There are few fundamental settings that have as big of an impact on an image then the shutter speed. Adjusting the shutter speed makes a huge difference and can, in most situations, make or break the image.

A slow shutter speed, for example, can often have a positive impact on what otherwise would’ve been an average image; by lengthening the exposure time, your camera is able to register movement and create a sense of motion. This technique is often used when photographing seascapes, rivers and waterfalls but it can be useful in more scenarios.

In fact, it can be one of your most creative tools.

The creative exercise I’m about to teach you has many names but the most common is Intentional Camera Movement or ICM. It’s a great exercise to help understand how the shutter speed works but, ultimately, it’s an amazing technique that can lead to beautiful and artistic images when used right.

The Equipment You’ll Need

Before we jump into the technicalities of this exercise, let’s quickly look at the equipment that you’ll need:

  • A camera with the opportunity to manually set the shutter speed and basic settings
  • A mid-range or telezoom lens
  • A tripod
  • A Neutral Density filter or Circular Polarizer to allow a longer shutter speed

Having a camera that allows you to manually adjust the shutter speed is essential for this technique to work. Luckily, the majority of today’s cameras have this capability (be it a DSLRs, Point-and-Shoot or Smartphone). 

If you’re not comfortable using Manual Mode yet, start by using the camera’s Shutter Priority Mode. This lets you adjust the shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the remaining settings).

The focal range used depends on the scene you’re photographing but I often find that a mid-range or telezoom lens gives the best results for this technique. If you’re in a dense forest or near your subject, a wide-angle lens can work too. However, including too many elements will quickly make the image messy and unpleasant to view.

A tripod isn’t essential for this technique (as we are introducing intentional camera movement) but many find it easier to control the motion when the camera is mounted on one. Personally, I rarely use a tripod for this technique as I feel it limits me in my movement and search for composition. However, if I’ve found the exact composition I want, using a tripod might be helpful in order to keep the images of it consistent.

Intentional Camera Movement

Whether or not you’ll need to use a filter depends on the outside luminosity. You’re most likely not going to need a filter if you’re photographing in a dense forest or the light is getting darker but if you’re photographing in broad daylight, they are essential for achieving a longer exposure.

ND Filters are darkened glass that you place in front of the lens, letting less light reach the sensor and ultimately allowing you to use slower shutter speeds.

Basics of the Intentional Camera Movement technique

Now that you know what equipment you should use for this exercise, let’s jump straight into the technicalities and begin capturing some abstract and creative images.

Some of you might be familiar with long exposure photography and how it’s an exciting technique to use when photographing rivers, waterfalls or seascapes. In those scenarios, the subject itself is one of the most important parts of the image. That’s not quite the case when working with the ICM technique.

You can start by simply practicing inside your living room when using this exercise to learn how the shutter speed works. Once you understand the technique and you’re ready to bring it outside, I recommend looking for a scene with a decent amount of contrast, such as a forest.

For the best result, fill the entire frame and avoid including a sky or a foreground.

Step-by-step to use ICM

Whether you choose to use a tripod or not is up to you. If you find it easier to adjust camera settings and take the shot with one, go ahead and mount the camera on your tripod now.

With the camera mounted on the tripod, set the shutter speed to 0.5 seconds. We are going to adjust this later but it’s a good place to begin.

Shutter Speed in Landscape Photography
Experimenting with a slow shutter

There’s only one step left before pressing the shutter button: loosen the tilt handle on the tripod head. Make sure that you’re holding your camera as it might tip forward once you loosen it.

Why would you loosen the head, you ask? Good question. I told you this wasn’t the normal use of a slow shutter speed. Normally, you always want to make sure that everything is tight and sturdy to avoid any camera shake or unwanted vibrations. For this technique, however, we’re going to add movement and create an abstract and creative image.

Now that everything is prepared, it’s time to finally press the shutter button!

Quickly tilt your camera forwards at the same moment you press the shutter. Make sure that you do this quickly, though, as the shutter speed is only at 0.5 seconds!

Tilting the camera forward as you take the picture added some nice vertical lines and created a lot of motion in the image. It’s going to take several attempts until you get an image that has the “perfect lines” so continue repeating this process until you get a satisfying result.

Try tilting the camera quicker and slower as well, or add in a little side movement; your creativity is the only limitation at this point!

Note: Instead of tilting the tripod head you can try tilting the tripod itself; sometimes that makes it easier to get straight lines!

Play with the Shutter Speed

The Intentional Camera Movement technique is pretty straight forward and by following the steps above, you can create some beautiful abstract images. It’s also a great way to understand the importance of shutter speed and how much changing it impacts an image (for the better and worse).

Intentional Camera Movement

To properly understand the impact of the shutter speed, though, you should spend time experimenting with various exposure times.

Instead of 0.5 seconds, change it to 2 seconds. See how different the image is now? Most likely, it’s become softer and has lost a lot of the textures you had at the quicker shutter speed. 

Change it to 1/250 seconds. What happens now? Most likely there’s no blur at all.

When you get into a habit of exploring the different shutter speeds for different types of sceneries, you’ll quickly figure out exactly which range of exposure time gives the best results.

This depends on the focal range you’re using too; a 1/5 second shutter speed is going to be blurrier at 300mm than 14mm.

Conclusion

The ICM is a great technique and exercise that can both help you understand the basic principle of the shutter speed and result in amazing images.

Use your creativity and try this technique in different scenarios. Explore the different focal lengths and shutter speeds to see how they impact each other.

I challenge you to try this exercise today and share the result with us in the comments below!


Creative exercise with slow shutter speed