A lot of photographers will say that a good photo is a motion-free photo. But motion (and motion blur) has its place in photography.
In this article, we’ll show you creative ways to use motion blur for more dynamic images.
Movement to Capture
Intentional camera movement (ICM) is a controlled camera movement with a purpose. Panning is the most famous example of this.
If you are panning, your subject will be in focus and sharp. And the background will present a strong motion blur.
Panning will add speed and power to your image. Your ultra-technical photo of a parked Ferrari or sitting lion won’t have this.
Lens manufacturers have introduced a different stabilization mode that only corrects vertical movements.
This allows intentional, horizontal movements. These are common when using a monopod for a panning shot.
Long telephoto lenses are best for this kind of photography. They allow you to fill the frame with the subject while accentuating the motion blur.
You can also use ICM to create great abstract photos, such as the one below.
I took this in the Sonian forest, near Brussels (Belgium). I was moving the camera before pressing the shutter.
You can get this kind of abstract image using the motion blur filter in Photoshop. But the resulting effect may appear less natural.
Capturing clouds is another way to add movement to landscape and architectural scenes.
This requires the use of neutral density (ND) filters to lower your shutter speed. This way the clouds will move across the scene.
I motion blurred the puffy clouds during midday light. I stacked together a 10-stops and 6-stops ND filter to achieve a 60 second exposure.
Stars, planets and galaxies all move across the sky at a fast pace.
You can use long exposures to create star, and even Milky Way trails.
I recommended reading my how-to on night landscape photography here.
Motion Blur in Water
Try experimenting with your shutter speed while capturing waterfalls, rivers and the sea.
You can use a very short shutter speed to freeze the breaking of the waves on the shore.
Or a longer one to make them appear foamy and smooth, like in the photos below.
You can even use longer exposures to completely smooth the waves out to get a flat and static sea.
Fast-moving streams of water, like waterfalls and rivers, can assume a silky appearance.
Capturing Motion Blur With Lights
The cars are moving faster than the exposure time.
This allows them to vanish in the final image, leaving only their trail of lights.
Try creating an urban carousel by capturing the passing traffic framing a roundabout.
Present famous landmarks in an alternative way. Capture light trails in front of them.
Luna Parks provide plenty of lights you can use to create trails.
Turn an otherwise boring cityscape into a great panorama. Capture the slow-moving Ferris Wheel with a long exposure.
The photo is a blend of an HDR photo done for the city and the sky with a long exposition to get the wheel spinning. Canon EOS 50D with Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 fitted with a B+W ND110 filter for the long exposure.
Choose a slow shutter speed and shine a moving flashlight towards the camera.
Even in the most static outdoor scenery, there is something flowing; time.
To achieve this shot, I took photos following the day to night cycle. Once you have your shots, merge your photos together to express the flowing of time.
This kind of photography gives better results with large, busy cityscapes. Below are a couple of “golden-to-blue” shots I took in Brussels (Belgium).
Here is what you’ll need to create a photo with motion:
- A photo camera – digital is easier. If using a film camera, be aware of film reciprocity failure with long expositions.
- A sturdy tripod is ideal for long exposures. Panning is more suited to a monopod.
- A lens (I recommend a telephoto lens for panning).
- A remote control/intervallometer for long exposures using bulb. This is also used when photographing star trails.
- A set of neutral density (ND) and graduated neutral density (GND) filters.
Technicalities of Long Exposure Photography
Long exposures are photographs taken using a very slow shutter speed. This is from 10 seconds to several minutes.
In daylight, do this by stepping down your lens to the max (note: higher F-number, narrower aperture). And lower your ISO settings to their min.
Using this technique means that you cannot control your aperture. This negates your ability to control your depth of field.
To produce a long exposure photograph, you need to use neutral density (ND) filters. Examples of these are the Lee Big Stopper, the B+W ND 110 and the Firecrest ND 4.8.
The Firecrest is the darkest filter available. It will cut your exposure by 16-stops. Stacking several filters will also achieve this and can offer you increased flexibility. An ND set of 3, 6 and 10-stop filters would be ideal.
Note: When you reduce your exposure 1 stop, you are halving the amount of light hitting the sensor. A 10-stop filter will reduce your shutter speed by a factor of 1000.
This will increase your shutter speed from 1/1000 of a second to 10 seconds. A 16-stops filter will further reduce your original 1/1000s shutter speed. It will go down to 10 minutes and 55 seconds.
