Creative Shutter Speed: pro tips for better action photography

It’s an integral part of exposure, but shutter speed can also be harnessed for its creative opportunities, allowing you to turn run-of-the-mill subjects into exceptional, artistic images.

Your shutter speed equips you with the ability to freeze time – whether that is a long shutter speed to make the most of a waterfall or employing a blazingly fast speed to catch the detail in the wings of a bee in mid-flight. However, in this feature we go beyond these basic principles and explore the creation of mood and feeling through a range of pro techniques.

Below, five professional photographers across a range of genres offer their best tips for creative shutter speed in portraiture, sport, landscapes, motoring and painting with light. Discover exactly how they use shutter speed to show subjects at their best, create ambience and ensure their images stand out from the competition. Prepare to be inspired.

Creative shutter speed in portraiture

Lara Jade 
Image © Lara Jade
Shutter Speed Tip 1: Enhance mood
To make a creative conceptual piece use a slow shutter speed; try around 1/2sec, 1/4sec or 1/8sec to create a blur on or around your subject. You will see this enhances the mood and also lets in more light, giving a ghost-like appearance. This technique works best on fine-art pieces or photographs replicating an antique look. Remember to use a tripod if you have trouble holding your camera still.

Shutter Speed Tip 2: Ghostly effects
To create a full ghost-like effect keep your camera on a tripod, shoot in low light and try various shutter speeds. Use the Bulb setting on your camera, with a low aperture and a high ISO; the grainier the better. The key to this tip is experimentation; you will need to test different situations to find the right picture. Once you have found a good combination, photograph your subject in a number of different poses.

Shutter Speed Tip 3: Make the most of movement
Freeze-frame your subject in motion by using a fast shutter speed. Try capturing a dancer during a fast move, or taking a portrait where your subject moves their hair from side to side and you catch the movement in the flow. Capturing movement in this way is far removed from what the naked eye can see, so it creates a visually stunning piece.

Shutter Speed Tip 4: Master rear curtain sync
A more advanced technique is either using a flashgun or studio flash head that supports rear curtain sync (meaning that the flashgun fires slightly before the shutter closes rather than when it opens).
Using rear curtain sync allows you to make a creative blur trail of light, but your flash (from the gun or light) is capturing your subject in focus as well. You will need to use either a flashgun or studio flash head that supports rear curtain sync. Experiment to get the right ambience of light between the subject and the light trails. Results can be amazing when you master this technique – keep going with it.

Shutter Speed Tip 5: Use your zoom
Zoom blur, created by focusing on your subject and then zooming in and out very quickly can be a good technique for portraits. You need to employ a slow shutter speed to capture the zoom movement; focus on your subject first and then zoom in and out on your lens. Also try combining this effect with your subject moving back and forth, for some more interesting effects.

Shutter Speed Tip 6: Speed composites
Combine various shutter seed techniques by compositing images in Photoshop. Try combining your ‘fast’ mid-motion shots with your blur shots to create an artistic piece. Another idea is cloning your subject so you have more than one of them in the same image.

Lara's Kit
Lara shoots with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 85mm f/1.2, 50mm f/1.4 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses. When working in the studio Lara uses either Broncolor or Bowens lights, mixing ambient or flash light. On location she uses purely natural light or Sunbounce reflectors. 

Lara Jade is an English fashion, portrait and commercial photographer who now lives in New York City. Her clients include ELLE, 125 and Material Girl magazines, Sony Music, Schwarzkopf hair care and the BBC. Lara teaches at workshops around the world and her sponsors include Canon, Broncolor, Bowens and Datacolor. To see more of Lara's work, visit
Creative shutter speed in car photography

Matt Howell
Image © Matt Howell
Shutter Speed Tip 1: Turn it up
When shooting action with cars you spend much of the time trying to create the sensation of speed using a slow shutter speed, but there are occasions when nothing less than 1/1,000sec will do. If something genuinely dramatic is happening in front of your lens you will want to nail it pin-sharp and frozen. A car drifting, jumping or hitting a puddle are perfect moments to turn up the shutter speed.

Use as long a lens as you have (200mm is a minimum for this sort of work) and practise your focusing technique – it’s no good freezing the water droplets sprayed up from a puddle if the car is not perfectly sharp. Head-on tends to look best, but is the most difficult for your auto-focusing system to handle. If it is a struggle, you could always try manually pre-focusing.

