Sunday, 31 October 2010

Slow Shutter - Art or Gimmick?

With the web giving access to such a huge wealth of material of all kinds, I guess anyone who is likely to be reading this will have come across pictures where moving water has been photographed at slow shutter speeds to give a misty, dream-like effect. The first time you see it, you might think “Wow, that’s really neat” but after seeing a few dozen similar shots, familiarity breeds contempt and you’re more likely to think “good grief, another talentless amateur thinking they can turn an ordinary snapshot into a masterpiece just by applying a bit of gimmickry”.

So I'm kinda hesitant to offer such a shot here. If you want to call me a talentless amateur, just keep it to yourself, okay?

Aira Beck, Cumbria, October 2010 - 1/8 sec, f9.0, ISO 100

Just for comparison, here’s a more conventional version. Unfortunately, at the time I wasn’t thinking about doing a side-by-side slow shutter versus freeze-action shot, so this was only shot at 1/60 sec – not fast enough to freeze fast-flowing water, but the effect is probably closer to what the eye/brain normally perceives.

Aira Beck, Cumbria, October 2010 - 1/60 sec, f3.5, ISO 100

So what's the verdict? Is it art or is it a gimmick?

These were taken just above Aira Force waterfall, in the English Lake District. By way of contrast, here’s a situation where slow shutter definitely doesn’t work, looking down on the falls from above. First a shot of he falls themselves, for context:

This is looking down from the bridge in the photo above. Freezing the action with a shutter speed of 1/500sec (the fastest available at ISO 1600) manages to capture something of the rush, the turbulence – the violence even – of the falls...

...whereas a slow shutter shot communicates very little. There's no form or structure to the flow, just a meaningless blur.

Here though is a photo where, to my mind at any rate, use of this effect is 100% justified. One of my favourites from our trip to Zambia last year.

Victoria Falls, Zambia, July 2009 - 1/8 sec, f13.0, ISO 100


  1. I love all of these! Mind you, the extent of my own photography is with my (2nd gen) iPhone. It's interesting to see the comparison in the first two photos, and I actually do find both of them to be beautiful.

  2. Hi Christy, how lovely to hear from you! I'm glad you like the photos - running water, especially mountains steams, has always had a special significance for me.