December 20, 2014

12 Days of Tips #10: Holiday Photos & Shutter Speed

Last tip we looked at the effects of aperture on holiday photos and how you can use aperture priority mode to your advantage.  Today we’ll look at shutter speed, how it relates to aperture, and how it can be used in creative ways during the holidays. Remember, the goal here is to avoid the use of the pop-up flash whenever possible as it not only cast unflattering light on the subject but also kills the mood by overpower the ambient light.

Motion of any kind in low light situations can often cause blurry subjects or entirely blurry photos. The main causes of motion are camera shake and subject movement.  One method to overcome these issues is to use a faster shutter speed.  Camera shake occurs when the photographer and thus the camera move during the shot. A tripod is the obvious way of preventing camera shake, but it’s not always practical. A good rule of thumb for preventing camera shake when shooting handheld is to use a shutter speed that is equal to or greater than your lens focal length.  For example if you are using a 50mm lens your shutter speed should be 1/50th or faster. If you’re shooting with a lens zoomed to 80mm your shutter speed should be 1/80th of a second or faster.  On Canon set your dial to Tv (for Time Value) on Nikon use S (for Shutter), then dial in the appropriate setting.  Keep in mind that these are the bare minimum shutter speeds to get a relatively sharp image.  There’s no guarantee that every shot will be blur free but it’s a good minimum starting point.  Obviously the faster the shutter speed the better, within reason. Though it’s hard to tell with these web sized versions below the second image shows minor signs of camera shake, while the first does not.  Both were using the same settings.

Slow shutter speed example - no blur

1/125th, 100mm, f/2.0, ISO 320
photo by Photography

Slow shutter speed example - motion blur

1/125th, 100mm, f/2.0, ISO 320
photo by Photography

Subject motion is a little trickier to deal with since it depends how fast the subject is moving.  Your best bet in this area is to simply instruct the subjects to stay as still as possible.  Easier said than done, right? Another option is to set your camera to continuous (aka burst) mode and take several quick shots in a row, then keep the one with the least motion blur. While the ‘spray and pray’ method isn’t typically recommended it can save you when you’re in these tricky low light shooting situations and don’t have any other option.

Slow shutter speed example

1/40th, 30mm, f/1.4, ISO 2500
photo by Photography

Yet another option is to use the motion blur to your advantage.  If a child is opening presents and their body is relatively still (thus sharp) but their hands are moving quickly (thus blurry) it can convey a sense of action and excitement.

Using your own motion can create some neat effects as well.  Try pointing your camera at the holiday lights, setting a slow shutter speed (5 seconds to start) and either zooming the lens in/out or moving the camera around.  Instant laser light show! When using the zoom approach a tripod works best to ensure that the other objects in the scene are clear.

Christmas tree lights with zoom blur Christmas tree lights with motion blur

Obviously with many of the above examples we could also boost the ISO in order to get faster shutter speeds, but that will increase noise and is typically a last resort once you’ve hit the limits with shutter speed and/or aperture or don’t want to budge them for creative reasons. A wider aperture is often the first step in getting as much light in a possible and most of the examples here are shot ‘wide open’ at the lenses maximum aperture.

Here are a couple more examples of slow shutter speed, handheld photography.

Slow shutter speed example - snow covered bridge

1/25th, 30mm, f/1.4, ISO 800
photo by Photography

Slow shutter speed example - snow covered tree with falling snow

1/60th, 30mm, f/2.8, ISO 400
photo by Photography

In the last image is a bit of a cheat since flash was used to lightly the tree and the falling snow, which has the side effect of freezing motion. More on that topic later.

Register for one of our Exposure 101 – 104 introductory series to learn about ExposureAperture PriorityShutter Priority and even Manual mode so you can take control of your shots!

Last but not least we have todays prize. A beautiful decorative vintage camera mobile! Great for jazzing up your workspace or hanging above your child’s crib so you can get them hooked while they’re young :)

Vintage Camera Mobile


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Photography, Tips