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Turning Water Into Cotton Candy (Photographically)

Slow down the shutter speed and look what happens

Two photographs, taken moments apart.  Same camera, same subject, same angle (the camera did not move), same lighting.  Yet, dramatically different results. What gives?


I made one simple, yet important camera setting change.  The top photo was taken with the camera set to "Automatic." The camera shutter speed was automatically set to 1/50 second (the camera decided what was the correct shutter speed and f-stop to give me an acceptable looking photo). The bottom photo was taken with the camera shutter speed manually set at 1.3 seconds. In other words, I took the camera off "Automatic."  It made a BIG difference.  Here's why.


1/50th of a second is pretty slow by camera standards (just fast enough to be hand-held without blur).  It is almost fast enough to stop the water in motion (but not quite; the flowing water is blurred).  If you had taken this same photo yourself, and you had your camera set to the "Automatic" setting (as I did), chances are your picture would look similar.


Sometimes though, there are good reasons to take the camera off the "Automatic" setting. The photo on the right benefited from an extremely slow shutter speed. I knew that if I changed the camera setting to "TV" (Canon's term for Time Value or Shutter-Speed) and set the camera shutter speed to a very slow - 1.3 seconds - I could achieve the "cotton-candy" effect I wanted.


In this case, the camera compensated for my slow shutter speed by automatically choosing the correct f-stop (lens opening) to give me a good exposure. The camera chose f-22 to compensate for that really long shutter time (the camera made the lens aperture hole very small).


Also, I did a couple of other things to improve my chances of a good (non-blurry) photo while using that 1.3 second exposure time.  I used a tripod weighted with a sand bag for stability. I also set the camera's internal mirror to lock in the "up" position so it would not vibrate my camera while it was opening and closing during my exposure.  I also set my camera's timer to ten seconds so I could step away from the tripod and let things settle down before the camera actually opened and closed the shutter.


This may all sound like a lot of work for a simple time-exposure photo.  Like a lot of other things though, I am stubborn. I have tried to do this same photo multiple times by hand-holding the camera (no tripod) and using shorter shutter speeds.  It just never worked. It was close at times, but close is only good when playing horseshoes.


So, there we have it.  Take your camera off “automatic” and turn water into "cotton candy."

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