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How To Use Intentional Camera Movement in Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

A great way to add creativity to your image is moving the camera during an exposure. There are many ways to apply intentional camera movement (ICM) to photography.

Read on to discover more about this exciting technique.

Intentional Camera Movement During the Day

You can achieve a great deal of creativity once you slow down your camera’s shutter speed.

A lot of what you know when it comes to long exposure will focus on keeping the camera still and the image sharp. Intentional camera movement delves into the opposite concept here.

Exposure times can vary from third of a second all the way to thirty seconds and beyond. Your photo could be completely abstract and blurred. Or it might contain more structure and form.

abstract blurry photo shot using intentional camera movement
Rotating the camera is one way you can apply intentional camera movement to your photography.

ICM Concept

The idea is to create a dynamic element to a still image. Long exposure allows for this, because things are no longer capture in an instant.

This is something you’ll see in other mediums that unlike video present a still image. Think of paintings by Vincent van Gogh. He added motion by using techniques that created flow within his paintings.

This flow is what you’re looking to recreate through the movement of your camera during a long exposure.

Now, of course, Van Gogh images were not only blurred paint on a canvas, but they also had subject matters.

The best photos using this technique will also have subjects. So let’s take a look at the equipment you’ll need.

different grades of neutral density filters
Differing grades of neutral density filter can be useful when you want to take a photo with a slower shutter speed.

ICM Equipment

A standard camera that allows you to change the shutter speed is all that’s needed. The kit lens provides a good focal length range to work with.

That said some of the following items will help.

  • Filters – There will be times during the day when it’s too bright to use slower shutter speeds. You might want to use a larger aperture. In this case, using an ND filter, or a circular polarizing filter is a good option. You don’t need a filter that’s too strong, so an ND8 is a good option and will slow your shutter speed down.
  • Tripod – Tripods are generally used for keeping your camera still, not the aim with this technique. But you can still move the camera if you don’t lock down the tripod head. This allows for straight line movements that you know will be completely straight.
  • Wide-angle lens – The wider your focal length the more pronounced the intentional camera movement effects. So while not necessary, it helps to have a wide-angle lens.
a cyclist moving over a bridge with blurred background
Panning is an example of intentional camera movement that’s widely used.

Panning

Panning is the most well known technique that involves the movement of your camera.

With this technique you follow a moving object during the course of an exposure that’s around 1/20th of a second.

The aim is to isolate the moving object against a blurred background. The blurred background presents a sense of movement in your panned object. This gives your photo story and context.

Is Panning Intentional Camera Movement?

The idea behind intentional camera movement is to present a more abstract image.

Objects are often not sharp within this style of image. This sets it apart from regular panning photography. So even though you move the camera for a panning photo, the technique is in fact different.

The main difference is objects within your frame all stay stationary. You move the camera to give these stationary objects more life and energy.

a blurry photo of a forest shot using intentional camera movement
Moving the camera upwards was the method used to create this abstract image.

Straight Line Movement

This movement can be horizontal or vertical. You’re aiming to keep that movement all in the one direction though.

This is a technique that usually only needs a 1/20th exposure time. It’s rather like panning but without the moving object to follow.

Not everywhere will work for this particular style. The following are some tips you can apply to help you get the best result.

  • Location – Applying this technique to a plain background is pointless. Avoid this type of location. Instead, look for places with natural lines, and differences in tone and color. An ideal place to try is a forest with lots of lines of trees. You might also try lines of lanterns when they’re suspended above you at a temple.
  • Tripod – A good way to achieve nice steady flat movement is to photograph from a tripod. The tripod ball head will help keep the camera steady, as it moves in the one direction.
  • Exposure length – The typical exposure length for an abstract photo that shows blurred movement only will be 1/20th. The use of longer exposures allows you to both blur the photo, and have a period of no movement. You could make a 5 second exposure with 1 second of movement and 4 seconds of no movement to capture structures in your image.
  • Speed of movement – You can intensify the strength of the blur across your image by moving the camera more slowly. This is a great way to create differing images using the same technique. You’ll need a longer exposure time if you move the camera more slowly, so it’s best to do this from a tripod.
Artistic spiral blur of intentional camera movement around a persons face
Combining the use of flash with movement of the camera can lead to interesting results.

