The when, how and why of Shutter speeds

Johan van Zyl All Authors, Johan 3 Comments

After watching Gerry’s episode 50 on the Q&A series I thought I should do a blog and try and give examples of what goes through my mind when taking images.  Like Gerry mentioned, there are still lots of people asking HOW?  How do I create blurred images?  How do I freeze movement?  What should my ISO or shutter speed be to create blurred and sharp images?  When do you decide to create a blurred image?  Why are you sometimes using slow shutters?

Now there is no set recipe, and if you speak to 10 different Guides, you will most likely get 10 different answers, but I will give you a few examples and what went through my mind when capturing these images.

Firstly it is a MUST that you understand the exposure triangle, and how these three components make up your image.  This is something that we repeat over and over again on our Digital Photography and Wildlife Photography courses.  Without understanding how this triangle works, you won’t be able to achieve your desired results.



Now for me there are a few scenarios when I will use slow shutter speeds:

  • Firstly it will be to add a more creative side to my image, normally after I have banked my shots.  I will have a quick look at some of the images I have captured and if I am satisfied that I have a few sharp images, I might try and create something a little different, instead of going home with 1000 images that look exactly the same.
  • In low light situations.  Low light provides the perfect opportunity to shoot with slow shutter speeds.  Depending on what animal it is and what it is doing, will determine whether I will shoot slow shutter speeds or increase my ISO to create a faster shutter speed.  For example, if I see my first Honey Badger and he is fighting with a Pangolin (over exaggerating just a touch) there is NO WAY I am going to look for a blurred image!  I will pump my ISO to whatever it needs to be to get as sharp an image as possible.  I DON’T MIND if it’s grainy, I got the image!  Now if there is something that I have photographed many times, say Impala, why look for just another Impala image?  Why not try and create something unique?  In this case I won’t bother with trying to freeze the moment, and will rather look to get creative with slow shutter speeds.
  • To highlight certain behaviours.  Let’s say Cheetahs for example.  Everyone knows Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal, now how do you capture that if it’s running full speed across the Mara plains?  If you choose a fast shutter speed and freeze the moment, will you get the visual impact of the speed that it is moving?  Probably not.  In this case a slow shutter speed with the Cheetah in focus and movement around it, THAT will create a sense of the speed that it is moving at.  Think of F1 or any racing images you’ve seen.  How many wow images were created by freezing the moment (remember, fast shutter speed)?  Not many.  Slow Shutter speed where you have the vehicle in focus but the background blurred, creating a sense of motion?  Yes quite a few.  So this is a crucial part of when to use slow shutter speeds.


  • As I mentioned before, low light provides the perfect opportunity for slow shutters.  During times where there is lots of light, say mid day, the first approach will be to drop your ISO right down, to say 100.  Now if you’re shutter speed is still higher than what you would like, you can select a smaller aperture (higher number).  So mid day if you’re trying to get a blurred image of say Zebra’s for example, your setting will probably be along the lines of ISO:  100  Aperture:  F18 which will give you a slower shutter speed.
  • Depending on the speed at which the animal is moving, but anything from about 1/60 right down to 1/6 sec will give you movement,  the effect becoming more obvious the slower your shutter speed.
  • Results of blurred images are normally best if the subject is moving across the frame.  If the subject is moving towards or away from you, results usually do not have the same effect.


  • Below I will share some images with you and take you through my thought process and why I used slow or fast shutter speeds.


Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 70-200mm 2.8 lens.  ISO 100, Aperture F18, Shutter speed 1/10 sec

We viewed this Lion walking from a long away straight toward us.  I had a my fixed 300 in my hand and knew that when he walks past us it will be too close.  I changed to the 70-200mm lens and immediately changed by settings so I could achieve a slow shutter.  If this image was taken with a fast shutter speed and the movement frozen, would it have anything?  Probably not.


Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 300mm 2.8 lens.  ISO 4000, Aperture 3,2, Shutter Speed 1/125.

This image was taken as it was virtually dark.  The excitement of seeing this little cub was unbelievable.  It was moving up and down the branch, so a slow shutter speed would have gotten movement but it wasn’t across the frame like I wanted it to be.  I decided to push my ISO right up and open my aperture so I could get a relatively clear image.


Now these two images (above and below) happened within a few minutes of each other.  This Female was walking and calling her little cub.  After getting a few images of her in focus, as the sunlight disappeared I decided to try and capture a few images using slow shutter speeds.  In the above images my ISO was 320, Aperture 2.8, Shutter speed 1/10 sec.  As soon as she met up with her Cub, my thought process changed.  First thing, ISO 2000, with my Aperture already at 2.8, I also underexposed by 0.3 stops, which in total gave me a shutter speed of 1/1250.  Probably more than I needed, but rather that than being too slow.



For those that have been in Africa a few times, how many images do you have of Elephants that look almost exactly the same?  This was exactly my thought process, I have so many images of Elephants doing all sorts, why not try something different?  Firstly ISO right down to 100.  Smaller aperture (larger number) to F22.  This game me a shutter speed of 1/40 sec.  I used a Canon 17-40 mm lens and zoomed in at max (40mm).  Whilst pressing the shutter (remember the shutter speed is very slow) I zoomed out, giving it this effect known as radial blur.


Again there was literally no light when I took this image, but wanted to see what can be created.  ISO 5000, Aperture 2.8, Shutter speed 0,4 sec.  Now if this was the first and only Elephant you would ever get to see, do you want to show this image or nothing at all?  Even after thousands of Elephant images, I like this one, just because it is so different.

There are still many more example but I hope this will make a bit more sense for you now.  Remember a lot of the times when we are out in the field, we will change setting from one scale (fast shutter speeds) to the next (slow shutter speeds) in the matter of seconds.  It is therefore vital that you know your camera and where all the buttons are, without having to move your eyes from the viewfinder.  Like everything, it take PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

Hope this all makes sense, feel free to get in touch with me if you would like more info on this.

Till next time…


About the Author

Johan van Zyl


The opportunity of visiting some of the wildest, undisturbed areas and sharing my passion for wildlife, conservation and photography with like minded people is a privilege that I am forever grateful.

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