Photography in Focus: What is Shutter Speed?

As a photographer I am asked the same question time and time again by fellow travellers; “What settings shall I use?”

There is no true answer to this and I have found that the majority of those asking would like one of just a few answers – sport, landscape, portrait or night. My answers on the other hand are limited to M (manual) for confident photographers, or the more user-friendly settings TV or SV (time or shutter speed variable) and AV (aperture variable) for those looking for an easy fix. These settings allow you to control the way light reacts to your camera without having to stare a hole in the user manual, and without having to rely on guess-work or risk losing the shot.

The focus of this article is on shutter speed – the TV setting, or SV on some brands of camera.

By choosing this setting you are telling your camera that you would like to control how long your shutter is open for to allow light to react with the digital sensors (or film) in your camera. Your camera will adjust all of the other settings to ensure correct exposure, giving you limitless creative freedom. What can you do with this? Many, many, wonderful things!

Your shutter speed controls the time it takes for the picture to be taken. Sometimes your camera is open for a fraction of a second during exposure, other times it can be open for minutes or hours. Everything that moves in your frame during your exposure will blur. The longer your camera is open for, the more opportunities there are for things to move. Your camera can also move during exposure, which is why pictures with longer exposures are generally shot on a tripod.

To reduce photography into a simple language, movement controls mood, and so your shutter speed controls the atmosphere of your image.

Action Shots

Action images capture drama. They show something frozen in time such as a lion mid-roar or an impala suspended in the air mid-leap. You could show an elephant splashing water with every drop clear and sharp. Shots like these are filled with excitement. They offer a single moment and very often show you something you would never have seen with the naked eye, like a swarm of bees or a fight between two giraffe.

To capture an action shot you need to have your camera open for as short a time as possible to stop any movement. As this is a fraction of a second you need to choose a TV or SV setting that is a small fraction such as 1/500 (a 500th of a second) or 1/250 (a 250th of a second). The higher the fraction number, the shorter the exposure, the sharper the image.

Romantic Pictures

Romantic images are moody. They manipulate reality to make things seem endless, surreal, misty, atmospheric or ethereal. Romantic images use long shutter speeds to allow for things to move naturally during your exposure. It could be that grass sways in the wind, or stars move in the sky to create star trails. Perhaps there is a current in a river that can be blurred into mist, or lots of drops of water flowing over a waterfall can be blurred into a fast, strong fall.

With romantic images the possibilities are never-ending, however, it is important that you always include something sharp to show that the picture is not just out of focus. This can be a house shot against a million moving stars, or the rocks in your waterfall, or a steady tree in the windy grass.

Images like these use TV settings that are longer fractions of a second, like 1/15, or whole seconds which are shown on your camera using a ” symbol. The TV amount of 5″ for example indicates a 5 second exposure. Longer exposures allow for lots of light to enter your camera and work best in low light conditions such as dusk or dawn.


Most SLR cameras allow you to select up to 30″ for a 30 second exposure. This is great for twilight conditions, but not long enough to shoot the stars or play with light painting techniques. For images like these you need to use the shutter speed B. This is the bulb setting that allows you to keep the shutter open indefinitely using a trigger remote.

Star trails need anything from 30 seconds to 3 or 4 hours depending on how long you would like the trails to be. The longer the shutter is open for the more the earths’ rotation affects the position of the stars, creating white lines in your image. Light painting is intuitive and usually needs a torch to shine into areas of interest for 10 to 20 seconds.

If you are shooting on TV or SV, you are essentially using one of your cameras build in settings. It will automatically compensate the other settings to keep the exposure correct. For a practice project try shooting the same moving object in two key styles. In one shot, freeze the frame to stop the movement, in the other, use the movement to capture the mood.

*Original blog post published for Robert Mark Safaris

Photography in Focus: What is Aperture?

Photography, by its very nature, is a calculated manipulation of light that produces a creative, out of the ordinary interpretation of something ordinary.

It is artistic expression and a joy that even the most amateur photographer can find in picking up a camera, pressing a button and developing a unique visual world.

