Slow Down Your Shutter Speed

I have always emphasized on the significance of understanding and utilizing slow shutter speed to add creativity and variety in photography. There are so many things you can do to improve your photography, but if you have not tried playing with slow shutter speed, you might want to give it a try. It is easy to learn and master, adds drama to your images and the best of all, it does not cost you anything, as long as your camera has full manual control built into it. 

I was running through the set of photographs I was gathering for a presentation to my colleagues some time ago on "Introduction to Digital Photography Basics", where I needed samples to display images taken with slow shutter speed techniques. I thought why not I share those set of images here as well, including some of my thoughts alongside how I captured the images.

What can Slow Shutter Speed do?

1) Capture Trail of Light

Panasonic Lumix LZ-8 
6sec, F/8, ISO100, Camera on Tripod. 
Location: Bandar Tasik Selatan Pedestrian Bridge

When I showed this image in my presentation, the audience did not expect that it was taken with a lowly, budget basic point and shoot camera, the Panasonic Lumix LZ-8 which I bought with a good discount, at only RM380. I was convincing the crowd that skills and photography techniques matter more than getting the most expensive equipment. Even if you own an expensive professional grade camera, if you do not understand the concept of shutter speed, or know how to control it, you won't be able to produce any decent results. Likewise, great results can be achieved even with an underrated compact camera, if you got your basics right. Slowing down the shutter speed is needed to capture the trail of lights.

2) Smooth-en running water into silky milk

Olympus E-P3 with 12-50mm kit lens
5sec, F/16, ISO200, ND8 Filter applied, Camera on Tripod
Location: Hulu Langat

The flowing water would have looked boring and plain if it was now being slowed down into silky smooth milk texture. The smooth water added the surreal and dreamy effect to the photography. Since the water was moving, it's dynamic element was composed against prominent static subjects, such as the dead leaves at one corner, against the trees and greenery background. 

3) Panning Shots

Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 11-22mm F2.8-3.5
1/40sec, F10, ISO200
Image taken for photo-assignment by TM, a Marathon in Dataran Merdeka. 

Panning is another good use of slow shutter speed, but I have to be honest this technique takes a lot of practice before I can actually produce anything useful out of the camera. You just have to keep trying again and again until it works, and keep using it to consistently being able to make the panning shots happen. For those who are curious on how to create the panning effect, please watch the tutorial on Youtube (click). I learned my basics from that tutorial, and of course fine-tuned my execution depending on the shooting condition and needs. 

4) Fireworks 
Olympus E-410 with 14-42mm Kit lens
2.5sec, F20, ISO100, Camera on tripod
Image shot for an assignment with the Star Newspaper, covering commemorative event of Malacca city achieving the "world herritage" status in 2008. 

I am not sure about you, but I know there are many people like myself who love fireworks, and enjoy shooting them. There was a time when people would generalize that if your camera can capture good fireworks shots, that means your camera is good. There are so many advanced techniques to explore on optimizing the results of fireworks, but some basics cannot be avoided: using tripod, and slowing down the shutter speed to capture the trails of bursts. I was only using the humble, often looked down upon 14-42mm kit lens, at the wide end 14mm, composing the fireworks in the sky against the prominent landmark of Malacca city, the A Famosa Fort which was built by the Portuguese in the year 1511. 

5) Night City Skyline 
Kodak Easyshare CX7430
4sec, F2.7, ISO80, Camera on Tripod
Location: War Memorial, Kings Park, Perth, Western Australia. Image taken in 2005. 

Another example of using cheap camera but not necessarily making bad photographs. I am appalled by how many newcomers to photography these days keep emphasizing on the high ISO shooting performance on their cameras, and would shy away from entry level DSLR or compact cameras, just because they do not perform as good as their bigger brother full frame cameras when shooting in low light conditions. Seriously, grab a tripod, and learn how to use it. If you love landscape photography, you would surely love shooting city night skyline. When I first saw the scenery from the top of the Kings Park, I knew I had to return during the night to capture the night landscape. I made an hour hike up the hill, set up the camera on tripod, fiddled with the settings, did some trial and error, and finally nailed the shot I was happy with. The satisfaction of getting the shot was beyond measure. 

