Photographic Time

Calf roping

The camera’s shutter speed setting creates a unique art form. The camera captures instants too short for the eye to perceive. Or it can stay open for very long times allowing motion to be recorded. Photographic time is a distinct concept. It is one of the things that is exclusive to photography.

A painting starts on a blank canvas. The image is created one brush stroke at a time, exactly as the artist envisions. No more; no less. Nothing is there that was not placed there by the artist.

The camera is just the opposite. Each time the shutter opens an entire scene is captured. Everything in view of the lens is recorded on the sensor (within the limits of dynamic range). Whether or not the photographer wanted it there, it will be recorded if it is visible. The general problem of the photographic artist is to balance everything so that the shutter lets in everything we want and only what we want.

The photographic artist has several tools available to tailor the outcome, besides the obvious of arranging the scene the way he wants. The main tools are position (move!), lens choice, aperture and shutter speed. We are concentrating on shutter speed this time, as it is one of the things that makes photography different.

Most photographs are taken with a moderate shutter speed to create images that look conventionally normal to viewers. Normal in the sense that it looks like what they would see with their eye. This causes no surprise. This is the way you take most of your selfies.

At one extreme, though, the shutter can seem to “freeze” time. Most good cameras have a shutter speed down to the neighborhood of 1/8000 second. With a fast flash even shorter effective times can be stopped. This allows bullets to be frozen in flight, drops hitting liquid and bouncing, a ball “squishing” as it impacts a hard surface. These phenomena cannot be observed by the eye. They happen too fast.

At the other extreme, the shutter can stay open for seconds, minutes, even hours to let action be captured in one frame. This end of the spectrum is generally of more interest to me in my creative work. It allows for a path to be traced. Common items can take on a whole different meaning when streaked or smeared for unusually long times. It is fairly common to see cascades or waterfalls shot at slow speeds to let the water flow streak together. Night shots often show car lights tracing long paths along the road. A simple shot of a field of long grass takes on a new feeling when the long exposure lets us see the wind blowing the grass.

I enjoy using the camera as a creative tool to let us see scenes not typically captured by other types of art. My work is more often at the slow shutter speed end. I like capturing motion. The image with this blog shows a fast action shot hand held at a slow shutter speed – the opposite of what most people do. For me, motion is best represented by blurred movement. I have friends who work more at the extremely fast speed of frozen motion. That’s great and I really enjoy some of their work. It is not how I think, though. Photographic time is a means of creatively showing aspects of the world in ways that are unique to photography.