Sometimes the effect of time is significant

Time is common to all of us. We are all given the same amount of time each day. Most of us are not as aware of time flowing by as we are of the events we have scheduled at certain times. Rather than moaning about how busy we all are or talking about productivity, I would like to discuss time as a creative element.

What is time?

Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future.” Deep, but it helps frame the problem.

We all “know” what time is, but we would probably have a difficult time describing or defining it. Yet it is what we live in. It controls almost every aspect of our lives. We all experience it constantly. We can’t control it or buy or sell it or save it. It flows on by with no regard to our desires.

It may be a cliche that we all have the same amount of time each day, but like most cliches, it is very true. We can’t control it, we just decide what we are going to do with it.

Most art deals with moments

Most art, and most photography, captures discrete moments in time. This is the conventional view of the world. It is what we think we see all the time. Don’t take it as me sounding critical of capturing moments. I do it all the time, too. It records an event or a place or a person at a certain moment, and that matches and triggers our memories.

In a sense, it is our way of freezing and controlling time. As photographers we usually think in terms of the best shutter speed to use to stop the action, to minimize blur. This is the right thing to do for normal image captures. We, and our viewers, expect the moment to be recorded in sharp detail with no distractions like blurred movement.

Photography is unique

Photography is unique in it’s ability to represent time in varying ways. Time is one of the variables of the photographic process.

If you are painting or sculpting you usually represent what you can see or imagine. We seem to see things still, not moving or traveling through time. And it is very hard to imagine what the movement of time looks like. We may be able to see the effects of years or centuries on something, but even then it is impossible to visualize what it looks like as it is happening.

But photography has time built in as one of the parameters being controlled. We balance aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity (ISO) to determine an exposure. Think about that for a moment: we can adjust aperture and sensitivity to set the time window of an image to whatever we want. Within limits.

Yes, we usually use this to set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion. But that is just the normal convention. We could just as well make the shutter speed very long to observe motion over time. Some photographers do this regularly to feather moving water. It is almost a convention of landscape images, sadly.

I know my friend Cole Thompson gravitates to very long exposures to give a different view of the world. Many of his images create very interesting effects.


I have recently found myself drawn to visualizing the passage of tiime.. More and more I tend to use relatively long exposures, often hand holding the camera, to examine the effects of movement over time. Some of my images done this way do not have a single sharp edge in them.

This may seem controversial to many photographers. We are trained to maximize sharpness. We buy very high resolution sensors and ultra sharp lenses to record the sharpest detail possible. But I use those great sensors and sharp lenses to record – blur. A waste? That is an artistic judgment.

One of the things I am trying to capture is the unseen way things move over time. We know they move. We can point to it and say “that is moving”. But it is nearly impossible to visualize what it really looks like as it moves. That is what I am exploring.

The image with this article sort of illustrated this idea. This is an event called Cowboy Mounted Shooting. It is a speed and shooting event at some of our local rodeos. I believe the blur and slow shutter speed capture the speed and dramatic action of the event better than a crisp, frozen frame. The sharpest focus is on the face of the horse. That seemed appropriate to me because one of the things I wondered about is how the horse felt about guns going off over his head.

A new viewpoint

This concept is a new viewpoint for me. Time exposures are certainly not new and I have done a lot of them over my career. Now, though, I am more consciously using time as a creative element. Instead of a limitation of low light I now see it an an opportunity to show a new view on the world. I am working on a series that emphasizes this. Maybe more on that later.

Time is too much of a subject to cover in depth in a blog post. It is a theme I will probably return to in the future.

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.