How to Shoot Motion Blur

how to shoot motion blur

Although as a photographer you’ll generally want to avoid blur, using it in the correct way can create stunning imagery. Motion blur is one of the most striking effects that a photographer can produce, and it can add so much interest to an otherwise uninteresting scene.

It’s not just fast moving subjects such as running animals or speeding motorbikes that can benefit from the emphasis of movement: motion blur opens up a world of creativity and gives you the opportunity to have fun with your photos.

Mastering motion blur isn’t going to happen right away, but by following our tips and getting plenty of practice, you’ll be creating emotive and eye catching images in next to no time. 

Alternatively you can also check out how to shoot Northern Lights.

Secure your camera

For capturing motion, stillness is of the essence. Either your subject or your camera will need to be static to create the desired effect, and more often than not it will be your camera that you want to remain motionless (we’ll talk about camera movement later in this post). This is important, as it will help to ensure that only the movement is blurred rather than the entire frame.

secure your camera

A tripod is the most obvious way of achieving complete stillness, so go for the best that you can afford as cheaper models might not be stable enough to do the job well. If you think you’ll be shooting on unstable ground or in unpredictable conditions, go for a model with retractable spikes on the feet, as they’ll allow you to dig into the ground for extra staying power.

In addition to this, invest in a remote shutter release to stop your hands from causing accidental movement. You can also use your camera’s timer if you don’t want to invest in a remote. 

Switch to shutter priority mode

As we’ll discuss in detail shortly, the shutter speed of your camera is pretty much the most important setting when it comes to capturing motion blur. Even the slightest change in this setting will make a significant difference to the images that you create, so it’s important to put your camera into a mode that allows you to manipulate the speed.

priority mode shutter

Shutter priority mode is the easiest option if you’re still getting to grips with photography, and will allow you to manipulate the shutter speed without worrying about any of the other settings. If you can though, go for full manual mode: you’ll have much more control and will be able to tweak your settings until everything is absolutely perfect.

Slow down your shutter speed

To capture motion, you need to give your camera enough time to see the subject in motion, and the best way of doing that is to simply reduce your shutter speed.

Obviously, there’s much more to it than that, but this is the first thing you’ll need to get to grips with.

slow down shutter speed

If your subject is moving incredibly fast (a fighter jet overhead, for example), you might be fine with a shutter speed as fast as 1/4000th of a second, but for anything moving at a more average pace (a race car or an animal, for example), you’ll see more blur from a shutter set at 5 seconds.

Of course, you’ll need to adjust the shutter speed depending on how fast your subject is moving and how much blur you want to see in your image, so you’ll need to dedicate time to practicing and experimenting with your camera. But that’s the joy of digital as there’s no cost implications for taking hundreds of practice shots, and eventually you’ll get a feel for how long you need your shutter to remain open for.

Lighting will make a difference to how much you can reduce your shutter speed before your image is over exposed, and if you’re shooting in the day you’ll need to make some additional adjustments to balance out your camera’s intake of light. Which leads us to our next three points…

Lower your ISO

The ISO determines your camera’s sensitivity to light, and the higher the number, the higher the sensitivity. So, if you’re attempting to create motion blur with a slow shutter speed in bright sunshine, this is your first tool to take advantage of.

adjust ISO

If you’re shooting on a sunny day, go for a super low ISO of 200 or 400 first. For overcast days and that golden hour before the sun sets, you’ll probably need to ramp that number up by another 200 or so. For night shoots where you’re capturing cityscapes or shooting stars, look at doubling that number.

Of course, you’ll need to give yourself time to test out different ISOs in different scenarios to understand what your camera is capable of. You’ll know you’ve got the right ISO when you see the contrast and the strength of color that you want to achieve; over-exposure will totally wash out your images and you’ll lose all-important detail. Higher ISOs can cause noise in some cameras, but it’s always worth it to avoid the dreaded unintentional blur or blowout. 

Go for a smaller aperture

The aperture is essentially the size of the hole that lets light into your camera’s sensor, so if you’re trying to balance the light in a shot with a slower shutter speed, this is an important tool.

Or check out how to shoot in low light.

choose smaller aperture

If you shoot in shutter priority mode then you won’t have to think about this as your camera will do the calculations for you, but if you prefer full manual you’ll have to find the correct aperture yourself. As a rule of thumb, for every ‘stop’ you reduce the shutter speed by, you’ll want to look at lowering the aperture by one ‘stop’, but play around with your settings until you’re getting the correct balance of light.

Remember to bear in mind that a lower aperture means a shallower depth of field, too, so if that’s not something you desire for your images you’ll want to rely more heavily on your ISO settings to get the lighting right. Also remember that if you’re shooting light flares using car headlights or sparklers for example, you’ll need a larger aperture as you’ll want to allow more light into your camera’s sensor. For every lighting scenario between dark and sunlight, it’s going to be a case of more trial and error.

Try a neutral density filter

External filters are designed to cut down the amount of light that reaches your lens, which can help to reduce your reliance on your camera’s settings (this will make your life a little easier). It’s essentially like putting sunglasses on your camera: the harshness of the light on a bright, sunny day will be reduced so that it’s less blinding.

neutral density filter

In addition to ND filters, you can also use polarizing filters, but bear in mind that these will alter other aspects of your images by changing colors and even cutting out reflections.

Filters won’t work single handedly in bright lighting scenarios, but they’ll certainly give you a helping hand for times when there’s a little too much light getting through the glass of your lens.

Use a flash

A flash isn’t a necessity when it comes to motion blur photography, but it can really bring life to your images when combined with a slow shutter speed.

Set it up to bounce off your subject and you’ll keep it beautifully crisp while everything around it blurs. This obviously works best at night, so try it at parties or for street portraiture.

learn to use flash

Make the most of S-AF or servo focus

Many amateur photographers don’t know this, but there are several different types of focus available on DSLRs that are tailored to work with different types of photography. Once of these is servo focus (or S-AF), and that’s the one you want to be using for motion blur shots. 

plan your focus

Rather than auto-focusing once, this setting will continue to track your subject regardless of whether your finger is on the shutter button, keeping it pin sharp as it crosses your field of vision. This will save you time on focusing, meaning that you’re less likely to miss your shot.

Move your camera

Contrary to our advice regarding keeping your camera stable, sometimes you’re going to want to move it while your subject stays still or moves slowly. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Panning

    This is when you follow your subject with your camera. It will take a couple of attempts to get the shutter speed right, but once you master it you’ll achieve a really cool effect that gives the impression of speed.

  • Zoom

    By manually zooming with the lens during exposure, you can create an incredible abstract shot that’s perfect for fireworks, neon signs and pretty much any other kind of light. In most cases, twisting the lens will mean that you lose focus on your subject entirely, but that’s fine. Have fun with it!

Wrapping it up

Motion blur can be tricky to get the hang of in the beginning, but it’ll will be worth the effort when you discover how much value it can add to your images. Take time to practice, refer to our tips, and keep experimenting, and soon enough you’ll be producing the dramatic blurred photography that you see from the pros.

Do you have any additional tips for shooting motion blur photography? Let us know in the comments.

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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