When you first start in photography, blurry photos are your worst enemy. It never fails to happen, everything is going great, and you are loving what you are getting. Then you load the images on your computer and are so disappointed. Everything is blurry, and you can't figure out why.
You then learn about shutter speed and how to prevent camera shake. If the shutter speed is too slow, the camera picks up the motion of your body moving, and you get blurry photos. Once you master the exposure triangle, you figure out how to avoid this problem, and you probably don't give it much thought after that.
But every once in a while, you might want a blurry photo. Why? Like lines trailing behind Superman, blurry objects in a photo show motion. There are few better or more artful ways to show the passing of time or the quickness of objects than with blurred motion.
What is Motion Blur?
Those pictures that you took when you started, the unusable ones? That blurriness occurred due to camera shake, which shouldn't be confused with proper blur. A blur image is meant to be, and the parts of the photo that aren't in motion are sharp and crisply focused. These images are made with intention simply because they wouldn't come out well if they weren't. It's tough to get a lucky shot when it comes to blur.
There are many examples of blur images once you start looking for them. Pretty much anything that is in motion can be blurred. Some things are apparent, like planes, cars, or runners. But other things, especially in nature, can be surprising and can add surreal and abstract moods to your photos. Flowing star trails, silky waterfalls, and velvety clouds are just a few examples to get your creativity flowing.
Image Blur How-To Guide
To make quality blur pictures, you need to have a firm grasp of your camera settings. Understanding the exposure triangle and how it works is vital. You also need to have a few extra items in your camera bag that you might not usually carry.
The key to getting blur just right in your photos is nailing the shutter speed. The slower your shutter speed, the more likely things are to blur. When you accidentally capture camera shake, it occurs because the shutter speed is too slow. In order to purposefully capture blurry motion, you'll need to keep that in mind. How can you slow down the shutter speed enough to blur moving objects but avoid unwanted problems, like camera shake?
Sometimes the answer is not to slow the shutter down quite enough to allow camera shake to be noticeable. To avoid camera shake, the general rule of thumb is to make sure that your shutter speeds' denominator is always greater than or equal to your lenses' focal length. So if you are shooting with a 20-millimeter lens, your shutter speed should never be less than 1/20th of a second.
One-twentieth of a second is pretty slow, so there's no doubt you could capture some blur from fast-moving objects. It might take a little experimentation, but if you shoot out a car window or captured a passing bullet train, it would blur at 1/20 second.
If you're trying to blur something that is slower moving, like clouds or the walkers on a sidewalk, 1/20th might not be enough. You could move to a wider lens, but 20 millimeters is about as wide as many of us carry. The next step would be to put the camera on a sturdy tripod. A tripod eliminates camera shake problems but still allows blurry motion to occur.
There's no one shutter speed setting that will work for all blurry motion photos. The exact amount of time the shutter needs to be open will vary depending on the ambient lighting conditions and the speed at which the object is moving. For that reason, some trial and error is required.
Of course, shutter speed is only one element in the exposure triangle. If you increase the shutter speed dramatically to let more light in, you must then reduce the aperture, ISO, or both. This is important to get the shutter speed slow enough. If your ISO is already at its lowest setting, and the aperture is as small as it will go, then you'll have to find another way.
Understanding this is important because sometimes the camera cannot do what you ask it to do. If you're standing on a street in the midday sun, and you tell the camera to shoot at 1/20 second, it may be unable to do it. When set to shutter priority mode, some cameras will default to the closest setting that will produce a proper exposure. Others will do what you ask, but the final picture will be overexposed. This also explains why it's more common to see blur images taken after dark. If there's less ambient light in the atmosphere, it's far easier to get your shutter speeds low enough to show the blur.
Shutter priority mode is your best friend when taking blurry motion images. The camera will automatically pick the aperture and maybe even the best ISO setting, though the exact method will vary by camera.
One final camera setting to understand is your autofocus mode. Most cameras have some form of continuous drive autofocus, which will allow the camera to pan with a moving object and keep it in focus as you snap images. Doing so will improve your blur motion pictures tremendously.
As mentioned above, tripods are must-have items for doing this type of photography. When appropriately used, they all but eliminate camera shake problems when shooting at low shutter speeds. Some tripod heads are designed to smoothly pan with something in motion, which is a significant advantage to this type of photography. Ball-head mounts can do it, but it's a lot easier with a pan-and-tilt head.
Another useful piece of kit is the ND, or neutral density, filter. ND filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera, effectively turning day into night. That means that you can set up your camera and tripod on a bright sunny day and still take an hour-long exposure to capture stupendous blur. ND filters come in different darknesses, measured in light stops. It's handy to have a few different ones in your bag.
Tips and Ideas to Capture Unique Motion Blur Photos
Subject in Motion, or Not
There are two main ways you can look at a blurry motion photo–either your subject is in motion, or your subject is stationary with things moving around them. You can use the effect both ways. Showing a plane zoom through your frame creates a powerful sense of drama and speed. But showing your subject alone in a sea of moving people on a crowded city sidewalk is also powerful.
