Playing with the shutter speed

Color photo of Kuang Xi waterfall near Luang Prabang, Laos

Playing with the shutter speed

Like I say in all the workshops I do, I think it is more interesting playing with the aperture and the depth of field in travel photography (so shooting Av mode or manual). With the shutter speed, and unless you are an artist (!), you are restricted to play with it only when things are moving (moving subject or background or else). But the shutter speed also offers some great opportunities that I will try to describe here.

North Vietnam minority in a windy field


First, I just want to make sure that you understand the options you have for modifying your shutter speed. The basic of course would be to switch to Shutter priority (Tv with Canon) and set up your speed. Just be careful as you may under or over expose your photo, if your aperture and ISO cannot keep up (for the late arrivals, check out the article on reciprocity in photography). If you set up a shutter speed of 20 seconds in Vietnam burning sun, you sensor will not be very happy about it.

You could also switch to manual mode and set up your shutter speed and aperture, if you feel confident enough to get a correct exposure in every new situation you encounter. Remember that things can go quite fast in travel photography (yes, again, the old woman on a bicycle!). Though I think for night time situations, Manual is much more convenient as the camera is often confused by bright lights and dark areas, and struggles to set a correct exposure in Av or Tv mode.

[pullquote align=”left or right”]Staying in Aperture priority is also a very good way to control and play with our shutter speed, without the risk of under or over exposing our photo[/pullquote]




Switching to aperture mode is I think a really good way to play with your shutter speed and making sure that your photo remains correctly exposed. Having a small aperture will give you a longer shutter speed, whereas a big aperture will give you a faster shutter speed. But unless you play with the exposure compensation, your photo will remain correctly exposed.

There is one thing which is I think the best to practice with our shutter speed: kids! Set yourself in a location where lots of kids are running around and playing, and you’ll have hundreds of potential exercises for your shutter speed.
A basic exercise to understand how it works: set up your camera on the floor, so it is steady or if you have a tripod, better!). If your shutter speed is too slow, still your photo won’t be blurry as the camera is not moving. Start with a big aperture, an you will be able to “freeze” your subjects. Now begin to close your aperture (below 5.6) and see how your shutter speed gets slower, coming near the 1/60th of a second limit (of course it will depend on the light and your ISO). Now, the kids who are moving fast get all blurry, bu the ones steady are still sharp, as well as your background/foreground. Yes, there it gets very interesting.
At some points, while closing your aperture more, only the kids who are absolutely not moving (yes I heard that exists) are sharp, all the other completely blurry.

panned photo of 3 Vietnamese women

3 women taking fish from the water on a panning shot

This works for normal people as well, even though they move a bit less than kids, and are less willing to run back and forth in front of your camera while jumping around. Try this on different situations, objects (cars, trains, motorbikes) and places (crowded train station, busy street, etc…) until you come up with a great shot.

Another thing we can do is play with our long shutter speed (long exposure) for landscape photography. By the way, have a look at great landscape photographers’ websites, and you will see that the long exposure is used most of the time. Particularly for our stereotyped English photographer friends shooting sunrises and sunsets on a beach, along a cliff. The long exposure allows to play and add texture to the moving water and clouds. Looking nice, indeed! But, as you may think, how can we do long exposures during the day? Well there are some filters for that (ND filters) that will be used to darken the situation and avoid overexposing your photo. I personally use a 10 stop filter, which allows me to easily have 30 seconds exposure in the middle of the day.

Long exposure of a palm tree in Hoi An



[pullquote align=”left or right”]”Use ND filters to allow you to do long exposures during the day”.[/pullquote]

I usually wait for a windy and sunny day, get my tripod and find a nice wall with trees and strong colors. Also nice if there are clouds, or water, as it will pick up some nice textures when moving.


A slow shutter speed also allows you to do the Panning. Such a nice and fun thing to do in South East Asia that it has its own post!


So, playing with a slow shutter speed is fun. But generally, if it is bright enough, your shutter speed will be faster. This is a very good opportunity to try and “freeze” things moving fast, like water splashing or cars or planes. People are having a lot of fun to try and freeze water drops in a studio, adding paint and color into it. It does look cool I must say. But in travel photography, you have to work with what you have.

2 girls playing a game in Vietnam




Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

1 Comment

  1. Pics of Asia » The ISO settings on August 9, 2012 at 3:39 am

    […] Playing with slow shutter speeds will also create some nice effects with moving things (waterfall, river, clouds, tourists in the streets of Hoi An!). But it is not recommended for a night portrait, so the high ISO will be needed then. […]

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