Picking the Right Shutter Speed in No Time

February 1, 2018
Freediving at Salaya
February 14, 2018
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New underwater photographers! Welcome back to part two of our series on underwater photography. The last time, we discussed which camera to get. I’m going to assume now you did what I recommended and bought the camera which is right for you.

I’m also sure you are very happy with that new gadget of yours! It’s a special kind of pleasure to open that box, remove the bubble wrap, and hold all of these megapixels in your hand for the first time.

Congrats – What’s Next?

The next challenge you are facing is to understand how to operate your camera. Ideally you’ll learn this on land, while seated on your sofa or hiking through the woods. Not having to breathe through a regulator, and not having to look through a mask that may be fogging or flooding makes things so much easier! You should definitely learn how to operate your camera on land before taking it underwater – the relevant concept here is task loading: If you perform more than one task at once, each of the tasks gets harder. This is especially true early on in the learning curve of a task. Remember when you first learned to drive a car? You really had to concentrate and put all of your mental resources into the process of driving. Now, probably many years later, you can easily drink some water or chat with a passenger while you are driving. The same is true with photographing and diving – its best to focus all your mental energy on photographing first, before you combine it with diving. Hence, take your new camera and do some topside (= land, non-underwater) photography for a few days.

Land First, Ocean Second

When you are out and about photographing all the nice things there are to photograph even on dry land, you will notice a lot of settings on the display screen of your camera. Depending on your camera model, you can either change these setting with designated buttons on the body of your camera, or you will have to scroll through menus. Sometimes, some of the buttons’ functions can be re-configured. The settings are usually shown on the screen on the back of your camera – to figure out the details of your specific camera model, you might have to read the camera’s manual. It’s boring and a tad undignified to read manuals, but sometimes there is no way around it.

Real Quick: Shutter Speed

If all these buttons as well as the numbers and lines and icons on your camera’s display look confusing to you, then there is some good news: There are really only three settings which really matter. These are the shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting. Let’s discuss shutter speed first:

The shutter speed is how long you allow light to hit your camera’s sensor. The longer the camera gets to look, the more light it will collect. It’s really quite an easy-to-grasp concept. What are the consequences of changing the shutter speed? The faster (shorter) you set it, the less camera shake will affect your images, and the more you will “freeze” fast-moving animals in your photographs. For bird or sports photography you would use very fast shutter speeds, for landscape photography very slow one. This ghostly scene in Bali I shot with a 30 second shutter “speed” (yes, 30 seconds, not 1/30):

Ghosts in Bali

Underwater Shutter Speed

In underwater photography you’d usually be at home with medium shutter speeds. For underwater macro shots I usually use 1/100 seconds or faster, up to 1/320. At even faster speeds, my strobe will not synchronize with the camera anymore. My Olympus E-M1 does not even let me chose a faster speed if the flash is turned on. In any case, most of the light for a macro shot will come from the (near instantaneous) strobe, and not from the ambient light, so the precise value of the shutter speed does not matter much, as long as its fast.I shot this tiny crab with 1/125 seconds:

Coral Home

For wide angle shots I sometimes use shutter speeds as slow as 1/40 seconds. You need such a slow speed for your camera to collect enough ambient light – your strobe alone will not be able to illuminate the whole scene. An even slower speed than ~ 1/40 will lead to blurry pictures, due to the shake of the camera during that increasingly longer interval while the shutter is open and lets light in. You will usually not have a tripod (to keep the camera stable in once place) with you underwater, as in land-based landscape photography. Take a look at this shot of a wreck in Japan, shot at 1/40 seconds:

Emmons from the Front II

I hope you agree that this wasn’t too hard! Next week we’ll discuss the right aperture settings.

Photographic greetings from the Philippines! If you have any questions or suggestions, email me at klaus@salayabeachhouses.com

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