By Sastry Karra and Frank Gallagher
Motion blur is the intentional use of a streaking effect in a photo. This can be done in several ways. One technique is panning, following a rapidly moving subject with your camera so that the subject is reasonably sharp, but the background is streaky. This conveys a sense of movement and speed. So does its opposite: keeping the camera steady while the subject moves across the frame. Doing a long exposure shot of star trails, clouds, a waterfall, the waves on a beach, or a highway at night is another kind of motion blur. The water or clouds become silky. The stars or car lights become colorful lines, winding through the image, leading the eye. A third technique is zoom blur, where the camera is stationary but you zoom in during the exposure. A fourth involves purposeful camera movement—horizontal, vertical, or circular—to create interesting patterns, textures, shapes. In this article, we focus on the latter two techniques, zoom blur and purposeful camera movement.
If you’ve never tried them, zoom blur and camera movement can be a lot of fun and lead to some very creative and interesting images. Holiday lights are one subject that almost cries out for a little motion blur, but landscapes benefit, too. Fall foliage, particularly aspen trees, are often the subjects of camera movement blur, resulting in some lovely, abstract photos. No special equipment is needed, though a few items will definitely help. And don’t be discouraged if the first few attempts don’t turn out very well. It takes a bit of practice to recognize how long a shutter speed to use or how fast to move your camera to get really pleasing results.
If you’re going to move your camera or zoom your lens, it follows that you’ll need a long enough shutter speed to allow for that movement. Shooting at 1/250 second won’t work but you may be surprised how short a time you’ll actually need to get interesting results. We’ve had success at as little as ¼ second.
A bright, sunny day will present some challenges to getting a long enough shutter speed. Overcast days or golden hours are easier to work with. A polarizer and/or ND filter can be very helpful in getting those longer shutter speeds, but you can still do motion blur without them.
Use a low ISO for motion blur. Most of these images were shot at or around ISO 100. Using a low ISO results in less noise and has the added benefit of requiring a longer shutter speed than higher ISOs.
Your choice of aperture also plays a role. Smaller apertures, like f/16 or f/22 typically require longer shutter speeds, which can be beneficial. If you can get a long shutter speed with a wider aperture, say f/5.6 or larger, you might be able to introduce a little extra blur because of the shallow depth of field. Sastry Karra likes wider apertures while Frank Gallagher prefers smaller ones.
Try several combinations of aperture and shutter speed. The effects that you get from each permutation will be different and you may like one more than another.
Choice of subjects
Not every scene lends itself to motion blur photography. A grove of aspen trees is a classic example of a good subject for moving the camera up and down. The white trunks are mostly vertical and the yellow leaves aren’t competing with other colors making for a pleasing and simple blur that can have infinite variations. Holiday lights work well for zoom blur and for somewhat random camera movement, but not so well for side-to-side or up-and-down movement. Whatever technique you’re using, avoid items in the foreground that will distract from the subject you’ll be blurring. An illuminated Santa in front of holiday lights is going to turn into an unsightly blob with a zoom blur.
How to create blur in the field
For zoom blur, it’s helpful to have your camera on a tripod. That frees your hands to work your shutter release as well as physically zoom your lens. The stability of the tripod helps the lines stay relatively straight as they converge.
A tripod (especially with a panning head) can also be useful for horizontal or vertical motion blur. You might sweep across the horizon of the ocean at sunset for an ethereal, abstract composition. Or you might go up and down for a vertical blur, like those aspens. You can, of course, do any of these simply holding the camera in your hands and you’ll definitely want to be hand holding your camera when moving it in circles or other patterns.
To create motion blur, start moving your camera (horizontally, vertically, in circles or in patterns) just before pressing the shutter release and continue moving until after the shutter closes. You can also set the camera’s self-timer to a short delay, like five seconds, and start moving as soon as you hit the shutter button.
Zoom blur is a bit more tricky and it really helps if you use a tripod and are able to get a longer shutter speed, like two seconds or more. You have to start pushing or rotating the zoom ring on your lens the moment you press the shutter. This usually takes a few attempts before you get a feel for it.
Sastry Karra tried these techniques recently when the fall colors were still prominent in New Jersey. Frank Gallagher used it in New Hampshire and in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming as well as for the holiday lights in Santa Fe Plaza in (where else) Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Applying blur during processing
You can also apply some of these effects in Photoshop, using blur tools. While you can get some interesting and artistic results from post processing, we find we prefer trying to blur images in the field. That has a more natural, abstract and, dare we say it, artistic feel.
In these images, a fall foliage scene from New Hampshire went through a variety of blur options in Photoshop.
Like the old saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Whether a viewer prefers the static original or a motion blur variation is a matter of taste. Having this technique gives you another creative outlet and a way to put your own spin on situations where the subject is either less-than-interesting or over-photographed.
Jaganadha “Sastry” Karra was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional, and has been living in New Jersey since 2004. During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. Along with his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been experimenting with sports photography. Find him on Instagram at @sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.
Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photography services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.