Shutter Speed

The shutter speed of the camera determines how long the film/sensor is exposed. Longer shutter speeds become essential to expose the film longer in low light conditions to get the desired amount of light. This can cause undesirable side effects like motion blur which is caused by the camera shaking while the shutter is open. In most cases, one tried to use the shortest possible shutter speed. However, sometimes having a longer exposure can lead to very interesting effects. Here are a few such effects -

Silky water effects

The silky white waterfall and streams are due to the long exposure. This previous post describes how to achieve a longer exposure for waterfalls.  Here’s an example of the same waterfall shot with 1/2 sec exposure and 1/200 sec exposure.


Fireworks shot with a very fast shutter speed will not get you the complete flower-like photos that you see. These shots are achieved by taking longer exposure shots. Set the shutter speed to about 2 secs to capture a complete explosion of the firework. The shot here was taken with a 1.6 sec exposure. You’ll need a steady tripod to take the photograph. The light meter in your camera is not very useful in these situations since the amount of light changes dramatically between times when there is a skywork bursting in the sky vs when one isn’t. It’s best to switch to full Manual Mode “M” and experiment with a few different apperture settings while keeping the shutter speed fixed to around 2 secs.

Star Trails

Star trails are long exposure shots of the sky at night. Plan the shoot well in advance. You’ll need to be away from the city lights that will polute your photograph through stray light. In the wilderness, the stars appear brighter due to the lower ambient light and this will be reflected in your photographs as well. You’ll also have to pick a no-moon night for the same reason. There are many websites that help figure out the phases & position of the moon on any given date and location. Pray to the weather gods to keep it a clear sky as well.

In terms of equipment, you can pack any lens, a good tripod and a shutter release cable. Set the f-stop so that you have a reasonable large apperture (around f/5.6) is good. With a smaller aperture, you’ll capture very little light when the star is at a particular position. Try a few test shots for 2-5 mins to ensure that the stars are in focus and the composition is okay. The length of the star trails will depend on the length of the exposure. Remember, pointing the camera towards the north or south pole will give circular trails while pointing it towards the equator will give straight lines.

Here are a few examples of star trails -

This startrail by Bala Sivakumar is a great example of a star trail with a long exposure

Many photographers take multiple shorter (20sec) exposures and merge them using a tool like StarStaX.

Emphasizing Motion

When a high shutter speed shot is taken of a fast moving object, it freezes everything. The problem with a very high shutter shot is that the viewer can’t make out the difference between a static object and a moving object since in both cases the subject would have been static in the photo. So photographers often shoot moving objects with a slower shutter speed to show motion. The problem with this would be that the subject would be blurred due to the motion as shown in the left photo below. Photographers avoid this by panning the camera with the moving object. This makes the object seem static with respect to the camera with the background in motion. The photo on the right below is an example of this.


Headlight Trails

Another popular use of the long exposure is for creating trails of car headlight and tail-lights on highways. Pick a spot with a lot of traffic and which is a little higher than the road for this shot. It’s best to wait for it to get dark. Don’t trust your meter and try out a few different exposures. Here’s an example -

Headlight trails by Steve Garry

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