In continuation of Photography in focus: What is shutter speed? this article explores the visual power of aperture, or the AV setting on a simple SLR or point-and-shoot camera.

Choosing to control your aperture allows you to choose how fast light flows into your camera.

I like to think of light as a liquid. In order to perfectly expose a shot, your camera needs exactly the same amount of light as your eye does in any given situation.

Lets say this is the equivalent of a glass of liquid light.

There are 2 ways to fill a glass. You can turn your tap to maximum and flood the glass almost instantly.

Or you can place the glass under a trickle of water and fill it slowly.

Either way you are left with a glass of water, or the correct amount of liquid light.

In real life the human eye contracts and expands, controlling light in much the same way that a tap can be turned to adjust the stream of water. In photography, your camera uses aperture to control the flow of liquid light by opening and closing like a tap.

Although the final amount of light is the same, flooding your camera with light will have a very different effect to allowing it to slowly build up over time.

Creatively, aperture controls depth of field, which is simply a term used to describe how much of an image is in focus.

How does depth of field work?

During exposure, your camera uses light to paint a picture of what it sees, much like the brain does when the eyes are open.

As soon as the shutter opens, the camera starts to create the image in great detail from the focal point outwards. When the shutter closes, it stops.

If light flows into the camera quickly over a split second, the camera only has time to add detail to a small area, leaving the rest blurry.

When light is allowed to trickle in over a longer period of time, more details are added, creating an image that is sharp throughout.

This is known as depth of field and describes the depth of detail in your final photograph.

Shots for emphasis

Photographs that have a single story, an exciting moment, a main character or a cluttered background are best shot with a small depth of field. Small depth of field is achieved by flooding the camera with light using a large aperture, such as f2.8 or f5.6, to allow for a fast exposure.

The smaller the setting number, the larger the aperture. This creates a blurred background and lifts the subject to the foreground for emphasis.

Shots for endlessness

Scenes that go on forever are lost without the details. A herd of elephant will only be a herd if all are seen.

A small aperture, or a large setting number such as f16 or f22, will allow the camera to expose each member of the herd, telling a story that they are many and continue beyond the frame.

Choosing which truth to tell

The story of the migration in east africa can be told from the point of view of a wildebeest in two perspectives.

In scenario one, each wildebeest is one of ten thousand others making its way in life on the perpetual hunt for food.

It is a story of family, pilgrimage and crowds.

In scenario two each wildebeest is on a dangerous journey. Crossing vast rivers, crocs wait to snap up the weak and feed on their young.

This is a story of bravery, fear and survival.

Both stories in themselves are true.

In every scene a photographer feels compelled to share lies sub-stories, interpretations and visual truths. The art is deciding which to tell, which to create and which to leave out.

The choice is yours.

*Original blog post published for Robert Mark Safaris

What Makes a Great Wildlife Photograph?

Whether or not you are a professional photographer it is difficult to go on safari without taking at least a few great photographs. The light is perfect for photography, the colours are seemingly endless, and somehow the animals have a way of getting under your skin and making you want to take them home and keep them.

Africa is a photographer’s paradise.

As a travel agent and professional photographer, I am often asked what equipment best serves a safari. My answer is always the same. A photograph taken with a basic camera that tells a story will far outshine a boring photograph taken with state of the art equipment.

What sort of equipment should I carry?

An SLR camera of any make is first prize. I recommend taking as few lenses as possible. Lenses can be awkward to change in dusty conditions and when a lion jumps out in front of you there is seldom time to fumble about with equipment.

Choose a lens that has a good focal range, such as 100-400mm, with the lowest aperture capabilities you can afford, such as f1.8. This will give you fantastic scope with very little effort.

Vibration reduction or image stabilization is always worth the extra money.

How do I tell a story with my images?

A photograph is only interesting when it offers the unexpected. Look for unusual connections between the animal and it’s surroundings. A large eagle on it’s own is just a bird. A tiny bird looking at the same large eagle creates a giant.

Use the light to your advantage. Shooting into the sun to create a backlit scene can have a mystical effect, especially in the early hours of the day when the light is soft and there is moisture in the air.

