(1/20th @ f2.8 @ 1250 iso)
using slow shutter speeds
I am frequently asked whether I use a tripod at all to help overcome the slow shutter speeds that I often shoot at. The question also often relates to shooting hand-held, below the arbitrary value of 1/60th of a second.
The choice of shutter speed at which you will get a sharp (enough) image will depend on a number of factors, such as how fast your subject is moving and at what angle compared to your camera, and whether you are panning with your subject. And also choice of lens, and camera’s sensor size, and your own ability to hold a camera steady. And luck. And also on how large you want to display the image.
I’m not going to attempt a broad explanation covering every possibility that we’ll encounter as photographers, but answer the question in terms of the work that I do – which is primarily as a portrait and wedding photographer here in New Jersey.
My own preference is for ‘sharp’. I like crisp images, and don’t much like too much motion blur. But this is a personal artistic choice. So I tend to shoot at higher shutter speeds where I can. Part of this is simply because I am not that steady in hand-holding a camera.
And in attaining higher shutter speeds, I tend to use fast optics, or shoot at higher iso settings. Or I just use flash at times to stop motion blur. But there are times when I am shooting in low light, and have to use a slow shutter speed …
Now I know this will aggravate many photographers, and perhaps rightly so .. but I rarely use a tripod. I have two of them that I constantly have in the car (okay, okay .. van) that I travel to shoots with. One of the tripods is a big beast, and the other a super-light carbon-fiber tripod. (Both are made by Manfrotto.)
For most of the photography work that I do, I find that my shooting style is too fast-paced for a tripod, and hampers the fluidity with which I want to work.
So as an alternate to using a tripod, I make do with:
– stabilized lenses,
– being careful in steadying myself, or
– purposely placing my subject such that they are shaded and will be lit by flash.
In this first example, which has appeared elsewhere on these pages:
The piano player is shaded compared to the brighter background. So he was mostly lit by flash .. and this would’ve frozen any camera shake. (The ultra-wide angle lens would also help mask camera shake in this instance.) Any noticeable camera shake would’ve been in the out-of-focus background. ie .. you’d never notice.
(1/15th @ f4 @ 800 iso)
In fact, I use this idea in how I very often specifically set people up in areas where they are shaded in comparison to the background. I then use the instantaneous burst of flash to freeze any noticable camera shake. This next image, an impromptu portrait of my friend Thomas, shows in part how I set out to manipulate such a scenario.
I deliberately positioned him in a darker part outside this venue, and then lit him with bounced flash. In this case, the shutter speed of 1/100th was fairly high, but the technique would’ve worked just as well at a much slower shutter speed – simply because the flash would’ve stopped any noticeable camera shake.
In this image – a candid photo of a mom and her daughter, the flower girl – I was shooting at a slow shutter speed, but knew that the low ambient light would barely register, and therefore flash would stop any camera shake. (The stabilized lens just clinched the deal.)
With this photo below, the background was lit by a (manual) Q-flash triggered with a radio slave, and the foreground is light from a bedside table lamp. To enable the tungsten light to spill enough light onto the bride for the camera to register, I had to use a slow shutter speed of 1/40th (@ f2.8). I controlled how bright my background is, by changing my ISO and aperture … and then I could control how bright the tungsten light would appear in relation to that, by riding my shutter speed.
The slow shutter speed here was possible because I used a stabilized lens. But I also ensured success by shooting a sequence of images. So part of my slow-shutter speed technique, is to make sure I take a series of shots.
Stabilized lenses are essential additions to any camera bag. It enables you to get sharp images under circumstances that would be difficult otherwise. With the image at the top of this posting, the slow shutter speed was just due to the low light levels – and the stabilized lens was crucial.
In this engagement session, I was able to get a slow enough shutter speed (1/20th @ f10) to get the New York taxi cabs to streak past. The stabilized lens was essential here.
Therefore attaining a usable image at a slow shutter speed, is not just down to a single thing that we could do – but a combination of techniques applied with some thought.
35 Comments, Add Your Own
Simple concepts- excellent execution. I was wondering how you seemed to get excellent contrast in the subject of your portraits with such a bright background. Filling the face with flash leaves the outline of the figure darker than the background, giving extremely sharp edges. Can you say, “Pop!” I’ll have to try this trick the next chance I get.
Gotta agree with you on that IS glass point. It’s worth the extra couple of pounds to keep the sharpness up to snuff.
I know you’re using a canon system (at least one of it perhaps) and I see you using f2.8, however what I don’t know is what lens you’re using which has f2.8 and is also IS capable. I recently got a 24-70 2.8L and there’s not an IS version of it. (I would love to get a 2.8 w/ IS though esp for weddings)
AFAIK, the doesn’t seem to be any IS version of a lens w/ f.2.8. (And I highly doubt you’re using a f2.8 17-55 EF-S series)
Unless of course you’re using a prime lens.
3Rod Pascoe says
More invaluable advice again! And for free!
You should charge for advice like this!!!
Thanks for the tips. You are a wealth of information.
thanks for all the knowledge you share. always very helpful and encouraging!
