Flow, or moment?

As every photographer knows, you use shutter speed to either blur, or freeze, motion. That is what the shutter is for, creatively speaking.

A slow shutter speed, like 1/10 second, gives you blurred motion, as in this photo I took at a country music event the other day:


While a fast shutter speed, like 1/800 second, freezes motion:


See the difference?


Q: If picture 2 was taken at 1/800 sec, why is it not darker than the first picture, which was taken at 1/10 sec? Over six stops darker?

A: Because at the same time as selecting a faster shutter speed, I selected a larger aperture: f/1.4 for the second picture, as opposed to the f/22 I used for picture 1.

Anyway. Here’s the core question I get quite often from students:

What drives the decision “do we blur or freeze?”

First, a flow looks better blurred, while something that happens as a moment in time looks better frozen. So generally speaking, for a fountain like this I would use a slow shutter speed.

What constitutes “slow”? See this excerpt from my Book 7, Pro Photography Checklists: 100 checklists, summaries, and Best Practices.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 17.04.29

What is slow, and what is fast? 

So, OK, slow or fast determines motion: blur or freeze. But there are other considerations. Like “do I want a blurred background” (which would mean a low f-number, which in turn would mean a fast shutter)? And like aesthetic considerations: the frozen fountain looks kind of cool, in this particular case.

And so it is with many photography decisions: you have a rule of thumb, a starting point; but then you interpret that creatively. That goes from everything from motion to colour to the rule of thirds. You are the creative driver, not the book or the camera or social pressure.

So if you have a reason to not use some established rule or starting point, then by all means do what you want. (In the absence of such a reason, though, go with the recommended Best Practice or Rule of Thumb.)


The beauty of a prime lens

Why do we like prime (non-zoom) lenses? Like the 35mm f/1.4 Canon lens I used for today’s snaps of the granddaughter, who is almost two? Because they rock, that’s why. 


With a prime lens you get:

  • Sharpness. Typically, prime lenses are very sharp.
  • Consistency: unlike with a zoom lens, every shot in a shoot is the same in its tolerance for motion, in its depth of field, in its look-and-feel, and in its showing of perspective.
  • Large aperture (low “f-number”).
  • …meaning blurry backgrounds when you want them, like in the snaps above.
  • …and meaning fast shutter speeds (over 1/1000th sec in these shots, at 200 ISO).
  • The ability to shoot indoors without a flash.
  • Low weight.
  • Less to worry about.

Today’s shots? Simple snaps. Taken in Aperture Priority mode because I had less than a second to shoot. Although I generally shoot in manual exposure mode, there’s always the exception, and this was it.


I was in “One Shot” AF mode (“AF-S”, in Nikon terms), which works fine if you are quick, even with a moving baby. Yes. I could have used “AI Servo” (“AF-C” for Nikon users), but again, there was no time. Seize the moment!

What is important is that I focused (with the focus button on the back of the camera, rather than the shutter button) really quickly. Using one focus point, aimed at, you guessed it, the child’s eyes.

The sequence: Aim at eye—Focus on eye—Recompose—Shoot. And all this within a tenth of a second, because almost-two-year-olds do not sit or stand still. Sounds difficult? It is, but with a little practice you can do it.

So at f/1.4 I got two big advantages. First, the large aperture results in a nice fast shutter speed, so there is no motion blur, and there is no need to raise ISO, so I get great quality. Second, the large aperture gives me a super blurry background, which is great, because since this was in a living room rather than a studio, the background was messy. Blur it out and it doesn’t matter; and the subject stands out from the background too. A win-win-win.


Just remember: focus quickly, and make sure the eyes are sharp. The rest is optional, pretty much.

And then you can concentrate on what is important. The baby. Not the f-numbers, the focus points, the lens’s bokeh quality, or other technical properties of your equipment. Those are just tools. The child and the moment are what it’s all about.


Depict your life. You have just one, and it’s great if you can make a record of the things you do and see.  Years from now, my granddaughter will be happy to have good pictures of herself as a young child.



Here, from years ago, is an assignment for you:

Put your 50mm f/1.8 lens on your camera and, using just available light, go shoot twelve things in your living room that show its character. Or shoot lots, but pick the best twelve.

Then put these together in a 3×4 arrangement, like this (yes that was my living room at the time):

Living Room Miniatures

This assignment forces you to look properly. What is it that shows the character? What makes for a simple shot? It also forces you to use the right techniques for simplifying and filling the frame. And you get to practice low-light shooting, selective focus, and so on.

But most of all, you get to think about subjects. Initially you’ll struggle to find ten – then suddenly 100 pictures will suggest themselves.

Show me your results!


David Honl, whose modifiers as you know I use, and love, just posted a helpful post on his blog. I will show you Part of it right here, namely the corrections you need to make to your flash when using a gel:


Those are useful Numbers, these will save you a lot of effort when you’re using the gels yourself. Which as you know I’m a big advocate of. This  will save you a lot of effort when you’re using the gels yourself. Which as you know I’m a big advocate of.

There is one thing I want to point out in addition to this though. Namely:

To turn a background into colorful, it first has to be dark.

It does not matter if the background is in reality gray, light gray, white, or even black; what is important is that to the camera ot has to look almost black. Then, and only then, can you add your gelled flashes. Then, and only then, can you add your gelled flashes.

If you do not do this, and if the background is, say, white, then adding color will add nothing except perhaps a slight tint   LIgor is not like paint: you cannot cover a color by putting another color on top.

For many people this is the biggest revelation when they start using color gels… So now you know. I just saved you a bunch of time. As did Dave with his table.

To  buy,  click on the advertising link on the right, and when checking out use code word “Willems” for an additional 10% discount. You’re welcome.