By Albert Chi—
Most photographers dread shooting when poor light levels require slow shutter speeds for proper exposure. Chances are pictures will end up blurred due to camera shake, subject motion, or both. And to compensate, you can only up the ISO so much before running into noise and artifacts.
Here are some ways to make slow shutter speeds work for you. In fact, even when you have enough light to use faster speeds, shooting with longer exposures can often turn ordinary pictures into eye-poppers.
Panning with the subject will give a feeling of motion and eliminate cluttered backgrounds at the same time. It’s a time-tested technique for capturing indoor action when lighting is poor because you can use shutter speeds from 1-second to 1/25th-of-a-second. That’ll usually give you correctly exposed pictures within your camera’s range of apertures.
Begin by setting your camera to Shutter Priority and the speed to 1-second. When the subject enters the edge of the frame, let it advance to the center and then start moving the camera with it. Click the shutter as you pan along. If you keep the subject in the same part of the frame it’ll stay fairly sharp. Try some different speeds to see which gives the best effect.
If there’s too much light, your camera’s lens may not be able to stop down to a small enough aperture to allow a correct exposure when long shutter speeds are needed. If that’s the case, set your ISO lower, in some cases, as low as it will go—usually 200. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to use a neutral density (ND) filter. An ND filter over the lens will further reduce the light that reaches the camera’s sensor so you can shoot at slow shutter speeds without overexposing your pictures.
In the past, photographers using ND filters usually bought a set of three: .3, .6, and .9. These NDs hold back one, two, and three f-stops of light respectively. They can also be used together to provide up to six f-stops of light reduction, more than enough to correctly expose any pictures shot at slow shutter speeds. But variable ND filters are now available so that just one filter covers a whole range of light blocking. Either Tiffen or Hoya are good, reasonably-priced choices. choices
Variable ND filters cost around $50 and up, depending on the diameter of your lens, and they are usually made of glass. Since most lenses are zooms, you’ll only need one ND filter to cover the entire focal range of the lens. They usually screw into the threads in the front of your lens and you can tell what size you’ll need by checking the inside front ring of the lens; it will be engraved in the metal. Look for the symbol of a zero with a diagonal slash through it followed by a number, for example, 52mm. That’s the size to order.
Long exposures are also useful for shots other than panning action. Say you want to give waterfalls, streams or ocean waves a dreamy, cascading look. Put your camera on a tripod and go with the flow by using slow shutter speeds. The slower the speeds, the stronger the effect will be.
You can also use slow shutter speeds to get wind-blown objects, like flowers and trees, to self-paint impressionistic images. With the camera on a tripod use some long exposures on a breezy day. No breeze? No problem. Just move the camera itself (either on or off the tripod) for long exposure painterly effects. These images won’t require super long exposures (start with 1/4 sec and go longer if necessary) and most them, depending o the lighting, might not require an ND filter at all.
But wait! There’s more. Let’s say you’re at a popular tourist attraction and want to shoot, say, the worlds biggest ball of twine (yes, there is such a thing). But when you get there, you find that other people are walking past it, making it difficult to get a clean shot. Just put your camera on a tripod and, using the appropriate ND filter, make the exposure long enough to eliminate them. In this case, the exposure might be as long as one to three minutes…or even more. But since they won’t be in any one place long enough to register on the photo, you’ll end up getting your monster ball of twine without anyone in the picture.
Finally, don’t forget that you can also shoot moving subjects at slow shutter speeds, which will accent the feeling of motion in a still image. Or do a combination of subject and camera motion at the same time for even more interesting effects. And you can also zoom when using slow shutter speeds which will give you entirely different effects. The possibilities are endless. And many of these will not require ND filters so you can get going on them right away.
The images like the ones used to illustrate this article are easy to shoot. Remember, there was photographic life before Photoshop. Why spend hours hunched over your computer to simulate effects you can easily capture in seconds with your camera—and have more fun doing it? Whooa! Now there’s something to think about.
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