6Jasmine Marie says
Thanks for sharing these great tips. :)
7Rob Pierce says
Canon makes a 70-200mm 2.8L IS, 300mm 2.8L IS and 400mm 2.8L IS.
IS is a plus, but if there isn’t a lens with IS, then just get a fast lens. You will still have more opportunities for low-light shooting.
I use Nikon and they also lack a VR (IS) for the 24-70mm range. I still ended up buying their 24-70 f2.8, just so I can have a fast lens for low-light opportunities.
9Phil Hibberd says
Very useful stuff. We can’t afford too many VR lenses, but have a useful manfrotto carbon fiber monopod that helps a lot with slow speeds. It can pretty much stay on the camera without getting in the way.
Neil thanks you ! As a wedding phototgrapher mainly black couples I struggled with exposure problem with the brides white dress and dark skin mainly outdoors. I read your tip on setting the shutter for my nikon to 250, ISO 100, f:8-11 and TTL -1 on my sb800. I got outstanding results and a lot of booking for 2008. Your tips are truly awesome.
11Johnny C says
You truely are a flash god! Thanks for taking the time to provide these tips, i just bought my first flash and have learned so much just from reading your tips/tricks on here.
I will go and play now. Thanks!
Thanks for all the tips, I’ve never properly known how to use my flash, and your tips will be an amazing help.
Your photos are great.
Thanks again! :)
13Happy Tinfoil Cat says
On-camera flash had become a last resort for me. Thank you for teaching me new ways to enjoy it.
Great thanks for refreshing info ;) It was useful and helpfull. Besides I found very handy manual zoom on my speedlite. Quite different effect using 105mm or 24mm. especially in “side” bounce. But of course its a little bit other opera :)
15Phil Hibberd says
We get a lot of questions about flash in our classes – and I send students to this website frequently.
I see flash as a necessary evil and try to avoid it where possible.
Phil I don’t think that same attitude is going to be imparted on your students by sending them to this website.
I think the best way to sum it up for the majority of indoor portraiture and wedding photog, is a skillfully wielded flash is better than less than perfect natural light which is better than an ill used flash.
I have a long way to go before I get to the top rung of that ladder, but if I just stay satisfied with the middle rung, I’ll never get to the top. In order to skillfully wield a flash, I have to arm myself with as much info as possible, and shoot like an amateur. Some shots will work, others won’t. Either way I’m learning something each time I squeeze that shutter release.
The short of it is, if you view the use of flash as evil (necessary or otherwise), you’re never going to open yourself to the realisation that it in many cases, will compliment the available light, and take your “pure” pictures from good to outstanding.
Well, I thought I knew how to use flash 30+ years ago sporting a Nikon FM2 with a pair of Vivitar 283s with flash trigger sensors. Between Neil van Niekerk and Joe McNally’s web sites I think I just learned flash photography for the first time. And I don’t mean to be rude but I can’t believe anyone would snub flash use these days. I may not be a pro but when someone asks me for a photograph, I get it when they need it and not when the ambient light dictates. If I have to I use car head lights, flash lights, work lights, desk lamps, LEDs, mirrors or flash! Still learning after 30+ years!
Awesome article! i’ve been trying to get the ambient light/flash combo down for a while now. i still have a question or two though.
First of all, when using, say, 1/30 SS for ambient light and then fire the flash, you’re saying that the subject is not going to be blurry and it will freeze the motion (providing it’s not excessive, i understand)?
Secondly, when you shoot this method and using the flash, are you using the fill light setting on the camera or full strength iTTL flash with EC as needed, meaning not a fill flash mode, etc.?
When you are taking pics in a church that allow flash and are using this method for the combo of light, where do you bounce off of if there’s really nowhere to bounce? i guess nowhere, right? lol….. so my question then would be are you using a diffuser with EC or fill flash with a diffuser, etc.?
And lastly, which diffuser/bounce thingie do you all find works the best? i know there’s the DembFlip and the LumiQuest and Sto-fen, Fong, etc., although it seems like those are pretty much like what comes with the nikon speedlites.
Any help from any of you is greatly appreciated!!
Thanks lots Ü
Hi there Gina,
The flash will freeze the action, while your subject isn’t moving much and the ambient light isn’t so much that the movement registers.
There’s no specific science or formula to this. But while your subject is not moving (or you are panning accurately with your moving subject), then you can get away with a surprisingly slow shutter speed … while you are keeping your camera very still.
I’d say the point where the available light starts to less important, is where it is 3 stops or so less than the amount that you’re going to add with flash to give correct exposure.
And around 2 stops or less difference, you have to start taking care in how you handle your camera, and also consider how static your subject is.
About your second question:
In these examples, the subject would be under-exposed if it hadn’t been for the flash. So your flash isn’t just fill-flash, but becomes a dominant source of light. Hence your flash exposure compensation will be around 0EV. You’d have to adjust to taste around that value.