There are two main families of filters: screw-in filters and plate filters. The main difference is that you can combine a plate filter with a graduated plate filter (GND). This will help even the light across a contrasted scene.
In my experience, the downside of using plate filters is that they are more prone to light leakage. The plate filter is not in contact with the lens due to the presence of the filter holder.
You can get rid of this problem. Add a foamy frame. This will not be enough for bright conditions and long exposures.
Screw-in filters leave no gaps between the filter and the lens. Or between stacked filters. The system is better sealed from the light.
I took the photo below with a plate 10-stops ND filter. Light leakage will appear in the form of the magenta halo at the center of the frame.
There is also general loss in contrast and sharpness.
You can remove small halos in editing. But it is best to light seal your system. Use gaffer tape to seal any gap between the filter and the lens/holder, as well as shade the camera.
If you have an optical viewfinder, it is best to cover it with gaffer tape. This will prevent light leakage inside the camera body.
Additionally, for very long exposures, you may want to wrap your camera body and lens in dark cloths.
For screw-in filters, I recommend you choose the largest diameter. It will allow you to mount them on different lenses by using step-up adaptor rings.
Avoid cheap filters. They will degrade the image quality and introduce a strong colour cast. It will be impossible to remove it in processing.
Image Averaging to Mimic In-Camera Long Exposures
This technique consists of taking a large number of photos of the same scene. Then average them in Photoshop.
The resulting image will have very low digital noise. And the moving subject will be blurry as if you took a long exposure.
Your final exposure time will be the sum of the shutter speeds used for the single photos.
For an introduction on multi-frame noise reduction technique, read this article.
There are three main reasons why you may want to consider this technique:
- Your ND filters are not dark enough. This technique allows a longer exposure time.
- A single exposure will take so long that digital noise and hot pixel will ruin the image quality. It is best to combine a series of shorter exposures.
- You have forgotten your filters or your lens does not allow for the use of filters.
Long Exposure With Image Averaging
I took this photo from the top of the Bayon waterfall (Belgium). I wanted to capture a scene that was dynamic and powerful.
From where I could stand, I had to use my Samyang 7.5mm fisheye lens.
A fisheye lens provided a nice, dynamic view of the area. It allowed me to combine many interesting elements.
This lens cannot take screw-in or plate filters. Placing a handheld filter in front of the lens may work with GND filters. But for long exposures this isn’t viable.
A solution could be to tape a small piece of a gelatin ND filter ( 3-stops) to cover the back elements of the lens. I had no gelatin filters at that time.
Instead, the photo is the result of averaging eight single exposures, each 1/200s long.
The resulting total time is (1/200) * 8 = 1/25. This does not make the photo a long exposure. The shutter speed is slow enough to motion blur the waterfall.
In these conditions, to get a total time of 5 seconds, I would need to take about 1000 photos which was not possible. I needed to turn to Photoshop.
After editing the photo in Lightroom, I reimported it into Photoshop. I duplicated the level and used a moderate light blur filter (distance pixels = 45). I applied this to the main direction of the waterfall to make it appear more dynamic.
Then I applied a mask to this layer to reveal the original image in the layer below it. Except for the waterfall.
The image below shows a 100% comparison of the water before and after the use of the motion filter.
If you have an iOS based device, these are some useful apps to help you in this kind of photography.
Take a light reading without using ND filters. The app computes the resulting exposure time when you use one or more ND and GND filters.
It also allows you to:
- Set a proper exposure for Moon shots;
- Estimate the time and number of shots required to get star trails;
- Calculate the maximum exposure time to capture a still star;
- Use charts to help you set the proper shutter speed. This includes flowing water like waterfalls or waves, swirls and so on.
- Use a library of useful resources and links.
This app allows you to work with incident and reflected light. It has settings for EV compensation and a useful timer for Bulb mode.
This is useful in case the light changes. If you have your camera lens fitted with ND/GND filters, it will make it difficult to get a good light reading in camera.
Use this app combined with the Long Exposure Calculator. Update your camera settings to the new light conditions.
A simple and effective film reciprocity calculator for photographers. Select a film type and metered exposure time. The calculator will provide a reciprocity compensated exposure time.
The app includes an exposure timer so you can time your long exposures. You can also use a slider to adjust exposure when you have filters attached.
Not all movement is bad in photography. Grab your camera and start experimenting with motion blur.
Improve your photographs by adding an extra punch to them.