Photographers, especially beginning photographers, tend to select shutter speeds based on their ability to freeze the motion of the subject(s) within the frame. Breaking basic “rules” carefully and deliberately for artistic impact, however, can be a fantastic way to take your work beyond the norm … so this month, let’s utilize motion blur to establish aesthetic interest, create visual rhythm, tell a richer story, or contribute to a particular mood or atmosphere.
There are two primary approaches to motion blur:
- Mobile Subject(s) blurred; background elements in focus
- Mobile Subject(s) in focus; background elements blurred
1. Mobile Subject(s) blurred; background elements in focus
In this approach, the key is to keep your shutter speed fast enough to eliminate camera shake but slow enough to capture subject movement between the time the shutter opens and the time the shutter closes.
If you are handholding your camera, your shutter speed will often be somewhere in between 1/15sec and 1/60sec (higher if you are using a long focal length), or as slow as you feel that you can comfortably keep your camera motionless in your hands.
If you are using a tripod or otherwise stabilizing your camera, you can go as slow as you wish … even several seconds or more.
The optimum speed for your image depends entirely on the speed of your mobile subject and your artistic vision. First, establish your exposure for the scene, then experiment with different shutter speeds and chimp until you find your sweet spot for a given scenario. Make sure you set your focus on one of the unmoving elements in the scene.
Example: Urban Night Scene, with cars and pedestrians moving and buildings/lights/etc stable; Musician playing the piano, fingers moving across the keys, general piano setup stable; Couples engagement shoot in a crowd, with couple completely still in an embrace while the world moves on around them.
2. Mobile Subject(s) in focus; background elements blurred [PANNING]
In this approach, you’ll still want to keep your shutter speed slow enough to capture subject movement between the time the shutter opens and the time the shutter closes. However, instead of endeavoring to keep your camera is still as possible, you’ll be aiming to keep it steadily tracking your moving subject. This technique is called Panning.
Start with a significantly slower shutter speed than you would select if you needed to freeze the motion of your subject. You can either handhold or put your camera on a tripod with a panning head. Keep in mind that you still don’t want camera shake – you want smooth movement at the same velocity as your moving subject … so you probably won’t go quite as slow with your shutter speed as you would in approach #1. If at all possible, aim to position yourself so that your panning will maintain a constant distance between you and your subject – this will ensure that your subject won’t fall off your plane of focus as you pan.
Again, the optimum speed for your image depends entirely on the speed of your mobile subject and your artistic vision. In addition to pre-setting exposure for the scene, you may also find it helpful to switch your focus to manual and pre-set your focus plane as well. Then, experiment with different shutter speeds and chimp until you find your sweet spot for a given scenario.
Not sure where to start? As a jumping off point, set your camera to a shutter speed around 1/30 of a second, and close your aperture down by about two stops off what you’d normally choose for the subject to account for the fact that the distance between your lens and the subject may change during the progression.
Cyclist in a race, with focus steady on the cyclist as she moves, and the background a blur; passenger shooting from within the car, with focus stable on car interior as car moves, and streets/buildings blurred; child on a swing, with focus panning in an arc with the child’s swing path, and the playground a blur.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.