Being a travel photographer, I shoot a good number of moving subjects—powwow dancers, Cinco de Mayo dancers, rodeos. I generally create sharp images of my subjects with soft backgrounds so that the subject separates well from its background. It’s the dancer that is important, not the audience behind them. To accomplish this shallow depth of field, most images are exposed with the aperture wide open and a fast shutter speed. I usually use a longer focal length lens, usually a 70-200mm zoom or a fast 300mm telephoto. This produces a sharp subject, with the motion frozen, and a very soft background. Capturing the peak of action takes some practice, but today’s autofocus lenses makes this much easier than it was in the past. This is the type of image that most of my clients like best.
Once I have images that I know will please my client, I then start shooting for myself. I stop down the aperture, which in turn requires me to slow down my shutter speed. The greater depth of field doesn’t matter in this case because I am going to blur the whole shot, either by panning with the subject or just moving the camera almost randomly.
The shutter speed will be dependent on how much I want to blur my subjects and how fast the subjects are moving. A spinning powwow dancer can look heavily blurred at 1/30 second while a dancer moving across in front of me may require a slower shutter speed of 1/15 or 1/8 second. Exposures are usually even slower if I am panning with the subject, which will give me relatively sharp parts of the subject with a very blurred background. If I want the image to become rather abstract, I will slow down to ½ second exposure and move the camera during the exposure. Sometimes it’s necessary to put on a polarizer or neutral density filter to get down to these slow shutter speeds.
Essentially, a fast shutter speed portrays the subject clearly and often shows their emotions. A slow shutter speed actually illustrates the shape and energy of the movements. I have to say that it is rare that a client will publish a blurred image, as New Mexico Journey did on a recent cover, but I have found that it is important for me to shoot for myself as well as my client. My first rule of photography—if I’m not having fun, I’m doing it all wrong.