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Capturing Motion in Photography – A Guide for Beginners

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motion photography.

It doesn’t take years of diligent practice to realize that a moving subject can be one of the greatest challenges for any photographer. Unlike the human eye, a camera’s lens can depict motion in countless ways.

A shot of a car zooming past the viewer can look frightening, exhilarating, or flat-out dull, all depending on the technique used to convey the sense of motion of the scene.

That is going to be our main subject for today. Let’s explore the stunning diversity of methods and theories you can use to capture motion in photography.

Motion Blur and How it Works

First, let’s take a moment to assess one critical question. What exactly do we want to achieve when we say we want to improve our motion photography?

For many people, the instinctive answer has something to do with motion blur. This makes sense, of course. In the right hands, motion blur can add a sense of speed to your final image that can be very impressive, even immersive to the viewer.

A crowd of pedestrians navigating a crossing, with cars standing still on the opposite side. Black and white motion street photography.

However, many beginning photographers have only a vague notion of how motion blur forms. Let’s take a look at that more closely!

The Secret Role of Shutter Speed

To create motion blur, no single aspect of your camera is as important as the shutter speed dial.

Try photographing a series of subjects that more or less move at the same speed but at different shutter settings. For instance, cars can pass by one particular stretch of road.

You will notice that you can completely freeze motion at a very fast shutter speed, such as 1/500th of a second faster. Your subject, despite moving, will appear sharp and still, as if fixed in place.

shutter speed settings.

At moderately fast shutter speeds, hints of slight blur might emerge. For example, you might notice a sense of motion in the car’s wheels turning but not its body.

It is around 1/10th of a second or slower that you can really begin to feel the blur. Especially very long exposures lasting more than a couple of seconds can make for stunning light trails and fascinating motion photography results!

How to Capture Motion – Techniques Compared

As you saw, a long exposure is key to creating a lot of blur. But, as with all good things, getting ahead of yourself and veering into excessive territory is possible. Too much motion blur all over your frame can render the movement in your image confusing, even messy.

You will want to isolate the parts of your photograph that you want blurry from those that you want to have in the sense of frozen motion, as close to tack-sharp as you can get.

The challenge of planning this relationship between the two, let alone executing it well, is part technique, part art. It’s definitely not something you master on the first try, but don’t despair!

Let’s look at a few different ways of capturing movement to understand how images can gain or lose something from differences in your motion photography method.

Using a Slow Shutter Speed to Convey Motion

As we have already discussed, too long of a shutter speed can render your frame excessively blurry and confusing. However, that doesn’t mean that you should strive to keep your shutter speed as high as possible.

Instead, the issue is approaching a long exposure smartly using appropriate techniques.

A carousel revolving at nighttime. Long exposure motion photography displaying light trails.

You can do two key things to get better photos out of longer exposures. First, stabilize your camera. This should go without saying, but hand-held shooting is practically impossible at slow shutter speeds where blur will be very obvious.

You’ll only introduce a layer of unintentional camera movement to the existing motion blur, making the effect look directionless and confusing!

Thankfully, a good tripod should resolve this issue instantly. Still, even with the camera mounted securely, you will notice that your subject might still blur far too much compared to the background.

Applying Panning to Improve Image Quality

A little girl riding a bicycle. Motion photography composed at a low shutter speed using panning.

What to do in such a case? The answer is to learn the art of panning. Panning is when you sweep your camera across the frame during your exposure, as much in line with the direction and speed of your subject moving as you can.

So, if your subject is coming in from your left, pan your camera to the right. Do this while exposing the subject, trying to track it as you go. This will reduce the appearance of blur on the subject while strongly exaggerating the motion blur of the background. Two birds with one stone!

The panning technique is something that takes a long time to develop, and even pros cite it as one of the harder elements of motion photography. I recommend you first try out subjects that move along one parallel axis. Bikes, trains, and even people walking are great examples.

Other kinds of subjects, such as a bird flying or a trapeze act, will be a lot trickier to capture this way since you will have to be panning effectively, not just side-to-side, but also along another axis at the same time.

