Working with Slow Shutters

(above: 20 seconds of showering sparks)


Slow shutter speeds are such good fun to play with

We are all used to ensuring our shutter speeds are fast enough to freeze action, but what if we deliberately chose slower speeds that don’t freeze the action at all?

In fact, not only do they NOT freeze the action, but they purposely BLUR the action.  The process of blurring helps produce creatively interesting images – and that is what I am looking at today.

What is slow?

A slow shutter is what it says on the tin, the shutter is a slow one.

By slow, I mean that it’s certainly too slow to hand-hold (without image stabilisation), but it’s also too slow to freeze subject motion.

The image below was shot way back in 2009 at just 1/2 sec and got great motion blur.   My nephew stood still in the middle of a shopping mall while everyone else moved around him.  Even though 1/2 second isn’t especially slow, it was slow enough to blur the movement of those passers-by.

This next image (below), taken at Waterloo station was also 1/2 second.

The blurred images of all those passengers scurrying about on the concourse paints an interesting picture of the hustle and bustle.  It’s an interesting narrative because you can see some people weren’t moving at all – and your mind starts to fill in the blanks about what’s going on, what people are doing and thinking.

This was such an easy photo to take.

I had no tripod, I simply held my camera on the railings of the balcony above.  Very acheivable for just 1/2 second.  It’s well within the reach of any photographer, even those just starting out.  Try it for yourself the next time you visit a large venue like the inside of a railway station.


Longer (or slower) Speeds

Shots like the one above were shot in mid-summer under scorching hot sun.  The shutter was open for 76 seconds which can only be achieved under such bright conditions by using a black filter over the front of the lens to force the camera to shoot at crazy long speeds.

Black filters, usually referred to as Neutral Density filters (ND filters for short) are screwed on the font of the lens and dramatically reduce the light coming into the lens.  The one used in this shot reduced the light by 10 stops!

Link to 10 stop filter

The smooth sea was created, of course, by the waves coming in and going back out several times during the 76 second exposure.  They have blurred so much that they are no longer visible.

This nightime image of the River Thames was 30 seconds long and because I didn’t have a tripod (essential for long exposures), I rested the camera on the wall of a nearby wharf.

Pressing the shutter is likely to cause camera shake at these slow speeds, so if you don’t have a remote trigger, set the camera to delayed shutter, which will wait a few seconds before firing.  This gives any vibration caused by your hands, a chance to die down.

Shooting water with a slow shutter is an immensely popular genre of photography.

This weir (above) at Mapledurham was shot at 31 seconds.

I have other shots at other speeds, and the speed may vary in it’s effectiveness depending on how far away you are, what focal length lens your using and the speed at which the water is moving.

Just take some test shots at different shutter speeds to find the right one for you.


Tripod, tripod, tripod… take one.

And make sure its a good solid one.

Small lightweight tripods often move under the weight of heavy cameras and lenses, and can flex under local vibrations and wind.  Cheap tripods are a false economy.

If you can afford one made of carbon fibre, vibrations are absorbed more effectively (and they tend to be lighter than the cheaper aluminium ones – which is a bonus).

This obviously wasn’t taken locally.

I was 148 floors up (1,821 ft high) in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  I had taken my tripod with me and shot this just after sundown.  Shutter speed was 4 seconds.

It was slow enough that the fast moving traffic is a blur.  The roads look empty.

9 secs on a big, heavy duty tripod on Guy Fawkes night at Hawley Lake (above).  Just long enough to capture the sky rockets.


Go and have fun with this.

Try shooting car trails, soft-water, people moving about in a busy location or perhaps engaging in some sports activity.  Think ‘Movement’ – and then think about how you’re going to photograph it.

If you have any questions, just post them dowen below.  I’ll be happy to help and give advice if I can.


Kevin Ahronson
Hampshire School of Photography



The Featured image:

This stunning 20 second exposure was taken using a 10-stop filter at Pagham Habour by one of my students, Graham Meeks


Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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