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Tips for Turning Blurry Pictures Into Art With Motion Blur Photography

Motion blur often frustrates new photographers. But that same blur can also create artistic, almost magical images that would otherwise be bland and boring.
Understanding what causes blur eliminates the frustration. But knowing what shutter speed is and how it works isn’t just a tool for getting technically correct photographs.
Shutter speed can also open up new possibilities for intentionally blurring the background or the subject.
Blur allows an image that captures a single moment in time to convey motion. And that’s a creative tool worth uncovering.
Once you know how to avoid blur, here’s how to add motion blur back into your images, on purpose.

Gear For Motion Blur Photography

Using motion blur creatively doesn’t require a special camera or lens. Unlike depth of field or background blur, which work best with a wide aperture lens.
You need a camera with manual modes so that you can set the aperture and a lens appropriate for the subject you are working with.
Capturing creative motion blur in photography, however, often requires a tripod. Using a tripod to keep your camera steady will help ensure the only blur in your image is the blur you want there.
Tripods aren’t required for every blurring method — in the image of the dancing girl below, I didn’t use a tripod. Tripods are a must for several types of motion blur, but just helpful in others.
In some blurred shots, the shutter speed simply cannot drop low enough to create the right level of blur without overexposing the image.
In these cases, neutral density filters are required to cut the amount of light coming into the lens, allowing for longer exposures.
If you want to take an exposure several seconds long during the day, you’ll probably need a neutral density filter. But if you want to take a night shot using blur, you can likely shoot filter-free.

How To Create Motion Blur Using Shutter Speed

Setting The Shutter Speed

To create artistic motion blur, the shutter speed needs to be set low enough to blur the action in the image. Remember, the shutter is the part of the lens that opens and closes to expose the image.
Anything that moves while the shutter is open will blur. A fast shutter speed will freeze the action, while a slower shutter speed or longer exposure time will blur the action.
The shutter speed can be set for motion blur shots using shutter priority mode or manual mode. The first is easier to learn and the latter offers more control.
The best shutter speed to use to create motion blur depends on both how fast the action is moving and how much blur you want. A 1/60 shutter speed is often enough to create blur in the fastest subjects, like an athlete or a child playing.
Longer exposures will create more blur — you can, for example, have an exposure that’s several seconds long to display motion blur in a waterfall.
For example, in this image of a waterfall, I wanted maximum blur in the water, so I used a tripod and a shutter speed of 1/4 sec.
creative use of motion blur to photograph a waterfall
In this image of my daughter, however, I wanted to keep her face sharp while blurring the movement in her tutu. For this shot, which was handheld, I used a shutter speed of 1/80.
artistic motion blur to photograph a little girl in a tutu spinning
Creating intentional blur through shutter speed often involves experimenting. If I’m shooting a subject with rapid movement, I will often start with 1/60, view the shot, then adjust up or down from there. For a long exposure landscape, I will often start with 20 seconds (if I can still get a proper exposure), then review the shot and adjust the period of time from there.
While setting the shutter speed is essential to creating intentional, artistic blur, there’s more to consider. Do you want to blur the moving subject, or blur the background?

Blurring The Subject

Blurring a moving subject is often what comes to mind first when considering artistic blur. After adjusting the shutter speed, for this type of creative blur, you’ll hold the camera as still as possible during the entire exposure. This way, you are able to capture motion blur or only the motion is blurred.
As a rule of thumb, if the shutter speed is longer than your lens, or if the shutter speed is longer than 1/60, you should use a tripod. For example, using a 50mm lens, I can shoot a 1/60 handheld.
Using a 100mm lens, however, I would use a tripod if the shutter speed dropped below 1/100.
Telephoto lenses tend to exaggerate camera shake. Even with a wide-angle lens, however, anything below 1/60 tends to introduce camera shake.
The rule isn’t a perfect guideline for tripod use, however. If you are using a camera with a five-axis stabilization system, you may be able to lower the shutter speed a bit and still get away with shooting handheld.
This is another example of how knowing your gear and its technological contstraints will help you take better images.
using motion blur to artistically photograph a dirt bike rider