6) Motion Blur 
Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 11-22mm F2.8-3.5
1/2sec, F16, ISO160, ND8 Filter applied

Introducing motion blur in the photograph can tell stories, expressing some ideas and provide contrast between still and moving subjects, or the varying of speed between the subjects as shown in the photograph above. The man's walking difficulty was further amplified in the image with everyone else crossing the road at much faster speed being blurred off in motion, while you can clearly see the man's stick planted firmly on the ground, not moving. Often people say photographs are static, and appear boring. Therefore, why not include something dynamic into your images by incorporating motion blur? 

7) Street Shooting with Slow Shutter Speed

Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 11-22mm F2.8-3.5
1/15sec, F18, ISO160 

Many great street photographers, past and present have used slow shutter speed to improve their street photography. This includes incorporating various methods, having intentional motion blur as well as panning shots, some even combined with the use of flash to freeze the main subject. Whichever method which has been utilized, the outcome is usually very out of the usual, and the photograph having the effect to "suck you in". In addition to that, some carefully played slow shutter speed can add the "giddiness" and tension to the photograph, making you feel uneasy, and that is a powerful tool which will affect the way you see certain photographs. Of course this cannot be overused, and must be planned and organized carefully. I have done my fair share of experimentation with slow shutter speed on my recent street shooting, and still am in the process of refining my execution. To be honest, at the moment most of my slow shutter speed successful shots were mostly by luck, rather than skill. 

Olympus DSLR E-5 with Zuiko Digital 7-14mm F4
1/4sec, F4, ISO500
Sultan Abdul Samad Building, KL

Shutter speed is an interesting tool to explore and master, surely it will add plenty of depth and impact to your photographs if executed properly. Slowing down shutter speed can create many wonderful effects, some may appear flashy and unnecessary, but if used carefully can really create stunning images. Important tools to help produce slow shutter speed photographs are: 1) tripod, to mitigate any shake/blur 2) ND Filters, acting like sunglasses for your lens to darken/cut back the light into the camera. For the rest of the techniques, you just have to go out there, slow down your shutter speed, and give it a go. 

What are your thoughts on slow shutter speed photography? Do share your opinion !! I would surely be glad if I can learn a thing or two from you. 


  1. Great photos! Thanks for the reminder and inspiration to play more with slow shutter speeds.

    1. Thanks Ken !! It is also a reminder to myself as well !

  2. As usual, great post. I dabbled a bit with long exposures with my OMD at a local fair. I must say, everything you've said about the camera is spot on. 2 seconds hand held was not even a problem. Thanks for everything

    1. Helo Dino,
      OH dear, 2 seconds !!! I never even tried that. The most I went was half a second hand-held !

    2. that is awesome, I’m definitely getting one, just need to sell my E3 first

    3. The new 5-axis IS is really amazing, but the results vary from people to people. I have seen a friend making a full 1 sec exposure handheld sharp image, but I can't.

  3. HI Robin,
    great post and photos of course! I'm glad to see you accepted my suggestion to put the tehnical details with photos. Keep gong on, you are doing great job.


    1. Hello
      Thanks for the kind compliments. I always include the EXIF in every single photograph.

  4. HI Robin,
    great post and photos of course! I'm glad to see you accepted my suggestion to put the tehnical details with photos. Keep gong on, you are doing great job.


  5. Hi Robin,

    Another interesting blog entry, and some great photos too.

    I agree with you - slow shutter photography is great fun and can produce beautiful results. I've accumulated two tripods and a Gorillapod in the past year alone for this kind of photography, and I've also spent a lot of time shooting water scenes with a 10-stop B+W filter.

    I like your photo of the KL motorway, and I have a question for you regarding that.

