We are all familiar with these instructions, supported by the idea that a good photo is a motion-free photo. However, there is a place for movement in photography and there are no rules in how to achieve it.
Generally speaking, the faster the subject moves in relation to your shutter speed, the more blurred and faint it will appear, sometimes disappearing completely. If your subject is significantly slower, then you will freeze it. If they are a similar speed, the motion blur will be enough to damage how sharp your photo is and fail to convey the motion desired.
This article will continue to explore the world of recording motion in photography.
Movement to Capture
Panning With Intentional Camera Movement
Intentional camera movement (ICM) is a controlled camera movement with a purpose. Panning is the most famous example of this.
If you are panning properly, your subject will be in focus and sharp, while the background will present a strong motion blur.
Panning at the 82th Italian GP in Monza (Photo credit: Alessandro Torri Canon EOS 350D with Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM).
The reason to do panning is so that your final image will convey a feeling of speed and power that is missing in your beautiful, technically perfect photo of a parked Ferrari or sitting lion.
Lens manufacturers have introduced a different stabilisation mode that only corrects vertical movements. This allows intentional, horizontal movements which are common when using a monopod for a panning shot.
Long telephoto lenses are best suited to this kind of photography because they allow you to fill the frame with the subject while accentuating the motion blur thanks to their long focal length.
ICM can also be used to create great abstract photos, such as the one below. I took this in the Sonian forest, near Brussels (Belgium), by simply moving the camera vertically before pressing the shutter.
Abstract landscape in the Sonian forest, located nearby Brussels, Belgium. Sony RX100 Mark II.
To some extent, this kind of abstract image can be obtained using the motion blur filter in Photoshop, even though the resulting effect may appear less natural.
Capturing the motion of fast-moving clouds is another common way to add movement to landscape and architectural scenes.
Usually, this requires the use of neutral density (ND) filters to drastically lower your shutter speed, so that the clouds will noticeably move across the scene.
Below, I successfully motion blurred the puffy clouds during midday light by stacking together a 10-stops and 6-stops ND filter to achieve a 60 second exposure.
The new congress center in Mons, Belgium. Olympus OM-D EM-10 using 14-42 kit lens with B+W ND106 and ND110 filters stacked together.
Infrared long exposure (about 20 seconds) in a city garden. Panasonic DMC-GF2 with 12-42 kit lens and HOYA r72 infrared filter.
Motion In Nocturnal Landscape Photography
Stars, planets and galaxies all move across the sky at a relatively fast pace. Long exposures (mostly obtained by stacking together a large number of photos taken with a relatively short exposure time) can be used to create star trails and even Milky Way trails.
Milky Way trail in the sky above Cap-Blanc-Nez, France. Sony RX100 Mk2, total time about 3 minutes.
Star trails on marshland near Turnhout, Belgium. Olympus OM-D EM-10 with Samyang 7.5 f/3.5 fisheye lens. Total time about 30 minutes.
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.
Avlaki beach (Kerkyra, Greece). Panasonic DMC-GF2 with 14-42 kit lens.
You can even use longer exposures to completely smooth the waves out to obtain a flat and static sea.
Dock in Kalamaki beach at dawn. (Kerkyra, Greece). The waves got smoothed away by the long exposure. Here, the act to record the sea movement resulted in a motionless, zen-like, minimalist image. Canon 50D with Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM.
Fast-moving streams of water, like waterfalls and rivers, can assume a silky appearance.
Ferrera Waterfall, Italy (Photo credit: Alessandro Torri) Canon EOS 50D with Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 AT-X 116 Pro DX).
Rapids under the Devil’s bridge in Bobbio, Italy. Olympus OM-D EM-10 with Samyang 12mm f/2.
Capturing Movement with Lights
The body of the cars are not brightly lit and are moving faster than the exposure time, allowing them to vanish in the final image, leaving only their trail of lights.
Boulevard de Waterloo by night (Brussels, Belgium). Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2.
Try creating an urban carousel by capturing the passing traffic framing a roundabout.
Urban carousel in Place Royale (Brussels, Belgium). Panasonic DMC-GF2 with Samyang 7.5 f/3.5 fisheye lens.
Present famous landmarks in an alternative way by capturing light trails in front of them.
Light trails in front of the Bullring shopping center in Birmingham, UK. Panasonic DMC-GF2 with 14-42 kit lens.
Luna Parks provide plenty of lights that can be used to create trails.
Turn an otherwise boring cityscape in to a great panorama by capturing 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.
