Monday, June 9, 2008

Book Review: Understanding Shutter Speed by Bryan Peterson

Bryan Peterson’s book, Understanding Exposure, is widely recommended to new photographers that want to get a handle on how to meter and expose their photographs. His new book, Understanding Shutter Speed: Creative Action and Low-Light Photography Beyond 1/125 Second is a companion to his original book.

While the current edition of Understanding Exposure still feels very much like it was written during the film era, the new book fully embraces modern digital photography. He only briefly discusses the topics covered in the first book, thus it helps if the reader has read the previous work. For instance, he mentions the “Sky Brothers” as places to take your exposure reading with only a brief explanation as to what they are (i.e. taking an exposure reading from a section of the sky depending on the time and circumstances of the shot). However, those details are not the focus of this book.

Understanding Shutter Speed is concerned with how to use shutter speed to achieve particular visual or artistic effects. He does discuss ISO and in particular the ability of modern digital cameras to change ISO, a change he appears to have fully embraced. He does mention aperture as it relates to depth of field concerns. Mostly, both settings are discussed in their effect on achieving the shutter speed for the effects that he presents.

Understanding Shutter Speed is very simply organized into five chapters, the introduction and an index. The chapters are titled: Shutter Speed Facts and Myths; Fast & Moderate Speeds; Slow Speeds; Exposure Concerns; and Composition.

It the first chapter, “Shutter Speed Facts and Myths”, Mr. Peterson discusses some general exposure concepts, what to expect at the various extremes of the exposure spectrum, and a discussion of ISO in digital cameras. Interestingly, Mr. Peterson generally uses the lowest ISO his camera supports and indeed most of the photographs in the book are taken at ISO 100 or ISO 200.

The second chapter relates to using fast and moderate shutter speeds to freeze motion or to imply motion in certain ways. These are the shutter speeds that most new photographers are likely to be most comfortable using. Mr. Peterson demonstrates how they can be used more creatively and purposefully by the photographer.

“Slow Speeds” is the title of the third and my favorite chapter. It describes how to use slow shutter speeds in a variety of creative ways. For beginning photographers, these slower speeds tend to cause a certain amount of consternation and problems. For example, slow shutter speeds tend to cause photographs to be blurry when you would prefer to things in sharp focus. Some of the techniques he discusses I had read about in other books, while others were new to me, and all are very well explained and illustrated.

The chapter starts with Panning using shutter speeds of 1/30, 1/15, 1/8 and ¼ of a second as a means to imply motion. Panning is moving the camera along with a moving subject. If done properly, the subject will be relatively sharp while the background will be blurred. The next topic in the chapter is about implying motion with a tripod. The technique here is to use long shutter speeds to allow a moving subject to blur while getting sharp foregrounds/backgrounds. Both the tripod and panning techniques can be practiced by sitting in your front yard and shooting passing vehicles. Or if your house is not on a busy street, try a local park with a comfy bench. Third in the chapter is “painting” with shutter speed. This is a subject of which I already made a post with my first attempts here. In this technique you use long shutter speeds and move either the camera or yourself. It tends to create very abstract images, and may not be to everyone’s liking. However, it can be quite fun especially with very colorful subjects like flower beds or fall foliage. Other topics in the chapter include attaching the camera to moving objects, low-light photography (dusk, night, dawn) with shutter speeds of 1 second or longer and creating photographs of “ghosts”. Off all of the chapters, I found this one to contain the most fun and enjoyable ideas. Plus, because it is using longer shutter speeds and is not as dependent on fast, “professional” lenses, it is something that anyone can try.

The fourth chapter, “Exposure Concerns” is an overview of how aperture, ISO and other factors can affect the shutter speeds you need to achieve particular effects. It is also the chapter that discusses modern digital methods in the most detail. Topics include White Balance issues, long exposures with rear curtain flash synch, using filters to get longer shutter speeds, and most interestingly shooting in Raw format. It is this last subject that caught my attention the most in the chapter. Mr. Peterson calls Raw the “Anti” neutral density (ND) filter. Here he discusses how you can use Raw format to deliberately underexpose a photograph to attain higher shutter speeds to freeze motion. Hence the “anti”-ND filter term since an ND filter can be used to cut down the light reaching the sensor so that you can use longer shutter speeds. Mr. Peterson suggests that if you find yourself in a situation where you need to freeze action, but can’t get a “correct” shutter speed to do so, that you shoot in Raw format and deliberately under expose by up to 2 stops. The idea here is that with modern Raw converters such as Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, Nikon Capture NX, etc., a photograph that is under exposed by up to two stops can be “recovered” much more easily than in the past. He does note that the photograph will look dark in the LCD review, but you should be able to get a better image once you are able to process the image in your raw converter of choice. I have had some success with recovering under exposed images in this way, not because of purposefully under exposing, but rather correcting for my own exposure mistakes. However, I would think that this is a technique that you would want to use only when necessary due to poor lighting conditions as you can run the risk of increasing the noise in your image..

In the final chapter titled “Composition”, Mr. Peter discusses various compositional techniques and styles to compliment your use of particular shutter speeds. Topics include the almost ubiquitous “Rule of Thirds”, filling the frame, leaving room for the action, as well as varying composition by exploring a subject or theme in various ways.

In conclusion, Mr. Peterson’s Understanding Shutter Speed is an excellent follow-up to his original book, Understanding Exposure. Unlike the original title, Understanding Shutter Speed brings Mr. Peterson’s techniques and methods fully into the digital medium. While many of the topics would be of use to photographers that use digital SLR cameras, anyone with a compact camera which allows the user to manually change the shutter speed will find ideas that may spark some new, creative avenues. Personally, I’ve started experimenting with his “shutter painting” and zooming techniques as has my eight-year old son with his compact camera. Each page is generously illustrated with Mr. Peterson’s photographs. There is a lot to please the eye if all you want to do is look at the photographs. Luckily, there is a lot of good information and discussion in an easy to read voice to accompany the beautiful images.

If you have previously read and enjoyed Understanding Exposure, then I fully recommend Understanding Shutter Speed.

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