One fifteenth

When you want to show motion, one fifteenth of a second is the kind of time you need to think about.

Of course this depends on:

  • focal length of the lens
  • how fast the subject is moving
  • how close you are
  • how steady you are

..but in general, 1/15th is a good time to use.


To show movement, rather than to freeze it. Like in this snap of the London Heathrow Express:

Heathrow Express Train

Heathrow Express Train

Not showing movement (shooting at a fast shutter speed) would show a “stationary” train – which here would be a big mistake.

Vomit, or silk?

So when I shoot a flow, like a rapidly moving car, or a gently flowing river, or a famously gushing fountain (uh oh, I am beginning to sound like Dan Brown), should I “freeze” that motion? Or should I somehow show it?

This is a shot from the other day’s Creative Urban Photography walk, shot as an instant, a moment in time (using S/Tv mode, shot at 1/500th second):

Fountain, moment in time (Photo Michael Willems)

Fountain, moment in time

Uh oh. Matter of taste – but to me, that looks like vomit. Or perhaps a chainsaw.

And here’s the same, now using S/Tv mode at 1/10th second, so it shows a  stream:

Fountain, as a flow (Photo Michael Willems)

Fountain, as a flow

Ahhh…. a beautiful silky flow.

So now you tell me. Matter of taste, yes. So according to your taste, should a flow be portrayed as a moment, or as a flow?

Blur is bad. Always. Or…?

Or is it?

Bike, photo by Michael Willems

Bike, Toronto, Aug 2010

Indeed not. That is why you have a shutter speed priority (Tv/S). Sometimes you want to show motion, and you do that by blurring things.

I took the shot above while panning at 1/15th of a second (and f/22 at 100 ISO: it was a bright day in Toronto). It shows “in a hurry”, dynamic motion much better than a “frozen” picture of the same subject would do.

Fun with a zoom lens

Go on, have some fun:

  • Put a zoom lens on your camera, preferably a wide angle one.
  • St your camera’s mode to shutter priority (S or Tv).
  • Select a shutter speed of 1/15th second.
  • Select high ISO (1600) or auto ISO.
  • Zoom in on your subject in the centre.
  • Now briskly zoom out,and while doing that, click.

You get this:

A Blackberry at the centre oflife, shot by Michael WIllems using a zoom lens

A Blackberry at the centre of life

I took that shot on a Creative Urban Photography “Get out and shoot” course that I just did in Oakville.This was to show the students slow shutter speeds.

Shake-free trick

You all know that when you take handheld pictures at low shutter speeds (like 1/15th second on a 35mm lens) you do not get sharp pictures like this:


Actually. you can. I took that picture hand-held – holding the camera with only one hand! – at those very settings. And no, the lens is not a “VR” (Nikon) or “IS” (Canon) stabilized type.

So how did I do this? Other than of course having a rock-stead hand?

Just kidding about the hand. Here’s the first five pictures I took:






So how many sharp ones? One in five, and for me, that’s about what I get when I handhold the camera in one hand at half the lens length.

The point, of course, is that even with bad conditions like that, you’ll still get the odd accidentally sharp picture. If you need the picture to be sharp, shoot a lot. Click-click-click-click-click-click. It’s OK – sometimes you have to do it without a tripod even though you should be using one (and you know it!), and you’ll still get the odd sharp pictures even then.

(I’ll tell no-one if you don’t.)