Landscape Photography with Fast Shutter Speeds

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Landscape photographers are fond of using slow shutter speeds in their work. Consider waterfalls blurred to luscious, silky texture. Or images of night skies, with stars only the camera can see. Or near-far perspectives, every object in the range of field in sharp focus. Unlike other genres, such as wildlife, street, or sports photography, the landscape photographer works slowly and methodically. Armed with a tripod and shutter release, they are perfectly at ease in low-light situations. So, under which conditions would a landscape photographer even bother using a fast shutter speed? The answer: When the subject is moving or the camera is moving and the intent is to freeze the action of the subject.

f/11, 1/50 sec, ISO 500

The wind was creating some problems when I was photographing this scene. No biggie. A slight bump in the shutter speed was enough to freeze the movement of the trees. f/11, 1/50 sec, ISO 500

Wind

Wind can be the enemy, especially if there is foliage in the scene. In the words of a landscape photographer friend of mine, “wind is a four letter word.” Sure, you can use the combination of a long exposure and subject movement to create interesting effects. But if your goal is to present a still scene, you must either pick a quiet, windless day or bump up the shutter speed. As you increase the shutter speed, you must compensate with a wider aperture, a higher ISO, or both in order to balance the exposure. There are trade-offs with each of those options. Higher ISO introduces more noise and a smaller aperture number reduces depth of field.

Strong winds can also jostle the camera. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a clean, sharp image. Choosing a fast shutter speed is one way to solve that problem. There are other techniques to get a clean shot in windy conditions. You can try stabilizing the camera with weights suspended on the tripod’s center column or shorten and spread the legs of the tripod so that it is low to the ground. But, if there is a strong, consistent wind, select a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the movement of the camera at the time of exposure.

f/10, 1/1600, ISO 500

I personally favor using very long lenses for my landscape photographs. As such, a faster shutter speed is often required to freeze movement, especially if the camera is hand-held, as it was in this case. f/10, 1/1600, ISO 500

Waves

Powerful and beautiful, waves capture our imagination with their violent, endless energy. Using a fast shutter speed (rather than a slow one) to stop their motion can better communicate the forceful nature of water. A very long exposure makes the water look calm and peaceful, which is lovely if that is the intent. But if the aim is to show the fierce nature of water, using a faster shutter speed may be a better choice.

f/8, 1/640 sec, ISO400

Using a very long lens, I needed to choose a pretty fast shutter speed to ensure that the motion of the water falling would be stopped. f/8, 1/640 sec, ISO 400

Waterfalls

Waterfalls charm us with their misty, graceful lines. If photographed with a slow shutter speed, such as one second or more, the waterfall appears soft and milky white. A fast shutter speed, however, stops the motion of the water falling, yielding a unique frame with every click of the shutter.

f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 100

I was about to set up my tripod to photograph this scene when my friend wandered into this perfect position. A quick adjustment to the shutter speed assured that any movement that occurred would be stopped.  f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 100

Critters

If you are including an animal or person in your composition, use a fast shutter speed to freeze its motion. Many times I have been photographing a beautiful, quiet scene when a duck floats into my frame, causing me to readjust my settings. For just such times, I have made a custom setting on my camera that is set at f/8, ISO 800, 1/500 sec, so I can easily switch to high speed photography with a turn of the dial. This setting is just a starting point and, depending upon the situation, I can adjust the exposure according to the scene. A slower shutter speed is acceptable if the movement is slow. To freeze the movement of birds’ wings, a fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000, is necessary.

 f/8, 1/1000, ISO 1600

Using a very fast shutter speed is the only way to freeze the movement of the ripples on the surface of the water. Try also experimenting with a polarizing filter.  f/8, 1/1000, ISO 1600

Ripples

Photographing ripples in a pool of water is great fun and provides infinite possibilities for unique compositions. Use a shutter speed of 1/500th or faster to freeze the movement of the ripples. Experiment with different shutter speeds and see what happens.

Winter's Fury

I experimented with long exposures and short exposures while photographing this scene. The faster shutter speed best communicated the feeling of the snowstorm among these giant Black Oaks. f/16, 1/160 sec, ISO 4000

Snow Storm

Falling snow is lovely to capture at a variety of shutter speeds. My favorite way to photograph snow is to stop the motion so that you can see every single flake.

Heart-Shaped Tree

This image was made hand-held from my car window. I was visiting a wildlife refuge, where it was prohibited to leave your car in certain areas.  f/16, 1/320 sec, ISO 250

Hand-held

Of course, there are times when you simply don’t have a tripod or you are not allowed to use one because of rules or restrictions of a location. If you find yourself sans-tripod, remember this rule of thumb: 2x focal length = shutter speed. So, if your lens has a focal length of 400mm, try not to shoot any slower than 1/800th of a second. Likewise, if your lens has a focal length of 100mm, keep the shutter speed at 1/200th of a second or faster. And, so on.

I should mention that, in most of the above examples, I used a tripod. Even at fast shutter speeds, you can still get camera shake that slightly blurs your image unless you shoot with the mirror up on your DSLR. Mirrorless cameras are not plagued by this problem.

So, in conclusion, landscape photographs are not always made with long exposures. There are plenty of situations where it is absolutely appropriate to speed things up! In which situations do you find a faster shutter speed is the answer to a specific field issue?

About Author Charlotte Gibb

Charlotte Gibb is a contemporary fine art photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in landscapes of the Western United States. Her images are often taken in familiar places for the well-versed landscape photographer, but she prides herself on her keen an eye toward the subtle and sometimes overlooked beauty of the natural world. Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has exhibited her work in several solo shows throughout California. Her darkroom, long gone now, has been replaced with digital darkroom tools, and her style has evolved from a somewhat journalistic approach, to one that pays tribute to the natural world.