Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Your camera’s shutter speed, especially at its extremes of very fast—say 1/8000 of a second—can stop the fastest things man has made. And by using very long exposures, such as 30 seconds or more, your camera can gather enough faint light to reveal tens of thousands more stars than you’ve even seen before. This ability to choose shutter speeds that can reveal things the human eye alone cannot see gives us a tremendous artistic tool. 


When dealing with action most amateurs usually just go to a fast shutter speed and freeze the subject and that’s fine. It’s easy to do, but after a while these “action” images all look the same. 

My philosophy on action photography, having done all kinds of sports photography for these past 40 years, is to only freeze extreme action at peak moments and to imply motion with the slow shutter speed (probably the most artistic use of shutter speed) when I can.

When do I use fast vs. slow shutter speeds?

Two factors determine this: the Speed of the Subject and (very important) Direction of Travel relative to your camera. Subjects that are moving across your film plane (or Perpendicular to your lens axis) are the ideal subjects for using a slow shutter speed (1/60 sec., or slower) while you pan your camera following the action as the subject speeds by. This takes practice and the slower the shutter speed the harder it is to do, but the results can be very artistic…

Title: Warped Speed — 1/60 sec., f16.0; ASA 125
This image of (King) Kenny Roberts I caught, at the San Jose Mile, in 1971 on Plus X (B&W) 35mm film. At the speed he’s going (about 120mph) I was comfortable using 1/60 sec., and knowing that he and the motorcycle chassis would be sharp, but the wheels would empty out (not freezing the spokes) and the background would streak nicely.  

Then two more steps followed:
  • I hand toned (Edwals Print Toner) the B&W print.
  • Then I “scanned” that 8x10 print using a Kodak color copier to intensify the red followed by a Stretch Mode that egg-shapped the bike’s wheels giving me my “Warped Speed” effect!
You see there were creative possibilities of this nature BEFORE Photoshop. I guess I was ahead of my time since this image won awards in PSA (Photographic Society of America) print competitions and later in National awards at PPA (Professional Photographers of America) convention.

Subjects Traveling Towards or Away from you:

Subjects speeding directly towards or away from your camera can be stopped at a much slower shutter speed than those subjects moving across your “film” plane. Here’s an example…

1/500sec., @ f10.0 ISO 400
I probably could have stopped the boy with a much slower shutter speed here because he was slowing down (at the end of the slip-n-slide) but the water that he was pushing was accelerating and I wanted the water to look solid.

Freezing Peak Action:

When photographing extreme action that is un-predictable such as a rodeo (I call this Chaotic Action!) there’s not as much opportunity for panning, so I usually use high shutter speeds and look for unusual peak moments.  Because rodeo’s action is so intense and unpredictable I use even faster shutter speeds than I do in motorsports.

Talk about chaotic action….

1/2500 sec., @ f5.0, ISO 800; lens @ 200mm
As I said earlier in Part 2 (ISO) of this series, I used the ISO I need to get me to the f-stop/shutter speed combination I want. Bumping up my ISO to 800 was necessary to use 1/2500 sec., and at f5.0 I’m not stopped down much. However, with my lens at 200mm I got plenty of Depth-of-Field because I was backed-off quite a ways.

Slow Shutter Speed Pans:

I’ve always been disappointed when I’ve seen photos of race cars or motorcycles (or any motorsports) on the race track looking like they were parked there because the photographer did the lazy thing and just used a high shutter speed—Boring! Enter the practiced art of panning with your subject at slow shutter speeds.  

I discovered many decades ago that panning worked best in motorsports (or any sport on a track) where the action is predictable. To get a high yield in panning action you need to know the direction of travel of your subject and where they’re coming into your frame and leaving, so you can smoothly follow through as you rotate your body following the action.

Here’s one with a pretty slow shutter speed…

1/15 sec., @ f16.0, ISO 400

My panning rotation is nearly 180° from when I first see the racers coming towards me. Then I click the shutter when they are at the 90° point (directly in front of me), which is their closest point relative to me. I then keep panning (the follow through) even after I click the shutter. The panning follow through is important—especially a slow shutter speeds like 1/15 sec., as in this image—because the pan creates the horizontal lines and streaks in the background. And, to make those lines and streaks smooth and straight across the image you need to keep the camera moving the entire time the shutter is open.

My pans of race cars and motorcycles are usually at 1/60th or 1/30th sec. for a nice crisp subject. Using 1/15 sec. yields a more radical, artistic look because you get some “juggle—blur” in the subject as seen here because these flat track bikes are on a dirt track and are sliding and bouncing as they approach a turn at 100+ MPH!


The following image is combining Light Painting with Motionless Stars (the Milky Way). When doing this I want two things:
  1. Enough time to do my light painting (with a flash light).
  2. I want the star field to be sharp, appearing motionless and NOT Streaking.

To do this you need a very wide angle lens (that’s pretty fast-like f2.8) along with a long shutter speed and a pretty hight ISO!

The best formula I’ve seen to determine the longest shutter speed with a given focal length for the best image quality is: 450 divided by the lens focal length (in millimeters) equals the longest exposure time in seconds for that lens. It worked; here are my results…

 30 sec., @ f2.8 ISO 3200; Lens 15mm
So, with my Canon 5D MK II using my Canon 15mm f2.8 Fisheye lens the calculation is: 450 ÷ 15 = 30 seconds.

That calculation will only give me the TIME I need and SHARP STARS and NOT the proper exposure for the scene.  That YOU must work out based on what your camera’s imaging quality is at high ISO’s and the aperture you want to use.

NOTE: This formula is only exact for Full-Frame, 35mm format. If you’re using an APS-C sized camera sensor, with its narrower angle of view, you much reduce the shutter time. (See link at the end of this article for everything about night sky photography.)

As you can tell I really have fun with Extreme shutter speeds in my fine art. I urge you to push the boundaries of your artistic tools and create art!

The next part in this series will be a wrap-up…’Til next week…

Site Info Mentioned Above:  http://www.intothenightphoto.blogspot.com

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

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