Rotation

Another way to produce intentional camera movement is by rotating your camera. In this case imagine there is an axis that runs through your camera lens to your sensor, or film.

You need to rotate your camera around this imaginary axis and try to keep the motion as smooth as you can.

This technique will usually be handheld, but it is possible from the tripod as well.

  • Handheld – Longer exposure times aren’t workable, so keep it to around 1/20th. Look for locations that have a variable level of light from the top to the bottom part of your frame. A light tunnel, or a tree canopy will work well. The central point of your image will likely be sharp, with the blur more pronounced at the edge of the frame. Choose an interesting central subject to rotate around.
  • From a tripod – Unless you have a tripod that allows rotation on a horizontal axis you’ll be restricted to worm’s eye points of view with camera rotation. The camera will also rotate around the axis of the tripod, so won’t be perfectly centered. The use of longer exposures is possible though. You can use slower movement to intensify the strength of the blur. Look for a place surrounded by tall buildings or trees to try this technique out from a tripod looking up.
Artistic zoom burst shot taken on a subway train
This zoom burst was taken on a subway train. The light trails add a dynamic edge to the image.

Zoom

A further way to use this effect is through the zoom burst. You’ll not be moving the camera with this type of photo, but will instead be moving the lens. This type of photo requires a zoom lens whose focal length you can change manually during the exposure.

As with camera rotation this is another effect that can be handheld. The effect works best with a strong central subject, one that you’re going to zoom into.

The following describes how you carry out a zoom burst photo.

  1. Select a main subject for the photo. This should not be too large, so a person, statue or small building will work well.
  2. Select a location that has mixed levels of light on both sides, and above you. A tree canopy would work well for this.
  3. Now zoom into the final focal length you’re going to photograph at. Pre-focus your lens at this focal length.
  4. Adjust the shutter speed to around 1/20th of a second. Shorter shutter speeds will be sharper, with less blur. Longer shutter speeds will have more blur, but it will be harder to keep the camera steady.
  5. Taking the zoom burst from a tripod is a good option to keep the camera steady. Especially as you’re moving the lens and not the camera itself.
  6. Using flash on the main subject of your photo can also work, especially if the main subject is small. Use second curtain sync when you do this, so the flash goes off at the end of the zoom burst.
  7. When you’re ready, hit the shutter and zoom into your main subject. Slow the zooming in down as you approach the max focal length of the zoom burst. This will make the main subject sharper.
the branches and leaves of a large tree blurred by intentional camera movement
This image shows the camera being moved in a circular motion.

Random Camera Movement

The final and most abstract form of camera movement is random camera movement. This is the most difficult to use effectively. It’s the easiest way to produce a messy photo with no real point of interest.

This article has already talked about linear or circular movements. This type of movement is more fluid than that. It can contain elements of both linear and rotary movement.

A planned movement of some description is the best way to get good results here.

  • Shapes – Look to produce predefined shapes, like stars or hearts. This will give your photo a narrative, and it’s likely these shapes will repeat across the frame.
  • Curves – Smooth motion, and lines that curve can be effective as well. Plan how your camera will move before you start the photo. Nice curves, as opposed to a scribble, will likely look better.
  • Exposure length – Shorter exposures will be better. A short defined movement is easier to produce. The longer the exposure the more likely the movement will resemble a scribble.
  • Double exposure –With a longer exposure, you can blend camera movement with a stationary element. In this case, using a tripod is ideal. The camera movement will occur from a fixed position on the tripod head. Movement will happen by moving the camera around the tripod ball head. Once your camera movement is finished, lock the camera into its fixed position. Use the screws on the tripod head. Using half a second for movement, and then around 4 seconds for the remaining exposure is a good ratio.
the branches and leavess of a large tree
This image shows the tree used in the above image, but without camera movement.

Conclusion

Having read this article you’ll now have the knowledge needed to experiment further with long exposure. This is an exciting area of photography with a lot of experimental potential.

We’d loved to see examples of your intentional camera movement. Have you tried any of the ICM techniques listed in this article before? Feel free to share your ICM images and experiences in the comments below!

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