Slow It Down – by Jack Kurtz

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People pray in front of Wat That Thong in Ekkamai on Visakha. I used a slow shutter speed so the people in the procession would be blurred and hoped that the people praying would be still (and sharp).
People pray in front of Wat That Thong in Ekkamai on Visakha. I used a slow shutter speed so the people in the procession would be blurred and hoped that the people praying would be still (and sharp). It pretty much worked out the way I had hoped. Exposure ½ second at f9, ISO800. If I had a chance to redo it, I would drop the ISO to 400 and f-stop to f6.7 (one stop wider than f9).

I like to work at the extreme end of exposure settings. That means working with the lens wide open, which for me means f1.2, f1.4, maybe f2 or with a slow shutter speed, 1/60th of a second or slower. I work with shallow f-stops all the time – it’s very seldom that I work at an aperture smaller than f4.

A quick check of the EXIF data in my archive showed that my most used f-stop is f2.8 (19095 exposures) and that of the 150,000 photos in my Bangkok archive 61,880 were made at between f2.8 and f1.2, which seems like a pretty big percentage of photos made at wide open, or close to wide open, f-stops.

That’s with all of my lenses, which includes teleconverters. Eliminate the 5642 photos made with lenses slower than my 200mm f2.8 and the percentage of shallow f-stop photos gets bigger. (Note that I am not that much of an obsessive compulsive. Lightroom makes it very easy to  keep track of your pictures by all sorts of esoteric metrics including aperture and shutter speed.)

I also like to work at slower shutter speeds, to introduce motion blur. The usual way to do this is to “pan” with you subject so the subject is sharp but the rest of the photo is blurred.

Giddy up. A photo from a rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada. A slow shutter speed combined with some flash and a little panning made this picture work. I made this on film so I don't have the exact exposure recorded.
Giddy up. A photo from a rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada. A slow shutter speed combined with some flash and a little panning made this picture work. I made this on film so I don’t have the exact exposure recorded.

I don’t use slow shutter speeds exclusively for panning though. I also use slow shutter speeds to isolate the subjects in my photos, in the same way I use shallow f stops. In the photo at the top, for example, I wanted the people praying to stand out as the others walked in the procession around them.

A monk walks with his fellow monks in a procession around Wat That Thong on Visakha.
A monk walks with his fellow monks in a procession around Wat That Thong on Visakha. Exposure ¼ of a second at f7.1 and ISO800.

The hardest part about working at slow shutter speeds is controlling camera blur. The rule of thumb is that you should use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of your focal length to prevent camera blur (i.e. a 200mm lens would require 1/200th of a second, a 50mm lens 1/60th of second and so on). When you start working at really slow shutter speeds, below 1/15th of a second, camera blur becomes an issue, even with a wide angle lens. One way to fix this is to use a tripod. When I know I’m going to be working at slow shutter speeds I carry a little Manfrotto pocket tripod but I very seldom carry a full size tripod when I’m photographing a public event. Using a tripod at Wat That Thong on Visakha would have been practically impossible. It was simply too crowded.

There are other ways you can control camera blur. Rest the camera against something solid, like a wall or a beer bottle or hold your breath while squeezing the shutter button.

A picture made in a bar in Havana, Cuba. I rested my camera, in this case a Contax G2 film camera, on top of a bottle of beer and used the beer as an impromptu tripod. Ektachrome 100VS slide film (ISO100), exposure unrecorded.
A picture made in a bar in Havana, Cuba. I rested my camera, in this case a Contax G2 film camera, on top of a bottle of beer and used the bottle as an impromptu tripod. Ektachrome 100VS slide film (ISO100), exposure unrecorded.

Lately, I’ve been using the Image Stabilization built into my camera body to help with slow shutter speed photos. It’s not perfect, but it helps me get acceptably sharp photos at slow shutter speeds.

Some camera manufacturers build the IS into the body, some build it into the lenses. Which is better? In lens IS is theoretically better because the image stabilization can be fine tuned to the lens. It also makes lenses a lot more expensive. The Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L series zoom without Image Stabilization is about $1,500 US, the same lens with Image Stabilization is a breathtaking $2,500. Image Stabilization built into the body means you have IS with all of your lenses, not just the really expensive ones, so I fall into the IS in the body camp.

The best thing to do is experiment with your camera and how you use it. One of the joys of working digitally is that you can review your work as you go, so you can experiment all day long. Experiments that don’t work out aren’t failures, they’re learning experiences.