When I’m in a church, I tend to go to a wide aperture (f2.8 or wider), and crank up the ISO to compensate, and then I add bounce flash. If it really is impossible to add bounce flash, then I will add a Stofen or similar to give at least a measure of direct flash. Not ideal, but practical.
As to which light modifier is the best?
Check the most recent entry: throw away the tupperware! :)
Hello Neil — to get their flash off-camera I’ve seen photographers handhold their flash with a SC28 or SC29 cord. They might still attach a diffuser of some kind to the flash, whether it’s the Black Foamie Thing, Demb Flip etc.
Curious to hear your take on this.
22Chris Kingston says
Neil, – I am trying to accomplish sort of the opposit of what you are doing and am not really succeeding at it. Perhaps you could offer guidance. I am wanting to photograph trains, trucks motorcycles etc. I want to do this when they are in motion. I want to use the flash to freeze the movement on the front of the vehicle in the hopes of bluring the back end to give that nice visual of motion. How should I set out to accomplish this at dusk? Aperture, shutter speed and flash strength as well as speed of vehicle would all help to nail this down. Can you point me in the right direction.
23Ray Westfal says
I enjoyed reading your articles they were eye openers.I never would have thought of bouncing over my shoulder or to the side. Thank you. Ray W
If you are panning in the direction that the object is moving and you want the front to be sharp… I think you want to hit it with flash at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning when the flash “normally” goes off. To do this you will need to find the function for 2nd Curtain flash on your camera. Just be sure you aren’t going to blind the drivers who’s are are compensating for low light levels with a bright flash in their eyes. Aperture and shutter speed are then set based on level of ambient light… everything is keyed off of the “look” you want… so before you add flash set a shutter speed that gives you the look you want when you are panning… then add the flash to give you the frozen front at the end of the exposure.
I really don’t like resurrecting the (presumed) dead but I’m curious!
Are the taxis are going backwards because you paid them to do so or because your camera doesn’t have second curtain sync?
26Neil vN says
Neil, many thanks for the response!
Mine was a “smart” comment that probably should have been smacked down so I doubly appreciate your serious response.
I’ve read a fair bit (most or all) of your site and am seriously impressed with the work that you do and the quality of the photographers that you work with. Kudos!
I’d love to get into wedding photography myself but I think that at age 45 the best that I can do is admire the efforts of people like yourself.
Kind regards and wishing you the best for 2012,
28William Ng says
Ivan, don’t count yourself out at 45. I didn’t get into wedding photography seriously until my 40’s. If you love what you do, you will feel like a kid doing it because it’s so fun :-)
You purposely use a high iso, I read from other photographers that they always keep it low so do not get grainy images, How don’t you? Is it a higher class camera thing?
With limits to iso on other cameras can the images and these techniques still work well?
30Neil vN says
Allie, I do indeed use high-ISO capable cameras.
On the idea of favoring a high ISO to get a faster shutter speed – I can more easily fix high-ISO noise than I can fix images that are soft from camera shake.
The use of high ISO settings also give me images which look more natural, since I can use just the available light, or enhance the available light with some flash.
Great read again. I love discovering and rediscovering things on your site. Thank you. So questions…this is borderline shutter dragging right (love your section on that btw)? I mean, you’re sorta getting the same results as it. Also, what ISO were you at with the taxi photo?
Thanks for sharing Neil, however I noticed the that the taxi was coming towards you but the effect of the streak was in front of the taxi as opposed to being at the back. I read somewhere that this can be fixed if you set the flash to 2nd curtain. Can you clarify this? cheers
33Neil vN says
first-curtain sync vs rear-curtain sync
At an initial glance, it would appear a typical scenario where first-curtain sync caused that strange effect with the blur “coming out of” the moving object / subject. But now that I carefully think about it, the flash shouldn’t have had that much effect on the taxi, since it is further away than the couple, and the flash was mere fill-flash with the FEC dialed down.
So I can’t adequately explain the effect now.
You opened the talk by saying that sensor size also affects the ability to freeze motion with flash. Can you go into more detail? Will a large full frame or a crop sensor be better at freezing motion? I assume that Full Frame sensors can do this better. Is this because full frame cameras can perform better at higher ISO setting and you can get a better shutter speed? I am a beginner in photography and have shied away from using flash but you articles make it less intimidating to use flash.
35Neil vN says
The difference between crop-sensor cameras and full-frame cameras is a complex and contentious topic.
I wouldn’t say that full-frame sensor cameras are better at freezing movement – my comment was about camera shake, as well as subject movement. For the same focal length, the crop-sensor acts as if the lens has a longer effective focal length (as multiplied by the crop factor.) So you then have to think of that 35mm lens as if it is a 50mm lens – you’re going to need a higher minimum shutter speed to help reduce camera shake.
Similarly, for the same amount of movement by your subject in an arc across the frame, you have to consider the effective focal length … because that is what you’d base your composition on. The tighter framing of the crop-sensor camera (for the same lens), would mean the same speed of movement by your subject, covers a larger portion of the frame .. and hence, you’d need a faster shutter speed. (Or, if you moved back to have the same field of view, then things kinda reset again.)