    A couple of times recently I've seen great slow-shutter photos of a motorway twisting towards the Petronas Towers. The pictures looked really awesome, but I can't figure out where they were shot from or even which motorway is in the shot.

    Do you have any idea?


    1. Hey Newzild,
      Thanks for the kind compliments !! Indeed slow shutter speed photography is very fun, everyone should at least give it a try and use some of it to improve our photography presentation.
      About that highway leading to KLCC, I absolutely have no idea. It could have been taken from one of the many tall buildings overlooking the city skyline. Knowing KL's poor city planning, the locations are very scattered and the positions of the roads and buildings are rather messy.

  6. Very good photos, you surely have talent as you are not limited by the camera in used. I like also the way you review gears. Keep posting. Thanks.


    1. Thanks Junji !! Camera is not the limit, the photographer should decide what the limit is !

  7. Robin, great post, with lots of very nice photos to demonstrate the various techniques. When I have my camera on a tripod, and I know that I am going to be shooting with the shutter open for "a long time", I usually do three things in addition to what you covered. 1) I turn off the Image Stabilization 2) I use a remote shutter release cable, and 3) if the camera is an SLR, I use the "mirror lock-up" setting. This helps eliminate all sources of vibrations. If there is a flash involved, I set the camera to rear-curtain (2nd curtain) sync.

    To get the exposure "correct", I shoot in manual mode, turn off auto white balance, and use a minimum ISO setting for the camera. After that, I do some manual bracketing and a lot of chimping! :-)

    1. Thanks for sharing the additional tips Gregg !! Indeed, when the camera is on tripod, the IS must be switched off. I do not have the remote shutter release, hence I only use the mirror lock up to minimize vibrations caused by the mirror slapping.

  8. Two more things I like to do:
    Turn night into day. Of course this works best when absolutely nothing moves in the pictures, but I like how the pictures look when I get it right. It looks like day, but still not, the viewer will quickly realize that something isn't right. Tripod, IS off and a few minutes exposure.

    Empty crowded places. This is just taking your motion blur trick one step further. ND filter (I like to take pictures of the sun so I have a few very dark ones) and stopped down aperture. When exposure time becomes long enough almost all people disappear from the picture.

    1. Thanks for sharing some more great suggestions Rasmus. Not only can we make people disappear, but we can make the vehicles vanish from the road too using the same method, applying very strong ND filter and long exposure. Something I have not tried but surely this would be interesting.

  9. Hi,Robin:) wonderful photos:D and really thanks for sharing:) im still a beginner, alot more to learn. Hav a question here, im planning to get ND filter. Between ND4 n ND8, which 1 shud i get 1st for the 1st step of learning to tk photos with ND filter?thanks:) (

    1. Hey Joon Ming, I would recommend ND8 since it is 3 stops shutter speed difference. Most of the time ND4 would not even be enough, and you might need to stack more or go with higher density (there is even ND400).

    2. Ok:)thankss:) wat brand of ND fil is recommended?diameter of my lens is 55mm, do i need to get a step up ring to 58mm for a better result?

    3. Just get ND filter that has the same diameter as your lens, easier that way. No brand preference, anything works for me. Start with something cheaper, thats my recommendation, because you wont know whether you will like it, or need it. try first, and then the next purchase you decide on something more expensive. The filter can be stacked, so you wont regret having more than one.

    4. Oh:) thanks alot :D

  10. Just like to add that even with a cheap point and shoot you can get creative, you don’t need full manual control you just need to look for the scene mode settings with either candles or fireworks, some of my favourite shots have been done with a little 3.2mp Sony point and shoot, so don’t think you cant get this affect if you don’t have an SLR, just experiment with your scene modes a little and have some fun with what ever camera you have.

    1. Thanks Anthony for pointing that out. That said, it is very crucial to know what the settings does, the scene modes, in order to maximize the camera's potential. Only by reading and experimenting then the user of the compact camera would know. For example, some camera's fireworks settings only go as long as 2-4seconds, but some actually allow much longer, up to 16 seconds shutter speed.

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