Shutter Speed Tip 2: Turn it down
Turning down the shutter speed is a technique I use when I need to make a car look like it is doing something more exciting than it actually is or the vehicle just isn’t moving that fast, say under 30mph. Normally, when shooting a panning shot – where I’m standing approximately 15-25 metres from the side of the road with a 70-200mm lens and the vehicle is driving by – I usually set a shutter speed of 1/60sec to get a decent hit rate of sharp images.

However, next time you are out, why not try turning down the shutter speed? Then down a bit further and see what happens... Make sure you are standing with your legs well apart for a solid stance and your hips are parallel to the road. Start following the vehicle early and when it gets close enough, squeeze the trigger softly, then continue to pan until you cannot twist your body any further. At 1/15sec most of the car will be blurred but if you get it right, a headlight or the driver will be pin-sharp and the effect can look stunning.

Shutter Speed Tip 3: Night owl
I love night shoots, but a lot of car photographers get freaked out at the thought. The truth is you need little more than a tripod, a long exposure and a bit of imagination to make incredibly dramatic images. This shot of the Land Rover was taken in a cave, where it was pitch-black. The only lighting was from the Land Rover’s sidelights and those of a second 4x4 just out of shot to the left, plus one of those silly 15-million candle-power torches I had bought in a service station on the way to the shoot. The camera was set up on a tripod with a 30sec shutter speed; then I painted in the cave walls with the torch, being careful never to point it towards the camera, so avoiding lens flare.

Shutter Speed Tip 4: Tracking
This is the staple diet of car magazines the world over. A moving vehicle is shot from another vehicle travelling alongside. The secrets to success are a smooth, clear road or track where the vehicles can hold about 30mph, plus a steady hand and a shutter speed of about 1/30sec. If you struggle, use an image stabiliser lens, or turn the speed up a little to a 1/60sec. Just remember, in car photography it has to be pin-sharp – magazine art editors always look closely at the headlights or see if they can read the postcode on the bottom of the number plate. If the answer’s ‘yes’, you’ve bagged a good one.

Shutter Speed Tip 5: A little bit of flash
Static car shoots don’t have to be 100 per cent static; a little bit of movement is never a bad thing and a bit of fill-in flash can really help add excitement, too. A client sent me to McLaren to shoot a feature and we came across this £2 million Formula 1 road car having its engine removed.

I wanted to show the engine moving as it came out, so I set the camera on a tripod with a shutter speed of 0.8sec to correctly expose for the white room while giving some blur to the engineers and engine. A burst of flash was directed at the car (from behind and to the side with two Bowens 1,000W Monoblocks) to give some punch to the colour of the car, while semi-freezing the engine as it was slid out backwards.

This technique can be a bit hit and miss, so experiment with your exposure times and strength of fill-in flash until obtaining an effect you are happy with.

Shutter Speed Step 6: The Rig Shot
More than any other shot, I get asked how this effect is created. While the theory is simple it does require some unusual kit and a lot of thought. Basically, the idea is to suspend a camera away from a car using either a tripod or specially constructed boom. These are often attached to the bonnet or roof with sucker clamps (Manfrotto does a good selection), then when the car moves, the camera will travel along with it, giving a perfectly sharp vehicle but blurred background.

A shutter speed of between two and 30 seconds is often used, while the car is pushed slowly by an assistant who is hiding around the back of the vehicle (running the engine creates too much vibration and will cause your camera to shake). The longer the exposure, the faster the car will look like it is travelling, even though in reality it’s only moving at walking pace. The tripod or boom is then retouched out in Photoshop. For the best effect try this sort of shot at night or in low light – say under the cover of overhanging trees that will give a great sensation of speed when they are blurred.

Matt's Kit
Matt uses two Canon EOS-1DS Mark IIIs with a selection of lenses ranging from a 14mm fisheye to a 400mm f/2.8 IS. His kit comprises 10 Bowens Gemini heads and four battery packs, three Speedlites, two Turbo batteries and one 15-million candle-power torch. He also employs two specially-constructed boom rigs.

Award-winning photographer Matt Howell spent more than a decade editing consumer magazines before launching his photography business eight years ago. He now splits his time between editorial, corporate and advertising shoots for some of the biggest names in the media. Matt’s clients include McLaren, VW and Citroen, as well as magazines all over the world, from the UK to Australia. To see more of Matt's work, visit
Creative shutter speed in landscape photography

Mark Gray
Image © Mark Gray
Shutter Speed Tip 1: Waterfalls
The best way to capture waterfalls is with a slow shutter speed. Using a shutter speed of at least one second will create a magical silky-water effect on waterfalls or any white water in streams and rivers. Using longer shutter speeds will generally result in a similar effect, but may result in unwanted blurred trees and plants if there is any wind.

