Slow shutter speeds and long exposure shots can add magic and wonder to your photography. Here's what it is and how to get started.

Many photographers, including professionals, use different shutter speeds to create all kinds of artistic effects in their photos. Everyone, even beginner photographers, of course, knows that fast shutter speeds are needed to prevent the object in the frame from getting blurred (for example, a person in a portrait shot with a slow shutter speed may have four eyes instead of two - or your hand will wobble, or the portrayed person will move). And if you take a picture of a moving object with a slow shutter speed, the resulting image will have a characteristic trail behind it.

What Is a Slow Shutter Speed?

One of the most creative aspects of photography is the ability to control the shutter speed. And while faster shutter speeds can create impactive stop motion images, slower shutter speeds can capture motion in an entirely different way. You’ve probably seen photos with streaking clouds, smoothly flowing water, light trails from cars, and star trails in the sky — all of these shots are taken by using a slow shutter speed. 

The way it works is that the longer your shutter stays open, the more light and information it can capture over time. This means that stationary objects will remain sharp and clear while moving objects (including lights) will blur, smear, or be hazed out moving. With a slow shutter speed, you can reveal the paths that bright objects have taken, make darker moving elements disappear (like people), or turn rapidly flowing water into glass or mist. 

Mastering slow shutter speeds and long exposure will take a bit of practice, but with it you can add some serious magic to your shots.  All you’ll need to start is a camera that allows you to shoot in shutter priority mode and/or manual mode, a tripod, and a cable release. (You’ll need the tripod and cable release to allow your camera to record the long exposures without a camera shake).

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When & Where Should Start

Many beginning photographers think that the secret to good shots is short shutter speeds. The most literate know that it should be at least one divided by the focal length of the lens you're shooting with. But in fact, there are a number of subjects and technical solutions that allow you to create interesting and unusual results using slow shutter speed photography tricks.

1. Water Movement

One of the easiest things to start out with is water. Water can be captured in a variety of ways, from the relatively “fast” slow shutter speed of 1/5 of a second to 30 seconds or more. The longer the exposure, the smoother or glassier the water will become. If you want to keep some idea of the water’s movement in the image yet feather out the flows, choose something close to 1/5 of a second:

Slow Shutter Speed Photography | Skylum Blog(3)1/5 sec, ISO 200, f/5. Taken in shutter priority mode Photo Credit: Teryani Riggs

With slow shutter speed photos, it is easy to see the dynamics of stars in the black night sky and clouds in the blue sky during daytime hours. Slow shutter speeds also show us the trajectory of raindrops and - you won't believe it - even sunlight! 

2. Movement at Night

Other easy first subjects to experiment with include just about anything moving at night that radiates light: cars, ferris wheels, and fireworks. City highways with a huge number of cars in the evening are amazed by the number of lights, so these are ideal examples of slow shutter speeds. A long exposure shows their movement as solid lines. Sometimes you get the feeling that these are drawn pictures, but no - it is quite real to take such pictures.

In fact, many of the most awesome long-exposure photographs capture brightly lit objects moving against a dark background. And what stunning landscapes you get when you shoot them at a slow shutter speed at night!

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3. Movement n Portrait Photography

When are long shutter speed photos possible and even necessary? First of all, you can use slow shutter speeds to take portraits in low-light conditions. When you use slow shutter speeds the amount of light on the sensor will increase tremendously and the picture will look noticeably brighter. With slow shutter photography, you can shoot a portrait with a partially dynamic subject. For example, a beautiful girl in front of a moving train in the subway. The train will be prettily blurred, and the sitter herself will look great against the blurry plume that the train will turn into.

Slow Shutter Photography Techniques

Of course, good photos with a slow shutter speed are difficult to take without practice. Therefore, before you plan to realize a certain idea, it is better to experiment and try a few techniques, figuring out the camera settings. This is the first step, without which you can't do without.

Working In Shutter Priority Mode

If you’re new to working with slower shutter speeds, try starting out with shutter priority mode. All you have to do is set the shutter speed and the ISO—the camera will take care of the aperture. (You should set the ISO well within the range of your camera’s native ISO--usually 400 or less.) There will probably come a time, though, when you want to control the aperture as well. That’s when you need to switch to manual mode.

Using Manual Mode

In manual mode you’re responsible for both the aperture and the shutter speed; the overall exposure of the shot will be solely up to you. If your camera has a light meter built into it or you have your own handheld, a great starting point is to: 

  1. Set your ISO to your camera’s lowest native ISO—usually around 100. (That’s where your camera sensor is least sensitive to light and will need more of it to properly expose.)
  2. Set your aperture to one of its smallest settings—depending on the camera that could be anywhere from f/22 to f/32. The smaller the aperture, the more light that is needed.
  3. Check your camera’s light meter and set the shutter speed accordingly.

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The Magic of 10-stop ND Filters

To go beyond what your camera can do in shutter priority or manual mode, consider investing in a 10-stop neutral density (ND) filter. This dark little piece of glass can really take your landscapes to the next level. It fools your camera into thinking the scene before you is much darker than it actually is, allowing you to get much longer exposure times while remaining properly exposed. Before attaching it to your lens, you’ll need to focus and set your aperture (you can do this in aperture priority mode). Once you attach the filter, switch to manual mode and increase your shutter speed by about 10 stops (30 clicks). It takes some experimentation to get it right, but once you nail it, the results are well worth it—especially for seascapes or other landscapes with flowing water or moving clouds.

Slow Shutter Speed Photography | Skylum Blog(6)13 sec, ISO 200, f/8. Taken with a 10-stop ND filter.Photo credit Teryani Riggs

Recommended Gear for Long Exposure Photography

To properly use a slow shutter speed, you need to set the lens aperture to an appropriate value depending on the subject you are shooting. However, you will need to prepare a few things before you can start doing slow shutter speed pictures.


This accessory will help avoid a camera shake in your hands, which is almost unavoidable if you're not shooting with a fast shutter speed. Modern tripods are quite compact, but it's better to choose lightweight models that will be convenient and not at all difficult to take with you on trips.


It is better to pay attention to models with a fixed focal length - you will immediately appreciate the difference with zooms. Many people prefer to buy a lens from the same company as their camera. However, using adapters makes it possible to use almost any model. We advise you to pay attention to lenses from Nikon and Canon.

Filters and Reflectors

Useful accessories. For example, artificial light sources are useful for photo shoots at night, and filters can help add a twist to your photos.

A good tip for beginners - be sure to bring a neutral gray filter for slow pictures. It's very effective, especially when you want to visually reduce the amount of light in your finished photos. Usually, filters are selected according to the diameter of the lens.

In conclusion

Many photographers, especially beginners, neglect the power of shutter speed control. More often than not, they set the aperture and use the shutter speed only to compensate to get a normal exposure. We've told you how you can use slow shutter speeds for creativity. However, you should always know what you are shooting, why you are doing it, and what results from a slow shutter speed picture you can expect.

Once you’ve practiced these slow shutter speed techniques for a while, you’re bound to find a new element of pizzazz entering your shots. Experiment away and watch the magic happen!

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