Typically, nature photography is all about capturing photos with smooth water and long exposure (slow shutter speed). This does not mean that you can’t use fast shutter speed to capture stunning photos in nature. You can use a fast shutter speed to capture some unique and creative photos like this abstract image from blow hole in Maui, Hawaii. My 1/500s shutter speed froze the motion of the water as it burst out of the blow hole.
Capturing stunning nature photos with fast shutter speed does present its own unique challenges. Nature photographers often use it in conjunction with a large aperture to balance the camera exposure. For this reason, both focus and exposure play a critical role in your nature photography workflow. The following are some lessons to help you get started with capturing the photos you envision.
How Do You Want Motion to Appear in Your Photos?
With enough light, you can use a fast shutter speed to photograph any scene. However, scenes with fast moving action benefit most from this technique. The type of in-scene motion that you are trying to capture determines your exact nature photography workflow.
If the subject you are trying to photograph moves unpredictably (like the butterfly in the following image), it is difficult to capture it at just the right moment. This is particularly true if you are using a telephoto lens. The narrow field of view of this lens type makes it extremely difficult for you to keep your subject in the field of view.
So, how was I able to capture this butterfly with a telephoto lens? I observed the butterfly’s behavior and noticed that it repeatedly landed on the same flower. I mounted my camera on my tripod and loosened the ball head to use it as a gimbal. When the butterfly landed on the flower, I quickly focused my camera and used a fast shutter speed to take this shot.
Because every situation is unique, nature photography workflow with fast shutter speeds requires some out-of-box thinking. What works for one scenario does not necessarily work for another. Your nature photography workflow depends upon your subject motion and the equipment you are using.
Focus Settings for Fast Shutter Speed
Getting a small moving subject in sharp focus presents a particularly difficult challenge for photos with fast shutter speed. This is especially true if you are using a large aperture. Larger aperture creates a narrow depth of field. Because of this, getting a precise focus to capture your subject is very important. The following are some lessons on how to get sharp focus on fast moving subjects.
Set Your Focus in Advance
Sometimes the location of your chosen subject is fixed. For example, bubbles in the mud pots in Iceland exploded in the same location although at random times. Getting my high speed subject (exploding bubble) in sharp focus was critical for this photo. Once I knew where the bubble would most likely appear, I focused my camera lens on that location and then switched my DSLR camera to a manual focus mode. This allowed me to lock my camera focus at exactly the right place. With the focus on my camera lens set correctly, I could concentrate on getting the shot.
Use Focus Tracking Mode for Moving Subjects
The previous technique of setting your focus only works if the subject you are trying to photograph is stationary. To capture a moving subject with a fast shutter speed, you must use a focus tracking mode on your DSLR or mirrorless camera. If you are shooting a slow moving subject using a focus tracking mode on your camera, your chance of getting a sharp focus is quite good.
Nora took the following wildlife photo in Everglades National Park when she was 13 using fast shutter speed and focus tracking mode. Prior to shooting, Varina had already advised Nora to use her camera’s autofocus tracking mode and to keep focusing squarely on the bird’s eye in her viewfinder. When the cormorant emerged from the water with a big fish in its beak, Nora was ready. She tracked the bird’s movement and fired off a series of photos as the bird tried to swallow the fish.
In this particular case, the movement of the bird was slow enough for Nora’s camera to acquire and lock the focus using a continuous autofocus tracking mode. Very fast moving subjects may not give you enough time to get a focus lock making it more challenging.
Choose the Right Shutter Speed
Your choice of fast shutter speed depends on how you want the motion in your photo to appear. If you want to freeze motion, your shutter speed value depends upon how fast your subject is moving. The following are a few shots using different shutter speeds to freeze the motion of the various subjects.
If you are trying to photograph a slow-moving sea turtle in Hawaii, 1/400s shutter speed is fast enough to freeze its motion. However,v1/400s shutter speed is not fast enough to freeze the motion of the wings of a hummingbird as seen in the previous photo. Note that the goal of the fast shutter speed is not always to freeze motion. I intentionally chose a shutter speed of 1/500s because I wanted to create a motion blur with the hummingbird’s wings while freezing his body.
Once you have selected your chosen shutter speed, you can use your camera’s histogram to set your aperture. Sometime you must bump up your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s ISO setting to get the proper exposure. I used ISO setting of 1600 to capture the above photo of exploding blowhole Maui, Hawaii
Once you have selected your shutter speed of choice you can use histogram on back of your camera to set your aperture. Sometime you will have to bump up ISO setting on your DSLR or mirrorless camera to get the proper exposure. I used ISO setting of 1600 to capture the above photo of exploding blowhole in Maui, Hawaii.
As you can see, fast shutter speed can be used to capture some fantastic nature photos. However, you must use creativity to overcome the challenges posed by the motion that you are trying to capture.