Using a Fast Shutter Speed to Snap-Freeze Motion

A tennis ball hitting the line, frozen in motion. An example of capturing motion using a fast shutter speed.

Using a long exposure technique to show movement is hardly a rule.

In fact, you can just as well capture movement with faster shutter speed settings, and in some environments, the results will be superior.

For instance, action photography usually benefits from shorter exposures. The higher sense of detail afforded by the sharper, frozen appearance of the subject communicates more information to the viewer.

Also, in the case of wide-angle shots with many moving objects in the frame, freezing motion with a fast exposure might be the most visually pleasing way to render your scene.

In other words, feel free to use different techniques than the obvious one of a long exposure combined with panning. This is especially true if the content of your composition already communicates motion and action by itself.

Aperture for Foreground Isolation and Perfect Focus

So far, we have mostly discussed the importance of shutter speed in motion photography. While that’s warranted, your lens aperture also plays a great role and deserves mentioning.

In motion photography, you will want your subject to be neatly defined against the background, at least in most cases. This draws some obvious comparisons to portraiture, where a large aperture and thin depth of field are practical ideals.

lens closeup showing depth of field and aperture.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Most photographers who deal much with motion favor a smaller aperture for two principal reasons.

First, a broader depth of field helps ensure you don’t accidentally lose focus of a moving object while panning.

This reduces the need to take multiple shots of the same subject in burst mode and can save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

Using Your Lens Aperture to Ward Off Excess Light

The second reason relates to maintaining a good exposure value.

A smaller aperture helps rein in the effects of long exposures in ambient light during the day. Simply put, even at a very low ISO setting, you risk completely overexposing your frame by shooting long exposures out in the sun.

The only real way to combat this short of using ND filters (which I would still recommend anyway) is by using the smallest aperture you can afford.

Adding Motion Blur Effect in Post Processing

Of course, it’s always better to capture motion the way you want in-camera in the first place.

However, when that’s impossible, and you are working with a really important photograph, it’s good to know that you can rest easy thanks to modern editing tools.

A sports motorcycle racing at high speed showing motion blur effect.

Most photography editing suites will allow you to add blur as a visual effect to any existing composition. In Photoshop, After Effects, and similar programs, you can not just select the area of the frame to be blurred but also its intensity and direction.

The software can even simulate the visual results of specific combinations of focal length, exposure time, working distance relative to the subject, and more!

An Intro to Intentional Camera Movement

Remember when I mentioned earlier that stabilizing your camera during a long exposure is necessary since you don’t want to inject unwanted camera movement?

Well, there’s a flip side to that, and it’s called ICM – Intentional Camera Movement.

A pair of runners jogging along a paved trail. Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) motion photography.

Mostly practiced by more artistically minded photographers, ICM is all about obscuring the subject and making it more abstract and surrealist by deliberately moving your camera in unconventional ways during exposure.

This includes, for example, “reverse panning”, where instead of following your subject moving, you deliberately pan in a different direction or even in the opposite direction it’s heading.

Using ICM, you can create cool abstract art or have fun with light trail photos – the possibilities are nearly endless!

Exposure Settings for Motion Photography

In most cases, capturing motion in photography doesn’t leave you with much time to think. While I normally extol the virtues of manual mode, it might be wise to switch to shutter priority (mode S) in motion photography.

This way, you can remain in control over arguably the most important exposure control, shutter speed, while relegating aperture (which will be of lower significance under most lighting conditions) to the camera.

A ballerina practicing a routine with ribbons of fabric to show motion using a high shutter speed in monochrome.

Since overexposure is a constant risk in motion photography, I would keep the ISO as low as possible. This will also help prevent grain, boosting your overall image quality.

Most of you will also want to enable continuous autofocus or AF-C. This allows you to keep your subject in focus even while it is moving quickly. AF-C is more reliable than a manual focus for fast action and much snappier at speed than AF-S mode.

Enriching Your Photography Portfolio With Motion

I hope this guide taught you a few things about using motion to experiment with your existing techniques and create stunning images according to your professional or artistic purposes.

To photograph motion with success, nothing beats consistent practice. In that spirit, go out and apply some of what you’ve learned today.

Good luck, and have fun shooting!

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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