A Blur of Motion

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Last month we discussed how to use a very fast shutter speed to freeze a moment of action.  But using a slower shutter speed and allowing some motion blur is a great way to convey the energy of motion.  This approach also gives us a tool we can use when there isn’t enough light to get the fast shutter speeds we need for last month’s technique.

Let’s imagine we’re photographing a horse race.  We might start by using last month’s techniques to create a tack-sharp photo of one of the horses.  When we see the photo we may be excited to discover we captured enough detail to see the look of extreme concentration in the horse’s eye.  But we look closer and realize that nothing shows how fast the horse was actually moving.  The gesture of the horse’s legs show he is running so we get a sense of motion, but not of the speed.

So how do we create a photo that conveys speed?  One approach is to slow the shutter speed just enough to create a little motion blur.  We don’t want to slow down so much that the horse is a complete blur — just enough to create little streaks that convey speed and energy.

In this photo the parts of the horse that move the most — like the legs — will blur the most.  Getting just the right amount of blur requires experimenting with a variety of shutter speeds.  Slower shutter speed creates a more abstract feel while faster speeds preserve more detail. 

One downside of this approach is that we lose details like the look of concentration in the horse’s eye.  So, once you’ve mastered the technique you can try what a lot of sports photographers do:  blur the background. 

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For this technique use the above approach to find a good shutter speed that conveys motion without creating too much blur.  Then pan the camera so it precisely tracks your subject during the exposure.  It’s challenging to get the timing just right, but with practice you can track your subject precisely.  When you get the timing perfect you’ll create a photo where the background has those streaks of motion blur that convey speed.  And the horse’s legs will also have some blur.  But if, for instance, the horse’s head stays in the same relative position during your exposure then it will be very sharp in the photo.  This mix of motion blur and sharpness can create a stunning photo. 

When practicing this technique start panning your camera before you press the shutter so your camera is moving at the correct speed, then press the shutter and keep panning until after the exposure is done.  This will keep your camera moving at a steady speed during the whole exposure.  

After practicing this for a while you’ll not only create some great images, but you’ll also have developed an instinctive understanding of shutter speed and its effect.  You can then use your new knowledge to create artistic blur effects in all kinds of photos — from waves of water to dancing people.

This month’s assignment

is to create a photo that conveys motion.  It can be just a paw moving —  like a cat swatting at a toy — or the entire cat, dog or horse running, or anything in between.  You can use motion blur if you’d like, or freeze the action with a fast shutter speed.  Your goal is just to convey a feeling of movement —  in whatever way you’re inspired to do it.  I look forward to your photos.  And as always, I’d love to hear about your experience and/or about what you connect with in the photo(s) you send in.  

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: David@DavidChildsPhotography.com. Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in September for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at www.DavidChildsPhotography.com

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.