How to use shutter speed effectively in DSLR photography?

Shutter speed is the duration of light falling on the digital image sensor. It is the time for which light stays on the image sensor to make a perfect exposure. It is controlled by a mechanism housed in the camera body closer to the focal plane (image sensor).

The role of shutter speed in photography is very important and can produce interesting effects that human eye cannot see. The very meaning or understanding of a photo can be changed by varying the shutter speed.

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Fast shutter speeds like 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000 and above will let the exposure very brief and slow shutter speeds like 1/30, 1/15, 1/8 and below will let the exposure long.

Total flash photography needs a shutter speed 1/200 (flash sync speed) or below for most of the cameras. There is no impact of flash exposure by changing the shutter speeds when there is not enough ambient light.

Jerome Desilva (26)

Shutter speeds higher than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens used will guarantee images without camera shake when a tripod is not used – A 400mm lens needs atleast 1/400 shutter speed and a 18mm lens needs just 1/20 shutter speed to avoid camera shake.

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Fast shutter speeds can assure crispy and sharp images without camera shake and apparent subject motion effects.

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Fast shutter speeds like 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000 and above are used to arrest the fast motion – faster shutter speeds can capture fast actions we missed to see. Use highest possible shutter speeds for shooting sports, birds in flight, wild life action – shutter speed higher than 1/500 is a good choice.

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Slow shutter speeds like 1/15,1/8,1/4 and bellow are used to record movements as a blur – some of these blurring effects  like panning and zoom burst are unique that human eyes cannot see .

Sendil Selvam (10)

Long exposures like 1sec, 2secs, 4secs, 8secs and longer can produce beautiful light streaks – something we cannot see with our eyes. Use of a tripod is a must for such shots.

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Bulb shutter denoted by ‘B’ is a longer than the 30secs preset shutter speeds available, is something used for very low light shots, fire works, lightning, light painting and abstract images. Use of a tripod is a must for such shots.

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How to avoid camera blur on subject?

Camera shake or camera blur is a crucial problem while shooting in slow shutter speeds and it is a major issue with the beginners. It is the feel of visual jerk or vibration seen in a photo. A point and shoot instinct without understanding the effect of slow shutter speeds results in camera blur. The image looks unclear, without sharpness and the out line of the subject is not well-defined when there is a camera shake.

This is a big challenge if you are a nature/wild life/sports/macro photographer using long focal length lenses. Lenses with built-in tripod collars (70-200mm, 100-400mm) are supposed to be used on a tripod especially you are shooting in the available light.

The following tips will help us get rid of unwanted camera shake resulting in blurry pictures.

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  1. Use faster shutter speeds possible in a given situation.
  2. Try increasing the ISO sensitivity or larger apertures instead of reducing the shutter speeds in low light conditions when you are not using a tripod.
  3. Choose a shutter speed higher than the reciprocal of focal length of the lens while shooting the camera hand-held. For example, use 1/60 while shooting at 50mm and 1/125 while shooting at 105mm. This does not matter when your camera is on a solid tripod.
  4. Use fast lenses (lenses with wider maximum apertures viz.f/2.8,f/1.4,f/1.2 etc.). Fast lenses will give you scopes to use fast shutter speeds.
  5. Activate IS or VR image stabilization technology of your camera/lens for shooting below the reciprocal principle as mentioned in point 3. This may let you shoot at least two stops lower than the reciprocal principle._MG_0026r
  6. Use sturdy tripods to hold on the weight of your camera plus lens and other accessories perfectly and confirm the camera is not shaking during the exposure.
  7. If you do not have a sturdy tripod, you can try holding the camera firmly by leaning on to a stable support or you can even use a sand bag and set your camera on it.
  8. For very slow shutter speeds and long exposures do not press the shutter release directly with your fingers; instead use the remote shutter release or self timer release.
  9. When shooting in live view mode (both still images and video) hand-held camera operations, use the camera strap on your neck and stretch in front tight to hold the camera steady.
  10. Check your image at 100% magnification level to identify the camera shake. The LCD on the back of your camera cannot give you a clue about camera blur in its normal display.

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Can Tripods be a hassle……?

The tripods always have a special treatment by many authorities monitoring the photography in public places… especially where photography is restricted. Many times they allow top end DSLR cameras and fast lenses but not the ‘tripods’. This may be because that they think tripods are generally used by professional photographers. (Yes, it is true that you feel the pride and status of a professional, when your camera is on a good tripod)

 Some of them even mistake it for deadly weapons like machine guns. Recently when I tried to take a professional heavy duty tripod in to a five star hotel for shooting a high end wedding, I had a tough time in convincing the security personnel that it is a ‘camera stand’ and not a gun. They said that they had not seen any wedding photographer using such accessory in the job. At the end, they were not convinced and I had to leave the tripod in my car.

 On the other hand tripods can be a hassle to carry around with you but they help you take great shots in many ways. There are few accessories I consider that you cannot be without it for making great pictures. The tripod stands first in the list.

Most of the budding photographers talk more about mega pixels of cameras and 12X zoom lenses than about tripods, tripod heads and quick releases. I would always suggest my students to think of buying a solid tripod before they think of buying an expensive long focus telephoto or zoom lenses. An expensive L series (they call it luxury lens) Canon 100 – 400mm, long zoom lens becomes useless for many photography situations if you do not have a proper camera supporting system – “a sturdy Tripod”.

Tripods for a good photographer are similar to helmets for a safe two wheeler rider. Tripods add life to your pictures as helmets save the life. Both of them are difficult to carry, handle and store. Yet, the importance of them will be known only when you forget to use them.

Tripods are generally known to avoid camera shake in the pictures. But for a serious photographer it does a lot more….

Next time, whenever you are shooting something important; do not forget to use a tripod wherever it is possible.

Image info:The image above was shot using a Canon 100-400mm L lens with a Canon 2X Tele converter at 400mm (effectively 800mm) and Canon EOS 5D on a sturdy tripod. F/11, 1/90 seconds, ISO-400, evaluative metering, AV exposure mode, exposure compensated shooting distance 20 meters approx.