting Mode
Next up, you will want to set your camera to continuous or burst drive mode when shooting action. Modern DSLR cameras (digital cameras that allow you to adjust settings) usually have a setting that determines how quickly the shutter releases as you hold down the shutter button.
My Canon 70D offers a single shot (or continuous mode) in either fast or slow speeds. Once you have your camera set in continuous mode, you will be able to hold down that shutter release button, and the electronic shutter will trigger continuously.
You will want to fire off multiple shots quickly when photographing action. Our eyes, brain, and finger can’t move quite as quickly and in sync as if we let the camera do the work and fire off several rapid-fire shots.
You may get multiple shots that don’t work, and that’s ok. You will find the best photo somewhere right in the middle of all you’ve taken, and you can discard the rest. The ability to take 50 images and discard 49 is a perk of digital photography that didn’t exist in the 24 pics per roll days of film cameras
Fast Shutter Speed for Pouring Water
Now let’s put this thought process to work with our water setup. I have put together a little video for you to see how I have things laid out. The camera should be on a tripod or a solid surface, so you’re not juggling it while you try to pour.
Don’t forget to attach your remote trigger and get your camera’s focus set on your glass.
Once you snap a few shots, you’ll want to take a good, close look at the detail to be sure you’re freezing the action. You can zoom in close on the camera’s LCD screen.
Or, as I prefer to do, load your photos into your editing software (I recommend Adobe Lightroom) and look at them on your larger computer screen to ensure that you’re REALLY freezing the action.
If you find that your liquid is fuzzy and not tack sharp, you will want to speed up your shutter. Don’t forget to check your exposure time and adjust your ISO or aperture as necessary.
Continue to try until you’re happy with your result. I don’t think there’s anything worse than putting everything away, only to discover that you missed your mark by a minor adjustment.
You’ve Successfully Frozen Action Using Fast Shutter Speed
Congratulations! You did it! Who knew you could freeze water in a second without even using the deep freeze! If you can freeze the action of water, you will surely be able to use those same settings for gravy or syrup!
Now – if you’d like to take your new superpower outside of liquids, you can load up your cheat sheet and try out those shutter speeds on more exciting action like this!
Here’s a perfect example of my boys tubing behind the boat. The shutter speed is 1/800 sec, aperture set at 5.6, and ISO at 100. This lens is not as fast as I used for the water, so it was wide open at 5.6. The scene was also much brighter on a sunny summer day, so there was enough light even with the lower aperture.
Tip #7 – Shutter Speed Isn’t Just for Freezing Action
A Shutter Speed Bonus Tip!
Let me show you an example of what happens when you use a slower shutter speed, also known as a long shutter speed. This technique is called panning. I slowed the shutter speed way down and moved the camera in sync with the subject’s motion.
This technique allows the subjects to remain clear while the background shows a blur of motion indicating movement. Settings here were shutter speed of 1/25, aperture set at f/22, and ISO at 100. Can you see how the slower shutter speed allows movement to show?
You can read all about this technique, called Panning, HERE.
The same idea applies when you place your camera on a tripod and use a slow shutter to capture a waterfall. A slow shutter speed will cause your water to appear smooth and silky rather than sharp and crystalline.
Wrapping it All Up
I hope this demonstration of freezing water in motion helps show how the best shutter speed can give you dramatic effects in your photos. When in doubt, remember this simple general rule – the faster the action, the faster the shutter speed. Using maximum shutter speeds for maximum action. Print out the handy shutter speed chart so you’ll know just the right shutter speed to begin with the next time you want to freeze some action!
Now that you understand the basics of shutter speed go freeze some action!!!