Having a camera that will let you vary the shutter speed can greatly enhance your photography and add movement to pictures, especially at slow speeds. Here John Freeman guides you through everything you need to know about slow shutter speeds.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - ClockOn many cameras, especially SLR models, there is the facility to adjust the shutter speed. Far from being irrelevant – after all, it’s all too easy to set the camera to auto and let it get on with choosing the shutter speed and aperture settings – the shutter speed can create effects that will add dynamism to your pictures. On most cameras with this facility, the shutter speed ranges from about 1 second up to 1/1000th second; at the very top of the range, shutter speeds can vary from 30 seconds up to 1/8000th second.

On the camera there may be another setting, B, which stands for ‘bulb’. If you set the shutter dial to this, the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release button is depressed. Thus very long exposures can be taken. However, when using this setting with digital cameras, you need to be careful with any areas of extremely bright light, as these can do permanent damage to the sensor.

Creating Movement

I took this shot for a recruitment agency to illustrate the rat race. I chose a viewpoint above the platform and, with the camera on a tripod, I waited for the rush hour train to arrive. I set the shutter speed at 1/8sec and took a series of shots as the commuters disembarked. At this speed they are distinguishable as people, but blurred, giving a sense of great movement as they appear to scurry off to work!

Top Tip

Fairgrounds make great subjects for slow shutter speed shots. The mass of colourful, moving lights record as blurred streaks of colour. Ferris wheels are a particular favourite. Experiment with different shutter speed settings for the best results.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Movement

Night time

A slow shutter speed is also preferable when shooting at night. Look at this picture of Harrods, the famous store in London. The foreground of the shot is taken up by the road that passes in front of the shop. I could have waited until later when there would have been hardly any traffic. However, I have used this to my advantage by recording the trails of light from the passing vehicles to fill up what would otherwise have been a dead area. In this case I used a shutter speed of one second.

Slow sync flash

Another benefit of using a slow shutter speed is when you are using flash. If you combine a situation where there is a certain amount of ambient light with flash and a shutter speed of 1/15 or 1/8sec, your subject will be mainly sharp, but the surrounding area of the background will have a degree of ‘movement’ in it, due to camera shake, as is the case here of a participant in the carnival at Rio.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Carnival

On Parade

For this picture of marching soldiers I placed the camera on a rigid surface (I used a wall but I could have used railings, a parking meter or a traffic bollard, for instance) and chose a shutter speed of 1/15sec. This meant that the soldiers have come out very slightly blurred but has given the distinct impression that they are on the move, whereas the shot taken at 1/125th second (left) has a static quality and looks boring by comparison.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Parade


If you use a fast shutter speed when photographing a moving subject the picture will appear to be quite static because the action will be ‘frozen’. In certain situations this can mean that it is difficult to see whether the subject is moving or is standing still. A far better technique is to pan the camera and use a slower shutter speed, such as 1/60sec. You then move the camera (pan) in line with the moving subject, then take your shot when it is directly in front of you. The result will mean the subject is sharp but the background is blurred. If however, the subject has vertical movement when you are panning the camera in a horizontal direction, it too will be unsharp. This vertical movement can be seen in the dog’s legs, and adds even more to the impression of speed and action than if everything had been recorded pin-sharp, which would have been the case had I been using a fast shutter speed.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Greyhound

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds – How to Simulate Motion

The effect of movement can be easily achieved on your PC in Photoshop in just a few steps. The principle behind the technique is to blur the image with the motion blur filter and then restore the focal subject’s sharpness, creating the illusion of a speeding background.

Step One

With your image open, draw a path around your focal subject that you wish to retain as sharp. Make sure that you get in tight around the edges and don’t miss out bits.

Step Two

Make the path a selection from the paths palette and then copy and paste the subject onto a new layer.

Step Three

Hide the new layer for a moment. On the original layer, use the clone tool to erase as much of the focal subject as possible. (This is because when the blur filter is applied, we don’t want any of the focal subject seeping out into the image.)

Step Four

Select the motion blur filter from the filter menu. In this example we chose Radial/Zoom. Apply the filter to the entire image.

Step Five

Reveal the top layer containing your focal subect, use the Hue & Saturation command to make final colour tweaks.

Moving Photographer

I took a ride in a Tuk Tuk while I was shooting in Bangkok. This is easily the best way to get around the city and I wanted to give an idea of what the ride was like. The vibration is quite something. To begin with I shot at a fast shutter speed but this really did not convey the hair-raising ride that I was taking.

When I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/15th of a second, as shown in the picture on the right, the reality of the ride was so much better portrayed.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Moving

Moving Train

For this shot of an express passenger train I chose a deliberately low angle and selected a 1/8sec shutter speed. As soon as the train was alongside me I took the shot. The front of the train which was nearest to me is now blurred, but the rear of the train, although moving at the same speed, appears sharp and helps us define exactly what it is. If I had used a slower shutter speed the whole train would have been blurred and it would have been difficult to distinguish what type of train it was.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Train

Moving water

I had to clamber down a ravine to shoot this waterfall (below). I took shot ‘A’ with a shutter speed of 1/500sec. This has virtually ‘frozen’ the water and resulted a very static shot. By having the camera on a tripod to keep it steady I then chose a shutter speed of 1/4sec. This gives a feeling of movement to the water by blurring it. It now seems to be cascading over the rocks with more force, and it also appears to add a degree of tranquility to the overall composition.

Top Tip

For great moving water shots, head for the coast. The constant ebb and flow of the tide makes for a great subject for slow shutter speed effects.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds - Water

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds – Useful Gear

An SLR Or Advanced Compact

You need a camera which offers a good range of manually controllable slow shutter speeds, preferably beyond a second in duration.


This will keep the camera steady so that the parts of your shot that aren’t moving will remain sharp.

Cable Release

Often when using slow shutter speeds the camera can move – even when it is on a tripod – when you press the shutter release button. A cable release will ensure a smooth action.


Essential for slow sync flash shots. A dedicated unit offers more precise exposure control.

Neutral Density Filter

If you’re shooting in bright daylight it isn’t always possible to use a slow shutter speed without overexposing your shot. A neutral density filter placed over the lens will help to cut down the required exposure.

Guide to Slow Shutter Speeds – John’s Top Tips

  1. 1. Use the Shutter Priority mode on your camera. This lets you select the shutter speed while the camera takes care of selecting the aperture.
  2. 2. The slower the shutter speed, the more indistinct your subject will be. If you use an extremely slow speed your subject could disappear altogether.
  3. 3. If there is too much light, use the lowest ISO setting or fit a neutral density filter to the lens.
  4. 4. Although you can place your camera on a wall or brace yourself against some suitable object to keep the camera steady, there is no substitute for a good tripod.
  5. 5. Remember that when using shutter speeds in excess of 1 second the drain on the camera’s battery can be considerable; so make sure that you have a reserve battery.
  6. 6. Long exposures can result in grainy or noisy images. If your camera has it, set the noise reduction mode to reduce this.