Shutter Speed Tip 2: Traffic Trails
Creating traffic trails is a great technique to use when shooting night or twilight scenes. By using a long shutter speed of at least 10 seconds when shooting moving cars, or boats, you will create lines of light in your photograph. Headlights will create white lines and taillights will create red lines. Generally speaking, the longer the shutter speed, the better the result will be with traffic trails.

Shutter Speed Tip 3: Misty Water
When shooting seascapes with crashing waves, using a long shutter speed of around five seconds or more will create a misty effect on the water in your scene. This works best when you incorporate rocks or other structures over which waves are breaking, as those will, of course, remain still. A beautiful sunrise or sunset will add to the overall result.

Shutter Speed Tip 4: Frozen Water
Shooting seascapes with a fast shutter speed of around 1/125sec, or quicker, will result in the motion of any waves or water being frozen. This will produce a very different effect to the ‘misty water’ effect mentioned above but can also work well creatively. Keep in mind that you will need plenty of light to freeze the motion of water, so it is best to shoot during the middle of the day and avoid periods of low light, such as sunrise and sunset.

Shutter Speed Tip 5: Star Trails
Pointing your camera at a clear night sky while leaving your shutter open for hours, rather than seconds, will result in a nice effect called ‘star trails’. While the Earth rotates, the stars appear to move, which results in streaks of light through the sky. It is best to try star trails in a remote area free from light pollution. Film cameras are much better than digital ones when shooting star trails as they are not dependent on battery power and you will avoid long exposure noise creeping in.

Shutter Speed Tip 6: Pan and zoom
When using long shutter speeds with landscapes, you can create unusual but highly creative effects by panning your camera or zooming your lens all the way in or out. Play around with shutter speeds longer than two seconds for the best results.

Mark's Kit
Mark has a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Linhof Technorama 617s III Panoramic film camera. He uses a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 and Schneider 72mm f/5.6 and 90mm f/5.6 lenses. A good tripod is vital for Mark’s landscape work: he uses a Manfrotto Pro 055BX with a cable release. Also in his F-Stop Satori Expedition backpack is a B+W Circular Polariser, Cokin X-PRO Series 2-Stop and 3-Stop ND soft grad filters.

Mark Gray is an award-winning photographer who specialises in stunning, panoramic fine-art landscapes. He sells his work internationally in the form of limited-edition prints and a range of other products through his online gallery and retail gallery in Australia. Mark runs workshops across Australia which attract photographers from all over the world. To see more of Mark's work,
Creative shutter speed for light art

Michael Bosanko
Image © Michael Bosanko
Shutter Speed Tip 1: Brilliant Bulb
When creating light art there is one common setting your camera will use: Bulb mode. If you shoot mainly in the day, it’s likely that you have never turned the camera dial to the letter ‘B’. However, it is at night when Bulb mode truly comes alive, allowing you the chance to push the shutter boundaries to the extreme. We are not talking seconds here, but way beyond, and with a battery grip, you could be out all night.

Shutter Speed Tip 2: Avoid light pollution

Areas with little light pollution provide the best backdrops for creating light effects. The longer you can keep the shutter open, the more flexible and creative you can be. If the area is almost pitch-black, then take an extra-powerful torch to illuminate larger areas of interest by standing behind the camera and moving the torchlight over areas in gentle but steady sweeps.

Shutter Speed Tip 3: Clean and fluid
Think of your camera’s sensor as a piece of wood, and your torch as a piece of metal that is red hot at the end and you are about to scorch a design on the wood. The more fluid your movements, the cleaner the light trails. If you keep the torchlight facing the lens for too long, like the red hot metal you will ‘burn out’ the image, leaving behind intense light flares you do not want. If you need to stop, then turn off the torch. When you are ready to add a new element to the image, turn the torch back on and immediately start moving again. As you are shooting in Bulb mode, this can all be done within a single shot.

Shutter Speed Tip 5: Go steady
By selecting Bulb mode, it’s likely you will keep the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds, so your camera needs to be as steady as a rock. For this, you will require a sturdy tripod with independently adjustable legs to help navigate some of the obstacles you face in the great outdoors. If you set up on soft ground such as sand or mud, spread the weight of the tripod by placing coasters underneath the tripod feet.

