From day one, we’re taught to avoid motion blur in our photography. That’s because most motion blurs are unintentional. They are the result of you shaking the camera ever so slightly as you press the shutter button. What results usually doesn’t look all that interesting because there is no underlying theme. With that said, there are ways to intentionally move the camera as you shoot. Some of them create some rather spectacular effects.
Why do this?
When you move the camera while you’re shooting, you create the perception of motion in some direction. It’s kind of like the speed lines artists put on cartoon characters. You know they’re moving because they’re blazing a trail through the frame. While your photography might not always have human subjects, the idea carries over to it. Your viewer will know your subject is moving because the scene is moving in one direction or another.
Aside from conveying a sense of motion, moving the camera can help to blur out distracting backgrounds. This is really helpful in urban shooting situations where there’s a lot going on. If you can hone in and isolate your subject by moving the camera along with it, you’ll get a much more interesting photo.
Setting up your camera for panning
Panning is the most familiar way to get a motion blur by moving your camera. To pan, you will track your subject with your camera as your subject passes by you. Because you followed your subject’s path exactly, your subject should appear sharp while everything else is blurred. This is just like giving it speed lines.
You can’t create this effect unless you’re using a slower shutter speed. It doesn’t have to be super slow, just one or two full settings down from the usual shutter speed you pick. One easy way to always get the correct shutter speed for this technique is to use your camera’s shutter priority mode. Switch over to this mode and pick 1/60s or 1/30s. Either of those shutter speeds will produce the desired effect.
For those of you shooting in manual mode, be careful of accidentally overexposing the shot on bright sunny days. To counter all that extra light coming in from the slower shutter speeds, you can use a higher f-number aperture like F22 to block it out. Also, before you begin, make sure your ISO speed is at its lowest setting of 100. Higher ISO speeds can lead to overexposure on bright sunny days.
You can tweak these kinds of photos to your liking. If you want your “speed lines” to be shorter, use a faster shutter speed. If you want them to be longer, use a slower shutter speed. Be careful not to use a shutter speed that’s too slow though. Your hands still shake as you pan, and you could end up with too much motion blur.
My subject is still blurred. What gives?
I tried following my subject and using a slower shutter speed, but my subject is still blurred. What gives? Ah yes. Now you’ve realized the Pandora’s box you’ve just opened up. Did I say this was going to be easy? It’s not. In fact, panning is one of the most difficult techniques to master as a photographer. To get your subject sharp enough, you really need to track it with near-perfect precision. At first, the good photos will come from luck. As you practice, you’ll eventually be able to produce them from most sessions.
If you ever find yourself bored on a Sunday afternoon, why not spend a few hours practicing your panning technique on cars passing by? It’s all about timing. Practice makes perfect.
Other ways to get intentional motion blur
There is a way to get intentional motion blur at night. It’s called slow-sync flash, and it’s a little easier than panning. To use slow-sync flash, you’ll need to use a slow shutter speed in conjunction with your flash. The flash will show your subject in an instant, and the light collected over the length of the longer exposure will give your image a sense of motion.
Here’s a fun one to try. Set your shutter speed to 1 one second and turn on your flash. Go into a medium lit room, hold the camera out in front of you, and take a picture of yourself as you spin. The resulting should show you perfectly clear in front of a spinning blurred out background. Now you just have to take that same idea and apply to other types of camera movement and subjects.
No matter how you do it, moving your camera as you take the shot is a pretty fun technique that can give you some interesting results. Practice your panning, and don’t get too frustrated if it doesn’t work out right away. Great photographers, just like Rome, aren’t built in a day.
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