Shutter speed is a critical component of the exposure triangle, along with aperture and ISO. If you want to get the best quality photos you will need to understand exposure and how each element of the triangle impacts the others. Shutter speed can also be used in landscape and nature photography to create some interesting and powerful effects.
In this article we’ll look at seven different ways that you can use shutter speed creatively.
1. Freezing Movement
Many landscape photos will involve no movement. But when you are photographing a scene that includes water there will always be some movement. Whether it is a slow-moving creek or a raging river, the shutter speed that you use will have a great impact on the end result.
By using a fast shutter speed you can essentially freeze the movement. In landscape photography this can be put into practice to capture a wave splashing up after hitting a rocky coast, or to show the power of a mighty waterfall.
Fast shutter speeds may also be needed in windy conditions when plants, flowers, and foliage are being blown by the wind.
The exact shutter speed you’ll need will depend on the situation and how fast the movement is. The faster the movement, the faster the shutter speed you will need to freeze it. For a fast shutter speed you may need to use a large aperture (small f-stop number), or possibly increase the ISO.
2. Blurring Water
Waterfalls are a favorite subject for many landscape photographers. Often, photos of waterfalls will look the best when there is a soft blurred look created by using a slower shutter speed. This can also apply to smaller cascades on a creek, or a moving stream or river.
If the water is flowing quickly you won’t need to slow down the shutter speed too much in order to get this silky look to the water. You will need a tripod to keep the camera steady, but in many cases by using a small aperture (high f-stop number) and a low ISO you can slow down the shutter speed enough to get the look that you want.
I usually start by trying a test photo at a 1-second shutter speed, check it, and then adjust from there. In bright light you may need to use a neutral density filter in order to slow down the shutter speed without overexposing the photo. Many waterfalls are shaded by trees or deep canyon walls, so in these cases you likely won’t need a neutral density filter to get the soft, blurred look. For the photo above I used a 1.6-second exposure with a circular polarizer, but no neutral density filter.
3. Dramatic Skies
Utilizing long exposures can be a great way to show the movement of clouds and to capture photos with dynamic and dramatic skies. You can use a neutral density filter to help reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, allowing you use the slow shutter speed.
Neutral density filters come in different strengths. The specifics of what neutral density filter and what shutter speed you will need will depend on the amount of movement in the sky, the amount of light, and the effect that you are after. If you have a 10-stop neutral density filter try a 20 or 30-second exposure, check it, and adjust it as needed. In the photo above, Ben Perrin used a 58-second exposure to create a very dramatic sky.
To learn more about this technique see the Guide to Long Exposure Landscape Photography.
4. Star Trails
One great way to get really interesting landscape/nature photos is to photograph the night sky and star trails. This technique takes a little bit of practice, as well as planning to be sure you find a dark sky and the right weather conditions.
For very detailed information, see this star trails photography tutorial.
5. Light Trails
With a lot of landscape photography you will want to avoid having cars in your shots. But long exposures at night can create interesting effects with the headlights of cars passing through the scene.
The best light trail photos include a landscape that has some intrigue. Don’t rely exclusively on the light trails to make the photo interesting. Also, think about the lines and paths that will be created by the light trails and try to use them to create a solid composition.
For instructions on this technique see How to Shoot Light Trails.
6. Abstracts with Intentional Blur
Of course, sharpness is one of the goals with most landscape photos. However, blurred photos can also create an interesting abstract look. You can achieve this look by using a slower shutter speed and a small amount of movement while taking the photo.
This approach usually involves some experimentation. Slow down your shutter speed a bit, move the camera while taking the photo, check the results and adjust as needed. In the photo above, Mark Lopiccola used a half-second expsoure and some movement to create the abstract look.
Photo Tip: Blurry Trees provides some simple advice and guidance on this subject.
7. Panning Wildlife
Panning is a technique used to photograph moving subjects. You move your camera along with the movement of the subject, and the result is a relatively sharp subject with a blurred background. It is a great way to emphasize the movement of wildlife.
The key is using it in the right situation. The subject should be moving parallel to you, not towards you or away from you.
Kruger-2-Kalahari has a good introductory guide to panning in wildlife photography.
Shutter speed is a really powerful tool for photographers. If you’re shooting landscapes or nature photos and you’re looking for a way to add a unique touch, consider the possibilities covered above. Experiment and try something new. You may just love the results.
Special thanks to Marc Andre for this article. Marc is a landscape photographer living in Pennsylvania, and the editor of LoadedLandscapes.com.