Every photographer knows the anguish of a photo that's been messed up by motion blur. It happens to all of us - you're trying to shoot a soccer game at dusk, and as it gets darker your aperture gets wider and your shutter speed gets slower. Finally, you capture that trick shot your son has been practicing all season and, dang. Motion blur. Your soccer star's feet don't show clearly, and the background is a mess. The ball looks kind of cool, though.
Ah ha! That's the part you have to hang on to. The ball looks kind of cool. And motion blur photographs can be really cool, if you shoot them correctly, with purpose, and if you shoot a lot of them.
[ Top image Panning Soccer by Flickr user DGriebeling]
The luck of the blur
All photography has some aspect of luck. Even landscape photographers rely on luck to a certain degree - the luck of light, the luck of weather, the luck of not having some clueless tourist wander into the frame at exactly the wrong moment. But motion blur photography depends even more on luck, and that's why the first hint I'm going to give you is this one: shoot a ton of photos. And I mean a ton. Bring all your memory cards along and an extra battery, too, because depending on your subject and what your goals are, you may have to take a lot of mediocre shots before you finally nail one.
Ganga Flow by Flickr user premasagar
Keep in mind that unless you are going for a purely abstract image, you should aim to have at least one small part of the photo in focus. You may want to employ rear-curtain flash to help you achieve this - the flash will freeze the subject at the end of the exposure, creating a blurry trail behind him or her (like the image above). Or you can allow the subject to blur out completely while the setting remains sharp (like below.
You don't need a whole lot of special equipment to take great motion blur photos - just start with a good camera that has shutter priority mode. But what you do need in addition to that camera is a tripod, or failing that a nice, solid wall. Your camera needs to be stabilized, or the kind of motion blur you're going to capture is going to be the bad kind - your own motion blur, otherwise known as "camera shake".
Now, I'll admit to having seen some cool photos that actually feature camera shake. But they're really difficult to pull off, and this article is about motion blur from your subject. So we're not going to go to that other place.
Other helpful equipment includes a cable or remote release, which will also help prevent the aforementioned camera shake (though you can also use your camera's self-timer with good results), and a set of neutral density (ND) filters. Though not required, the ND filters will give you a lot more flexibility over your camera's settings and the time of day you can capture motion blur images.
Backlit Alex Running for Daylight by Flickr user Andrew Morrell Photography
The most important camera setting for motion blur photography is, of course, your shutter speed. The speed at which the shutter opens and closes, exposing your camera's sensor to the light in the scene, is what allows it to either freeze the action or to capture motion blur. Now, how slow is really going to depend on your subject. If you were hoping to get motion trails behind a slug, your shutter is going to have to be open for a pretty long time. Behind a cheetah, on the other hand, you will be able to get away with much faster shutter speeds.
EXPLORED Saturday 8-13-2011 (Highest position: 29 on Weds, 8-17-2011); Downtown Atlanta - I 75/85 at The Famous Varsity Restaurant across from Georgia Tech (for Our Daily Challenge) by Flickr user TheG-Forcers (Mike - CATCHING UP)
The amount of blur you want to capture is also a factor in your choice of shutter speed. Long car light trails, for example, are typically captured at much longer shutter speeds. Slight movement such as a person strolling along a beach will require a shorter shutter speed.
I wish I could give you a magic formula for when to choose what shutter speed (although I can tell you what shutter speeds work in different situations). Instead I'm just going to throw out my favorite word: experiment. Set your camera to shutter priority, meter your scene and then play around with the aperture/shutter combinations that your camera gives you. Find out what works best with your subject and what gives you the coolest results. Delete the stuff you don't like, refine your method and then shoot some more. If you keep this up I can almost guarantee you're going to end up with some great images.
Watch out for overexposure
It's tricky to get motion blur shots in broad daylight, and if you're not careful you run the risk of overexposing your shots. Your camera doesn't need that slow shutter speed to make a good exposure during the day - it's your job to reduce the amount of light that reaches the sensor so that you can use those longer shutter speeds to get the shot you want.
Calm by Flickr user sufw
One of the ways you can do this is with the help of a neutral density filter. If you aren't familiar with ND filters, they are very simple devices that block light, sometimes referred to as "sunglasses for your camera". They are available in different strengths from the very weak to the very dark and are rated by the number of stops of light that they block. A very dark ND filter will allow you to slow down your shutter speed as if you were shooting at night - this is how photographers capture those misty-looking images of waterfalls and seascapes.
In the absence of an ND filter, you can simply limit yourself to shooting in the very early mornings, the evenings or at night. Under these conditions, you'll be able to use a smaller aperture to cut out much of the available light, and then you'll be able to slow down your shutter speed to match. You may also need to adjust your ISO - the smaller the ISO number, the less light-sensitive your camera will be, and the slower the shutter speed you can choose.
There's definitely an art to capturing good motion blur photographs, so don't be disappointed if your first few batches fail to impress you the way you were hoping they would. Just make sure you ask yourself what went wrong and how you can improve the shot the next time around, and I'm pretty sure you won't fail to get some good quality images as time goes by. And next time, you'll be ready to capture a great motion blur photo at that soccer game instead of a bad accidental one.
Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?