A cable release is essential, allowing you to open the shutter, and lock it open, freeing your hands to get on with the business of light art. If you have a friend with you, they can operate the cable release. Alternatively, use it in conjunction with the camera’s timer, preferably set to 10 seconds. This should give you ample time to step into frame and take a deep breath before beginning your creation.

Shutter Speed Tip 6: Plan ahead
Once you have managed to get your head around the basics of light art, it’s very easy to get carried away for the rest of the night. So, if you are planning a night out in the wilds or on the city streets, be sure to charge up absolutely every battery you plan to use, and prepare your gear before you set out, as the comfort of your own home is better than fumbling around in the dark.

Michael's Kit
Michael mainly shoots with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens and uses Manfrotto tripods (055CXPRO4 or 190CL) with 804RC2 heads. As you might expect, Michael uses literally hundreds of lights in his work: some bought, some homemade and all different types and styles. If you are just starting out, he advises buying a couple of small, inexpensive LED or bulb torches. As cheap torches are less powerful, you can work more slowly, and not rush over details. As you progress, try and use the torches in combinations by binding them with tape, or keep a lookout for more obscure light sources.

One handy torch you should buy is one that attaches to your head. This will free up your hands so you can cope better in the dark with the fiddly things, such as changing filters, camera settings, or making a brew. Experiment with colour too - use coloured sweet wrappers, or buy a few sheets of coloured acetate or gel, cut to the size of the torch head and fix down over the torch glass with clear tape.

Photographer Michael Bosanko has been creating light art since, working with clients all over the world to provide stills and animated creations for magazines, books, ad campaigns and TV commercials. He provides real light effects that interact perfectly with the environment and are almost impossible to create with computer-aided effects. To see more of Michael's work or buy prints of his images, visit,
Creative shutter speed in sports photography 

Mark Pain
Image © Mark Pain
Shutter Speed Tip 1: Not too fast
Shooting sport and capturing great action are not always about choosing the highest possible shutter speed available to you. Many people make that mistake and end up with static-looking images. However, one of the true exceptions is when you are shooting diving or trying to freeze the movement of water. For most sports a shutter speed of 1/750sec to 1/800sec would be quick enough to freeze the action, but not with diving where you really have to shoot at 1/2,000sec or more to guarantee no movement at all.

Shutter Speed Tip 2: Speed and panning
Fast-moving action doesn’t always require a super-fast shutter speed to get a great picture. You can create a real feeling of speed and movement by slowing your shutter speeds right down. Panning a car in Formula 1 and other motorsports will create a nice sense of speed from about 1/125sec and below. But the real feeling of movement and drama is created by getting down to some really slow panning at shutter speeds such as 1/15sec or below. It is an extremely difficult technique to master quickly but serious amounts of time practising can produce a remarkable improvement in your hit rate. Don’t forget that some of the worst and messiest backgrounds can make for some of the best pan shots. Having more colour and mess to blur can lead to great effects.

Shutter Speed Tip 3: Be prepared
Be prepared for that amazing picture by keeping your shutter speed set as high as possible when moving from one position to another during an event. Just because you are moving to your next vantage point to get a different angle does not mean that the action will stop as well. You never know what is going to happen so always have your camera at a setting ready to freeze the action if you have to pick up your camera suddenly with little time to change settings.

Shutter Speed Tip 4: Experiment
Try to be more creative and experiment with even slower shutter speeds at sports events, such as this fencing picture taken at the Beijing Olympics at 1/4sec. The effects achieved can vary hugely with different sports under varied lighting, but the beauty of digital cameras is that you have an instant idea of the effect you are creating.
Try finding something solid to lean your camera on when shooting shutter speeds of 1/4sec or slower.

Shutter Speed Tip 5: Flash
When experimenting with your shutter speeds try firing a little bit of flash into the image (if allowed). A flashgun's duration can be as low as 1/30,000sec at 1/64 power and around 1/2,000sec at half power. A little ‘ping’ of flash during a longer exposure can help to give your image some necessary definition rather than just a continuous blur.

Shutter Speed Tip 6: Just a hint

Just a hint of movement is sometimes all you need. Here the speed of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren is exaggerated by the lack of movement or interest in him shown by the sun-worshippers of Monaco. On this occasion 1/160sec was fine to convey the feel of the picture I wanted. Too much of a blur and the car would be unrecognizable; too little and the car would be too static.

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