Shutter speed, it is one of the variables in the exposure triangle. Aperture, ISO, and shutter speed work together to create a perfectly exposed image. Beyond exposure, each one stands alone to create a desired effect within the photograph. Photographing my kids I crank up my shutter speed and ISO to freeze the fast moving action. When I'm shooting landscape I usually want a considerable amount of depth of field and need extra light to compensate, so I grab my tripod and slow down my shutter speed. However, there is more to a slow shutter speed then just letting in extra light, especially when photographing water. Water has a playful side. Whether still or moving water is seldom not in motion. Water in a stagnant pond will often ripple from the breeze. Tides force calm seas to lap at the shore. Rivers rage as the rain continues to fall. At the ocean, a storm sends wave crashing onto the beach. From serene to turbulent there is an artist quality to how a photographer chooses to capture water. Before we look at examples lets discuss a couple of variables, the velocity of the water and the length of the shutter speed. Understanding how one impacts the other is vital to fulfilling your creative vision. When these variables are combined in an image they will produce different outcomes. Slow moving water photographed at 5 seconds maybe smooth and glassy with lots of reflection where as fast moving water might turn white with little texture. The same fast moving water at half a second may have a creamy appearance with bright and dark areas giving the water complexity and silkiness. Here is where the creative decisions begin. What is the desired effect the water is to play within the image? How does the look of the water enhance the composition? Will the water intensify the mood of the image? Let's look at some examples.
Fast moving ocean water streaks at 1 second while retaining detail and texture in the bubbles.
This image shot at 1.3 seconds allows the viewer to see the different effects shutter speed creates with the water. On the right side of the image fast moving water of the Straits of Juan de Fuca generates a dynamic feel as it crashes against the rock. On the left hand side the water in the tide pools starts to smooth out reflecting the light from the sky.
Six seconds gives the swift incoming tide a polished feel without completely eliminating all the detail in the moving water.
The wild ocean waves begin to turn melancholy as this 8 second exposure slows down the action blending together the surging tide.
Shooting this image for 234 seconds (almost 4 minutes) results in a desolate feel merging details rendering the water featureless and flat.
Now let's take a look at this waterfall and the one below. Both of these waterfalls where photographed at .8 seconds. The results are different, but similar. By photographing the waterfall at under one second I was able to retain some detail in the water while still creating that silky, smooth appearance.
The multiple channels of Sol Duc Falls take on a more substantial quality at 2.5 seconds creating solid, milky curves pulling the viewer beyond the logs in the foreground.
Running cool blue, the 8 second shutter speed slows down the river eliminating distractions allowing the eye to be seduced following the snake like form into the background of the image.
Both of these images where photographed at 15 seconds turning the water silky continuing the sense of peace that envelopes the viewer.
Restfulness comes to the water as this 30 second exposure turns the pond to glass reflecting the colors and shapes of the surrounding forest.
Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Shutter speed is more then a corner on the exposure triangle. It is a paintbrush for photographers to express and create a vision within the images. By understanding how water velocity and shutter speed work together in a composition the image becomes a canvas waiting to be painted or better yet a photograph waiting to be made, not taken.