Monday, January 16, 2006

Understanding Shutter Speed

By Christina VanGinkel

I have been browsing through my photos and two pictures that I took this past fall, of my husband and grandson at a local park have intrigued the learning photographer within me. My grandson is holding onto a bar at the playground that slides, while my husband is in the background, just a step behind him, ready to grab him if he were to let go, so that he would not fall. The first picture, my husband is somewhat blurred as he was stepping forward when I snapped the shutter to capture the moment. The second picture, even though I know they are moving, there is no blur, the photo captured them both perfectly, big smiles, and all in place. The difference was the shutter speed. I had been complaining to a friend who has a lot more experience behind the lens than I ever will about how hard it can be to capture pictures of my family when they are in the throws of activities. That I often end up with nothing but a big blur. I went on to tell her that I know if I tried for the same result, I would never be able to duplicate it, yet that every time we headed to the park, or even out in the yard, that many of my pictures were good for nothing more than the delete button. That is when she gave me a quick primer on the shutter settings.

Knowing that I have a hard time taking in directions for anything unless I have a visual to either see or at the least, imagine, she came up with a very good example for me to use as a comparison in my mind. She went on to tell me to think of the differences in a picture of an apple sitting on a table with no movement around it. How the shutter had all the time in the world to take the picture as nothing was changing. The apple, the table, the space around them was stationary. She then told me to picture a horse running with its tail in the air and its mane whipping in the wind. How, in order to capture that picture with the same shutter speed that would have been ok with the apple, would be capturing all that movement at once, smashing it into place on the photo, causing the blur that we see. This was starting to make sense. To capture just a small fraction of that movement would require a very fast shutter speed. The fast shutter is more than a blink of an eye. It is what makes a great picture stand out from a ho-hum one. Learning to adjust the shutter speed can open up a completely new world of taking pictures.

She went on to repeat, in terms more related to photography in general, than in comparing apples to horses, what exactly the shutter speed does. A fast shutter can help eliminate the blur that often occurs when taking a photo of a moving subject. Think of it in literal terms. If the shutter is what actually captures the picture as it closes, it has to capture the subject somewhere in mid stride if they are moving. A slow shutter is going to see more movement, thus capturing more blur; where as a fast shutter will close quicker and only capture an instance of the subject, essentially stopping movement if that is your goal. Sometimes blur can be a good thing, or at least part of your goal. For those instances, slow down the shutter speed and blur is what you will most likely get.

She told me that the best way for me to learn what worked and what did not was to experiment with different shutter speeds and using a tripod with the settings, then trying some of the same speeds without a tripod. Even the movement that the camera receives from being handheld will have a definitive mark on the photographs. It is one of those instances where practice does make perfect. With a digital camera, you can practice, practice, and practice some more until you get it right. I still have a lot to learn, but just understanding the principle behind the speed of the shutter is going to make a huge impact on my future photos.

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