Zoom in. An elephant standing at a waterhole is just an elephant. Taking a close up of the last few drops of water falling from his trunk shows the fragile connection between water and life.

Backgrounds can be distracting. Remove the clutter to focus on your key subject, and make sure that there is only one focal point per image.

Use the animals’ perspective. Shoot at their eye level. A dung beetle shot from above is little more than a brown ball. A dung beetle shot from the ground is a tiny force against a large ball of poop!

What are the optimal camera settings for wildlife photography?

There is no hard and fast rule to camera settings, but experienced photographers use the same basic techniques that can easily be applied to any style of photography.

Aperture: a low aperture, such as f1.8, will blur the background and place the emphasis on your subject. The lower the number, the more the background will blur.

Shutter speed: a fast shutter speed, such as 1/500sec, will freeze motion. A slow shutter speed, such as 1/15sec, will create motion blur. The faster the shutter speed the greater the sense of action. Slower shutter speeds create mood and atmosphere.

ISO: a higher ISO, such as 1000, will saturate the colours and add dynamic range to your image, however higher ISO’s can also create noisy distractions. ISO 400 is a good balance.

What’s the best-kept secret?

Use your instinct. If a photo speaks to you, shoot it!

*Original blog post published for Robert Mark Safaris

Painting With Light – An African Masterpiece

Have you ever wondered how some photographers manage to capture beautifully lit trees against a perfect, saturated sky, with an endless array of stars in a single shot, in the middle of nowhere, miles away from technology?

It may surprise you to learn that this is a simple technique. Light painting, which is literally the art of painting with light, can be achieved using any SLR camera and any artificial light source. A torch works best, and a tripod or steady surface is essential.

How is the sky so vivid?

The colours will become more saturated when a higher ISO is used. For the best effect, shoot your image during the last few minutes of dusk when the sun is gone and the sky a rich, deep blue or a lingering red. You will need a long exposure to allow the light to slowly build up in your image.

How do I achieve the starry, starry night effect?

Star trails are captured when the camera is still with the shutter open for long enough for the earths’ natural rotation to affect the position of the stars. This needs a minimum of 30 minutes. Some images use exposures in the realms of hours.

Because the stars are not very bright, and the ambient light is dark, it is very difficult to over expose your shot. In images like these the effect of a longer shutter speed is simply a longer trail of stars.

How do I make the trees shine?

This is the fun part. With the camera set up for a long exposure (30 seconds or more) you can highlight areas of interest by gently shining a torch over an object. Using a gentle, even motion will create a soft, hand painted look, whilst flashing a detachable camera flash or speed light will create a harder, more uniform look. The possibilities are endless.

Try to play around with moving in and out of the frame for a ghostly or multi-character effect, or experiment with coloured lighting and light sources of different sizes and strengths. The darker the ambient light the longer the exposure and the more time you will have to add a creative touch.

Bringing it all together

Light painting works best when you tie all of the techniques together in an interesting and unexpected way.

1- Set your camera to f22, ISO 400, and put it on a tripod or steady surface. If you are using a steady surface, it is also a good idea to switch on the

self-timer to limit any movement caused when you press the button to take your shot. The shutter speed should be set to B for bulb so that it is able to stay open indefinitely.

2- Compose your frame to include a good area of the sunset, a relatively large amount of sky, and an object of interest, such as a tree.

3- When the sunset is nearly over and the light is lingering into twilight, open the shutter and leave it open. If you have a remote control this can be locked into the open position, if not, you will need to be a bit creative about finding a way to keep the button pressed. Prestik works well.

4- Once it is dark, use a torch to gently light the foreground object for approximately 20-40 seconds, depending on how bright the torch is and how much you want to light up the object. This is the arty step. Shining the light from the side will enhance the textures.

5- Leave the shutter open for a further 30 min to a few hours and enjoy the braai whilst the stars make trails in the sky.

Light painting is a rewarding and easy technique. There are very few rules and very little that can go wrong. The more fun you have with it, the better!

*Original blog post published for Robert Mark Safaris