In its essence, the purpose of photography is capturing a frozen moment in time. However, sometimes it’s necessary to convey motion in our photos, rather than simply a still canvas. Without a doubt, the best method for capturing movement in images is motion blur photography.
Simply put, this type of photography blurs one part of the photo, making it seem like either the subject or the background are moving. Here are some tips to get motion blur photography right, every time.
Two types of motion blur photography
Although there are some variations, there are two main ways to capture motion blur photos: a blurred subject or a blurred background.
In the first case, let’s say that you have a moving car, with a mountain range in the background. By slowing down your shutter speed and putting focus on the mountains, the car will appear blurred and seem like it’s moving quickly. You’ll often see this type of photography used in night shots with blurred car trail lights. You will need a steady hand or a tripod to focus your shot here.
The second popular type of motion blur photo technique is the exact opposite, where the background is blurred and the subject is in focus. Using our previous example, you would focus on the car, which would look sharp, while the mountains in the background would be blurred. Here you will need to pan the camera to follow the car and match its speed and direction. Needless to say, this is the harder of the two options as it requires you to keep track of your subject. For this reason, we’ll primarily be focusing on the first type today.
The concept of shutter speed
One of the most important elements to get motion blur camera settings right is the shutter speed. Essentially, this is the amount of time that the camera shutter is open. For example, a shutter speed of 1/250s means that the shutter is open for 1/250 of a second. The slower the shutter speed, the longer is the time for the camera sensor to pick up on the movement in front of it.
Shutter speeds such as 1/250s and 1/500s are useful if you want to capture an object moving fairly quickly and get a sharp photo of a moment frozen in time. However, for the purposes of making motion blur photographs, you want the shutter speed to go down to 1s or more for the best effect. As the shutter has more time to view the action, you will be able to see the blur in the objects’ motion.
“In my photographs it is apparent that there was no posing at the moment I released the shutter.” – Jerzy Kosinski
So, what’s the ideal shutter speed for motion blur photos? The answer is – it depends. There are many factors at play, including the speed of the subject’s movement, the amount of light coming in through the sensor, just how blurry you want the photo to come out etc. However, there are some general tips. For example, you should shoot cars and bikes in the range of 1/60s-1/5s. If you want to capture traffic light trails, you should go for speeds from 5 to 15 seconds. Finally, if you want to capture movements that take quite a lot of time, such as star trails moving, the shutter speed should be 30 seconds and up.
In the end, the best advice is to experiment as much as you can. You’re only limited by your imagination and the amount of space on your SD card. Think about the old days where you had to wait days before seeing what your shots look like when they’re developed!
Keep your camera steady
In order to display movement in your photos, one of the key elements of the scene has to be steady – your subject or your camera. One of the easiest ways to capture movement is to keep your camera perfectly still.
As the shutter speed starts getting slower, smaller movements are easier to detect and even a slight twitch will have a major effect on the final product, resulting in very obvious camera shake. For this reason, you should make sure the camera is still, using a tripod or placing it somewhere firm. You won’t always be able to stay behind the camera, so you can use a timer or a remote release mechanism.
Finally, you should use the VR (vibration reduction) or IS (image stabilization) option on your camera, depending on the make.
Dealing with overexposure
Having long exposures is one of the necessities of great motion blur photo skill. However, there’s one drawback. The longer the exposure, the more light your camera’s sensor will be able to pick up. Although light is generally a good thing, having too much of it can result in overexposed shots that look anything but pretty. For this reason, it’s much easier to shoot motion blur photos at night than daytime. Luckily, there are a few ways to combat this.
First, you can decrease the ISO. This is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, and you can manually decrease the value on your own. For example, an ISO value of 1000 leaves your camera much more sensitive to light than at 100 ISO. With a lower ISO value, you’ll be able to choose longer exposure times and decrease overexposure. If you want to prepare yourself for shooting motion blur but don’t want to change ISO values all the time – simply set it somewhere between 200 and 400 and tuck your camera away.
Second, you can decrease your aperture. This is the part of your camera determining how much light goes through to the sensor. Generally, it’s good practice to decrease the aperture as you lengthen the exposure. Unfortunately, you’ll have to do this on your own in Manual mode.
The final method for compensating for extra light is also one that’s most old school. Instead of tinkering with settings, simply go and get yourself a neutral density (ND) filter. Think of these filters as sunglasses for your lens, as they reduce the amount of light that comes through to the sensor. In this way, you’ll be able to use super slow shutter speeds without your photos looking like a complete mess.
Try out Shutter Priority mode
When it comes to using DSLR cameras, you really need to shoot in manual mode to get the most out of your gear. In this mode, you can set up all aspects of a photo, from the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. It’s a double-edged sword – you get to tweak the final product up to the finest details, but at the same time, there’s lots more that can go wrong. Luckily, manual is one of the two modes that you can use to shoot motion blur photography with ease.
The other one is called Shutter Priority. As you can tell by its name, this is when the camera puts shutter speed as a priority, and you can play with this setting, while the camera takes care of the rest on its own, such as aperture.
Using this mode, you’ll be able to get shots with great exposure, as the camera will pick the best settings on your behalf. While this is not the end-all method for getting great motion blur shots, it’s an excellent learning tool. By capturing the settings that the camera uses for long exposure shots, you can replicate them on your own and tinker with them in manual mode. Additionally, Shutter Priority is an excellent choice when you need to shoot something really fast, without worrying about getting all of the manual settings perfectly.
If you don’t want to follow the pack and do the two types of motion blur photo styles already mentioned, there’s another path you can take – zoom blur shots. Using this technique, you zoom in or out while taking a photo with long exposure, which creates a blur from the center of the photo to the outer edges. The only thing different from the previously mentioned tips is that you need a zoom lens for this type of photography.
Depending on how you set up the shot, the image will either look like a moment frozen in time or like an abstract painting. In any case, it’s worth checking out as an alternative to two of the more popular motion blur photo styles.
Take your time and practice
While motion blur photography is one of the most interesting methods of shooting moving objects, it also requires plenty of skill and patience to get right. The best way to get your photos coming out right each time is to practice as much as possible, with different methods, setups and objects. Needless to say, you shouldn’t go hard mode on your first shooting sessions and try to capture rally cars racing. Instead, start out slowly, shooting moving water or passersby in the city.
“Popular culture isn’t a freeze-frame; it is images zapping by in rapid-fire succession, which is why collage is such an effective way of representing contemporary life. The blur between images creates a kind of motion in the mind.” – James Rosenquist
With a lot of patience, practice and a couple of useful tips, even complete beginners can take some excellent motion blur shots. So, grab your gear and try out this great way of showing movement in time!