Shutter Speed

Shutter speed selection is critical in action photography. You must have a fast enough shutter speed to create an acceptable level of sharpness. And it is important to note that most moving subjects have at least two speeds occurring. For instance the dog running across the yard has the speed of his body and the speed at which his legs are moving. If there is enough light you could simply select a shutter speed fast enough to freeze everything.

Sometimes this is a good choice. Like when getting the shot of a football catch. Freezing everything works because there is enough interaction in the seen to convey "action." But usually you don't want to freeze everything because then it looses it's sense of motion. I'll give some examples.


In this image I used a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the bird's body while not completely freezing the motion of the wings. That bit of blur to the wings conveys the speed at which the wings move while they hover relatively stationary. It helps convey the wonder of watching a hummingbird. The shutter speed is relatively high in order to get the main subject as sharp as possible and to limit the amount of wing blur recorded. With too slow of a shutter speed the wings would virtually disappear.


In this image I used a much slower speed in order to capture the motion of the rotor blades. If there had been no blurring to the blades this image would look "stationary" and loose almost all feeling of flight as if were a picture of a toy helicopter on a blue blanket.

There are a few techniques which aid in using a slower speed. One is "panning" and the other is to take the image when everything "stops".  Every time something changes direction it's speed is reduced dramatically. What goes up must come to a stop before it comes back down. I'll discuss this more later.


In this image I used a higher shutter speed because the subject was moving faster. When a subject is moving towards or away from you a higher speed is usually required because you have no other tool to freeze the motion. And even though the subject seems much slower, it is getting larger or smaller on the sensor and this causes subject blurring. Because there is very little going on in this picture, and what is going on is frozen, it suffers. The clouds help put it into the context of "flying", but it's still not a particularly great image.


In this image the subject is moving at about 150mph directly perpendicular to the camera. I could have used a faster Speed and still not have frozen the wheels. The very slow speed was used because I wanted to catch the blur of the water spray. So this image has three speeds occurring. The subject, it's wheels, and the water. Because the subject is moving perpendicular to the camera it has the highest relative speed of any situation. The only thing that allowed me to pull this shot off is panning technique.


When a subject is turning it's speed is actually going in two directions. In this case the subject is moving from left to right, but it is also moving towards the camera. Therefore a higher speed was required.

SO how do you select a shutter speed for a subject? I can't really tell you that, but I can give you some pointers.

If your goal is to freeze the main subject but also capture some motion blur, such as in the wheels spinning, a good starting point is roughly 1/subject speed. Such a slow shutter speed is not adequate to freeze the subject motion so panning is required.

If you are not panning then you should increase the shutter speed at least 10 times that. But such a high shutter speed is much more likely to freeze everything making for a less interesting image.

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