Use Motion to Tell a Story
We're always looking for ways to elevate our photography to the next level. Without exception, the answer lies not in the photo itself but in the story it tells. That's what connects with our audience the most. How can your blurry motion better tell the story of the place and time you want to capture?
Blurry motion photos are often nightscapes since it's so much easier to use slow shutter speeds after dark. And at night, nothing catches the eye like lights. Do read our article on Night photography to understand the basics and tips and techniques to get started. Look for moving lights to add motion to your photos and an elegant other-worldly effect. Lights on streets are good, with headlights and taillights on vehicles making smooth winding trails through your frame. They have the extra benefit of being identifiable to the viewer but abstract enough not to overpower the composition.
Another way you can make after-hours photos move is by using light painting. Have your models move lights around the frame. They can swing them in circles, make geometric patterns, or even spell out letters. Sparklers work great for this, but simple flashlights or candles work too.
Nature provides her own lights that can move in photos. If you set your camera up with a long enough shutter speed, the stars in the sky will take on their own blurry trails. Star trail photography is an art form in itself, so be sure to read up on the exact methods before you give it a shot. You need a camera that doesn't create too much sensor noise at night, and you may need lots of spare batteries. Many astrophotographers prefer to shoot star trail images in sets and then stack them together in post-production to overcome these problems and others.
Anything that moves in nature can be blurred in a photograph. There are lots of examples, but most of them come back to flowing water. Waterfalls, waves at a beach, or a babbling brook are times when knowing how to snap a blurry motion photo will make your depiction better. Fountains are another great place to blur water motion.
Blur in Street Photography
The city is full of motion, and by blurring it, the photographer can select what they are trying to isolate as the subject. Vehicles, subways, pedestrians, or bicyclists can all be made blurry. Blurring people makes them unidentifiable, which is handy when dealing with commercial work. But it also communicates the idea of a bustling city, of things always in motion and never stopping. If you add an element in the middle that isn't moving, it makes that item seem timeless, like everything is happening around it.
This exact method is beneficial in architectural photography. You can instantly bring your image's focus to the architecture by blurring vehicles and people moving around it. The viewer's eye will understand what the blur is and why it's there, but it will make the building seem more critical. It also shows that the building doesn't exist in a vacuum–that other things are happening in its environment.
Panning Shots for Sports, Kids, and Pets
Until now, we've focused on images where the camera remained stationary, but the subjects moved in the frame. Let's mix that up a little bit and discuss panning. Panning is the moving of the camera during the exposure. If something is locked in the middle of the frame and moving at the same speed that the camera was, it will remain sharply in focus with no blur. The background, however, is blurry. It appears as it would from the perspective of the moving subject.
This is a great tool to use in sports images. It requires a steady hand and some crafty camera work. Athletes, kids, or pets that are fast-moving are perfect subjects to try on. You can try it either hand-held or with a tripod. It works best with a medium telephoto or longer lens. First, make sure your camera is set to continuous autofocus. Have your subject run from one side to the other, and keep the camera centered on them the whole time. Shoot in continuous mode at the slowest shutter speed you can.
Panning shots, especially if they're hand-held, are hit-and-miss. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes the subject moved their head too much or their legs look funny. This is why you go with burst mode and take a bunch of photos. Many will be tossed out later, but you'll get one or two keepers.
Panning on Vehicles
Cars offer a lot of different blurry motion options. From inside the car, you can shoot pictures of the world whizzing by. While many budding photographers have taken these snapshots for fun, there are plenty of really artistic ways to play with the effect. You can mount action cameras to the outside of your car and get the road stripes flying by or the trees on the sides of the road blurring into one. And here is a guide for car photography which will help you take amazing photos.
If you are outside the car, you can take the idea of panning one step further. Like athletes in sports photos, the car can remain sharp and clear while it moves through its background at warp speed. Now you know how every car commercial ever was filmed.
You can also create a blurry effect with your camera's own lens. If you have the shutter open for an exposure while you zoom in or out on a central subject, the blur will occur radially from the center of the lens. This makes a cool effect, but it's also tough to pull off. You'll want to use burst mode and do a few practice runs before you try it.
Creating Blur in Post-Production
Sometimes it's handy to use Photoshop to make something blur after the fact. Luckily, it's not hard to do. Select the object you want to blur, then find the blurry motion filter. It allows you to set the direction and the distance of the blur. Of course, you can select individual objects and make them going their directions. You can use it in realistic ways or absurd ways.
Blurry photos aren't always a bad thing. If it helps you tell your story, a blur image can be a powerful tool in your composition. It does take some practice. But, with a little trial and error, you will start seeing what will work and what won't. It never hurts to try. Keep in mind the fundamentals of good composition while you do it, and remember to do everything you can to keep the rest of your photo clear and sharp.
Create your professional photography website
Even as you continue to learn and inculcate the skills of professional motion blur photography, you must not forget to market your work. Build a professional photography website to showcase your photos. Curate your best work and regularly update your portfolio website by adding work from recent travels. Your website is your showcase window to the world and the first point of contact with potential clients and collaborators. Here’s a great article on how to create a photography portfolio website.
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