A Beginners Guide To Capturing Motion in Your Photography

Photographs, by definition, capture and immortalize a small slice of life. There is little for the viewer to infer what happens before or after that moment. However, there are images that need to communicate motion. For example, you may want to capture a dog running, a train barreling down the tracks, or trees that are blowing in the wind. Each of these scenes can come alive within your photographs if you learn how to convey motion properly.

Today, I’ll describe how you can use different shutter speeds and panning to capture motion in your photography. I’ll also explain a potential issue you might experience along with tips to resolve it.

Reasons To Capture Motion

Beginning photographers have likely seen captivating photographs that capture motion which they’d like to duplicate. There are several ways to accomplish this and each has a slightly different goal. Sometimes, there is a need to blur certain elements in the image while focusing sharply on a few subjects in the foreground. Other times, you may want to freeze or blur everything. The direction you take depends upon your objective for your photograph.

A lot of photographers capture motion simply to convey that an object is moving. But, there are other reasons to so. Movement can communicate mood. Trees rustling in the wind suggest serenity while throngs of people on a busy city block imply harried activity.

You can also use motion to eliminate elements in a scene that may serve as distractions to the viewer. For example, you may want to photograph a person standing on a sidewalk corner as cars move behind him. By blurring everything but your primary subject (i.e. the man on the corner), you can eliminate potential distractions and focus the viewer’s attention.


Two Primary Techniques For Capturing Motion


The shutter speed that you use while photographing a scene plays a key role in capturing motion in your image. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the focus on your subject. On the other hand, a slower shutter speed will blur a moving object. There are two main approaches (we’ll discuss a couple of alternatives in a moment).

1. Blurred Subject With Background In Focus


photo by paulaloe

Let’s assume you’re photographing a speeding train against a wall of trees in the background. You can blur the train while leaving the trees in focus. Doing so would instantly communicate to the viewer that the train is moving quickly. To accomplish this, you would use a slow shutter speed. (It’s also important to use a tripod. That way, your camera remains steady.) You’ll often see this technique used in nighttime photographs with car headlights cutting through the image.


Image by Extra Medium

2. Blurred Background With Subject In Focus

This second technique keeps your photograph’s subject in sharp focus while the background is blurred. Using our train example, the train would be in focus and the wall of trees would be blurred, thereby conveying the train’s movement. Similar to the first method, you need to use a slow shutter speed. However, instead of using a tripod, you’ll be panning your camera along the directional path of your subject.

Panning Explained


Photo by fabbriciuse

Most beginning photographers are trained to “secure” their cameras. That is, your camera should remain as still as possible for certain types of shots. By contrast, panning requires that you move your camera with your subject. Specifically, you’ll be matching your subject’s rate of movement and the direction in which it is traveling.

In our train example, assume the man on the bike is moving from east to west. In that case, you’ll need to pan your camera along the same direction, matching the speed of the bike. The best results occur when you have a clear view of the moving object and ample room to swivel your camera along a parallel axis to it.

Panning effectively can be difficult. You can practice and perfect your technique by photographing athletes who move quickly (for example, basketball players). Try to capture their facial expressions while blurring everything in the background. It will take some time to get it right, but once you do, the technique can be a valuable addition to your repertoire.

Other Techniques To Capture Motion

Besides the two main techniques described above, you can also freeze the entire field of vision or blur everything. Freezing the entire scene can give your photographs a unique look, especially if the objects strongly imply movement. For example, consider a bird that is flying in front of a waterfall. Both imply motion to the viewer. Freezing the entire scene captures that motion in a single moment and can produce a breathtaking image. You should use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second for this type of shot.


Photo by llimllib

Blurring everything produces the best results when the scene offers bright, contrasting colors or varying shades on the grayscale. In most cases, capturing motion in this manner is done purely for artistic purposes.

Another effective method for capturing motion within your images is ‘chrono photography’.


Photo by monkeyc

Using the continuous shooting feature on your camera, you can capture a series of shots and join them together in the post processing stage to create the effect shown above. A tripod is essential when attempting to shoot motion using this method.



Image by Jolantis

Determine The Proper Shutter Speed

A lot of novice photographers ask what the proper shutter speed is, given their objective for their photographs. Every situation is unique. One speed doesn’t suit all circumstances. To identify the right shutter speed, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How fast is your subject moving?
  2. How much distance exists between the camera and the subject?
  3. How much motion do you want your photograph to convey to the viewer?

The faster the shutter speed, the more frozen and crisply-defined your subject will be. Most cameras today will allow you to freeze a scene using 1/8000th of a second or faster. That being said, the numbers only serve as a rough guideline. You’ll need to experiment with different shutter speeds in a variety of situations.

Potential Issue: Excess Light

When you slow your shutter speed to blur elements in your image,there’s a chance that too much light will enter and impact your photograph. It’s a common problem, but there are a couple of ways to resolve it. First, check the aperture on your camera. The larger it is, the more likely excess light will enter. Try adjusting the settings to reduce its size. Second, review the setting of your ISO. When it is set high, the image sensor in your camera may be overly-sensitive to light. This can create unwanted noise in your image.

Mastering The Art Of Motion Capture

Like other photography skills, becoming proficient at capturing motion requires practice and experience. You’ll need to spend time learning how shutter speeds will impact the quality of your images. Even if you’re just setting your camera on its tripod, timing a perfect shot of a fast-moving object can be difficult. In the end, capturing motion in your photography is part technique and part art. Fortunately, with practice, you can master it.



Reviewed by Emily Hancock

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