Blurring the Background

To achieve motion blur or to blur the subject, the camera stays as still as possible. But to blur the background, the camera intentionally moves during the exposure. This is a technique called panning.
In a panning shot, the camera moves with the subject. This keeps the subject in the same spot in the frame by following the movement at a similar speed.
Because the camera moves at the same speed as the subject, the background will blur while the subject will appear sharp.
Panning is often used to photograph race cars and other fast subjects like in sports photography.
The best subjects for panning are also moving parallel to the camera. This allows the camera to follow the movement.
Simpler scenes often blur well in the background. Objects in the foreground will distract from the effect and are generally best avoided.
A tripod with a panning head is ideal for this technique. It allows for only the panning motion without any added camera shake.
Panning can also be done handheld, using a shutter speed at or above 1/60.
Panning is a technique that requires patience, practice, and sense of speed. Estimating the speed of the motion and the direction of relative motion to keep the subject sharp isn’t easy. But the effect is often well worth the extra effort.
Try panning when you have plenty of chances to get the shot right, like during a race with multiple laps. Use the repetition to try the shot several times, adjusting the shutter speed up or down to create more or less blur.
When trying panning, I may take 50 shots and end up with two or three that I like. Don’t give up if the first few shots aren’t perfect.

Get Creative with Motion Blur Photography

Understanding the technical aspects of creating blur is the foundation you need for any number of creative effects.
Here are 8 tips for turning the technical into artistic motion blur.
Look for motion in little places. Race cars and waterfalls are obvious places to introduce motion blur. But the creative possibilities for blur end only with unmoving subjects. Learn to spot motion in unexpected spots.
These can be the wind on a tree branch, the swoosh of a long dress, or the movement of sky in a minute’s long exposure.
Don’t forget to adjust the autofocus for action. Motion blur isn’t caused by autofocus errors. While motion blur doesn’t use the same high shutter speeds normally used for action, you should still use continuous or Al Servo autofocus mode.
Try zooming mid-shot. This creative variation on motion blur creates movement with the zoom of the lens and works on a still subject. The technical idea is the same.
You’ll use a slower shutter speed a few seconds long and move the lens while the shutter is open. Moving in and out will create different effects. Because of the longer shutter speeds, a tripod is a must.
Don’t disregard the flash. You can still use flash with slower shutter speeds. It can even add to the motion blur effect because flash tends to sharpen an image. Just use slow sync flash.
Selecting the rear curtain sync option will fire the flash at the end of the exposure. This will make the motion appear sharper at the end. Front curtain sync fires the flash at the beginning so the subject is sharper at the start of the action and blurred at the end.
This creates a feeling of almost going backward.
Practice. Motion blur isn’t mastered on the first try. Experiment with different shutter speeds. Try different compositions. Try out both keeping the camera still and panning. The more you practice, the more “keeper” shots you’ll get in less time.
Use burst speed. Just because the shutter speed is slow doesn’t mean your camera’s burst mode won’t work. Shooting a burst of images will help up the chances of getting that perfectly frozen motion blur.
Don’t forget ISO. Can’t get the shutter speed slow enough and still get a good exposure? Make sure you adjust both the aperture and the ISO. A low ISO creates less noise in the image and lowers the photograph’s exposure.
Try filters. If even the lowest possible ISO and narrowest aperture doesn’t allow for a slow enough shutter speed, filters can help. Neutral density filters make motion blur possible even under a bright sun. You won’t have to wait until dusk to take that long exposure.
These darkening filters will also allow you to shoot with slow shutter speeds while still using a wide aperture. You can use both motion blur and a blurred background through depth of field. NDs are rated for the amount of light they reduce — a .3 ND cuts one stop of light, a 3.0 ND cuts ten stops of light.
One stop of light halves the amount of light in an image. Adding a one stop ND allows you to move from a 1/125 to a 1/60 shutter speed, cutting the shutter speed in half. ND filters often come in sets allowing you to choose the best density for that particular shot.
The middle filters for three and six stops are often the most used in motion blur.

Conclusion

New photographers often avoid blur with the newfound knowledge on what, exactly, causes blur. But blur, when used appropriately, can be an excellent creative tool.
Blur conveys a sense of motion inside still images — put it to use to draw the eye, add interest or even jazz up a boring background.

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