First, an explanation on shutter speed. It’s simple, really–the longer the shutter of a camera is open, the more light comes in. Therefore, if we have a dark environment (not much light), we leave the shutter open a while to allow enough light into the camera to register on the film/sensor; if we have a ton of light (a bright sunny day for example), we only need to leave the shutter open a brief period to properly expose the image. When we add more light, the camera’s shutter speed can be faster and we can, in essence, freeze a moment in time. Shutter only open for 1/2000 of a second? You’ve captured 1/2000 of a second in time.
But the longer you have the shutter open, the more opportunity there is for having “camera shake” (blurry pictures). This is because if your camera is moving from you holding it, the camera is going to record all that movement while the shutter is open–even if you’re holding the camera as still as you possibly can, the camera will still register movement from you breathing, for example. For the point and shoot camera users out there, this is why your flash will suddenly pop up as you’re getting ready to take the picture–it’s the machine’s way of telling you that you need to add some light to the environment to avoid camera blur.
Now, in some cases, photographers want some motion blur. Usually we don’t want blur from camera shake but rather blur from movement; this is called “dragging the shutter”. It’s a great way of conveying movement and energy to the viewer, as in the example of a photo I took a few years ago of an amazingly energetic swing-dancing duo:
In this case, I wanted to have the feel of a bustling dance floor but also capture a moment in time while the dancers did their thing. This was achieved by keeping the shutter open awhile (to get the motion blur of the dancers behind the duo) and then flashing a burst of light (in this case, the flash on the camera) a split second to freeze the duo in that last moment before the shutter closed. One thing to note, “dragging the shutter” requires a camera that has the capabilities to pop the flash just before the shutter closes, called “rear (or second) curtain sync”. If you don’t have that on your camera, you can also experiment with leaving the shutter open and then flicking the lights on or shining a flashlight on your subject just before the shutter closes…it’ll just take several tries to get it right.
So now that you know all this, you can join the Broadway stars and see your name in lights. It takes a tripod (to avoide camera blur), a dark environment (inside or outside is fine) a light source (in the example below, we actually used my husband’s Treo Touchscreen phone!!), someone to press the shutter of the camera, some experimenting and a little (ok, a lot) of practice in writing your name in the air…backwards. The trick is to start writing your name right when the shutter opens and be finished by the time the shutter closes. By popping the camera’s flash at the very end, you can illuminate the “writer” as well. The result? Pure awesomeness. Have fun!