Inspiration Photography

Create photos that tell the story of time

Extend your message beyond the single frame.

The still camera can help us extend the message beyond the single frame.

Time is a big idea—conceptual, timeless, universal. To interpret time, we can focus on content: for example, a photo of a clock, or people waiting at a bus stop. Time could be a theme for travel photography that helps you spice up your days chasing light.

But focusing on the content may not extend the image’s message beyond the single frame, only freeze it forever. What could we do to make a timeless image of time?

We can use some techniques that help us to interpret the theme of time. Although the camera captures a still photo, there are techniques that help us to show passage of time. These techniques are controlling shutter speed and creating motion blur.

Understanding how a camera takes a picture depends on understanding the three most important settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO—the holy trinity of photography. Knowing how these three settings influence the resulting image is key imagery that expresses the concept of time.

Sunset on Negros Island, Philippines.

Aperture, ISO and How They Affect Shutter Speed

We looked at how aperture can help us speed up the ability of the camera to capture a photograph. If we use a wide aperture (the small numbers of your f/stop, such as f/2.8 to f/5.6), we allow the camera to let in more light. The result is a faster shutter speed. That means closing up the aperture lets less light in and slows down the shutter speed.

This is an important relationship that we have to remember for a project of capturing time in a still image.

ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor to the light. That means a low ISO value (50-100) requires a lot of light for the camera to make an effective exposure. This also means that a low ISO can slow down the shutter speed.

Slowing Down Shutter Speed

To slow down the shutter speed, we can control two things: how much light the lens lets in by controlling the aperture, and how sensitive the sensor is to light by controlling the ISO value.

If you are shooting in Aperture Mode (A or Av), you can dial a narrow aperture (f/11 to f/22 for example) and slow down your shutter speed that way. You can also make your ISO value low, say ISO 50-100, and this also slows down your shutter speed.

You can also use Shutter Speed Mode (S or Tv) and control your shutter speed directly. Starting with an ISO setting of 50-100, you can dial down the shutter speed to values like 1/8 to 1/20 of a second. On most cameras, the actual number that shows up on the screen is only the denominator of the shutter speed, “8” for 1/8s or “20” for 1/20 of a second.

The effect of a slow shutter on the camera is that it leaves the shutter open for longer. In that time it takes the camera to capture the shot, you can do a couple of things that will show motion blur.

Techniques: Long Exposure and Panning

A long exposure shows the passage of time. If we think about it, time is shown to us by how things move: the sun moves and changes our perception of the time; now it’s 5.08 am as I write this, but in an hour or so, the brighter light and warmer temperature will tell me it’s past sunrise.

Early morning, Yosemite National Park, California.

And of course, there is the clichéd but beautiful image of ‘time flowing like a river.’

Long exposure, slow shutter speed Yosemite National Park, California.

How do you make a long exposure?

In the videos, it is suggested that you need a tripod, a remote / cable release and of course a DSLR. But you can also do slow shutter work with a compact camera.

First, choose a setting that makes the shutter slow. Some compact cameras have settings like “Portrait” or “Still Life” or even something that is normally taken in Daylight situations where there is a lot of light. Of course, you don’t have a lot of light, so you can fool your point and shoot camera into slowing down its shutter.

Then, set the camera on timer mode on a stable surface. Compose first, then set the timer. Press the shutter and wait about 10 seconds. The camera will blink light and make a beeping noise. Then after 10 blinks and beeps, it will automatically take the exposure.

Time is also suggested when I watch someone ride a bike from one end of the street to the other.

Panning technique to capture a banana vendor, Hoi An Vietnam.

The panning technique to slow down motion in a photo can be done in low light, like in the early morning before the sun is really bright, or later in the day when there is less light. To practice this technique, set the camera to Shutter Priority (S or Tv), and adjust the shutter speed to around 1/30s for a moving bicycle, or about 1/15s for a walking person. Use a wide focal length, like 17mm for this shot. Focus on the moving subject from one side of the frame, and keeping the shutter button pressed halfway, follow the subject until they get to the middle or end of the frame, then press the shutter release to take the photo.

What this action does is to make the subject you focused on sharp while blurring the background. Don’t forget to follow the motion of the subject long after you have pressed the shutter to take the shot. You should pan in a 180-degree arc, from one side to the other side, in one fluid and well-timed motion.

There’s most likely some app on a smartphone that allows you to do long exposure or motion captures. Yes, if the goal is to get that shot to post it on Instagram, that’s fine. If your goal is to have some fun creating the images, why not try the process of expressing time.

I still think it’s fun to make the process happen with control over a camera. What do you think?

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