Ferris Wheel in front of the Midi Tower in Brussels, which is the tallest skyscraper in Belgium.
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. I was inspired by the Day-to-Night photography by Stephen Wilkes and wanted to try it myself.
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.
I think 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).
Mont des Arts (Brussels, Belgium). Olympus OM-D EM-10 with Samyang 12mm f/2 and Formatt HITECH gnd filters.
The Atomium (Brussels, Belgium). Olympus OM-D EM-10 with Samyang 12mm f/2 and Formatt HITECH gnd filters.
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. (See below).
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 stars of milky way trails.
A set of neutral density (ND) and graduated neutral density (GND) filters are needed to be able to make long exposures in daylight.
Technicalities of Long Exposure Photography
Long exposures are classified as photographs taken using a very slow shutter speed, typically from 10 seconds to several minutes. In day light, this can be achieved by stepping down your lens to the maximum (note: higher F-number, narrower aperture) and lowering your ISO settings to their minimum. However, using this technique means that you cannot control your aperture, which 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 commercially available and will cut your exposure by 16-stops. Stacking multiple 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 by 1 stop, you are cutting in half the amount of light hitting the sensor. A 10-stops 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 to 10 minutes and 55 seconds.
There are two main families of filters: screw-in filters and plate filters. The main difference is that a plate filter can be combined with a graduated plate filter (GND) to 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 as the plate filter is not directly in contact with the lens due to the presence of the filter holder. You can minimise this problem with the addition of a foamy frame but it will not suffice for bright conditions and long exposures.
Screw-in filters leave no gaps between the filter and the lens, nor between stacked filters, so the system is better sealed from the light.
I took the photo below with a plate 10-stops ND filter and the image is ruined by light leakage visible in the form of the magenta halo at the center of the frame coupled with a general loss in contrast and sharpness.
Light leakage has ruined the image above (unedited). Olympus OM-D EM-10 with Samyang 12mm f/2 and Formatt Hitech 10-stop ND plate filter. Exposure time 15 seconds.
Small halos may be removed in editing, but generally it is best to light seal your system by using 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 to 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 to 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 that can be impossible to remove in processing.
Image Averaging to Mimic In-Camera Long Exposures
This technique consists of taking a large number of photos of the same scene and then averaging them in Photoshop. The resulting image will benefit from having a very low digital noise and the moving subject will be blurred 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 start crippling 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.
Below is an example of long exposure obtained with image averaging. I took this photo from the top of the Bayon waterfall (Belgium) and 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.
The use of a fisheye lens provides a nice, dynamic view of the area, allowing me to combine many interesting elements.
The Bayon waterfall (Belgium). Olympus OM-D EM-10 with Samyang 7.5 f/3.5 MFT fisheye lens.
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 (typically 3-stops) to cover the back elements of the lens but 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, therefore, (1/200) * 8 = 1/25. This does not really make the photo a long exposure: the shutter speed is barely slow enough to 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 in to Photoshop, duplicated the level and used a moderate blur filter (distance pixels = 45) applied to the main direction of the waterfall to make it appear more dynamic.
I then applied a mask to this layer to reveal everywhere, except for the waterfall, the original image in the layer below it. The image below shows a 100% comparison of the water before and after the use of the motion filter.
Before (left) and after (right) the use of the motion filter in Adobe Photoshop CC to further smooth and blur the water.
If you have an iOS based device, there are some extremely useful apps to help you in this kind of photography.
Giving a light reading without using ND filters, it computes the resulting exposure time when one or more ND and GND filters are used. It also allows you to:
Set a proper exposure for Moon shots.
Estimate the time and number of shots required to get star trails of a certain length in your final image, given the exposure time for the single frames.
Calculate the maximum exposure time to capture a still star.
Use charts to help you set the proper shutter speed to have flowing water appear in specific ways in the final image (motion, milky, velvety) depending on if you are photographing waterfalls or waves, swirls and so on.
This app allows you to work with incident and reflected light and has settings for EV compensation and a useful timer for Bulb mode.
This is useful in case the light changes and you have your camera lens fitted with ND/GND filters that will make it difficult to get a good light reading in camera. Use this app combined with the Long Exposure Calculator to update your camera settings accordingly 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.
Photographing the fourth dimension – Time, by photographer Jim Goldstein.
Not all movements are bad in photography, so grab your camera and start experimenting with motion blur. Improve your photographs by adding an extra punch to them.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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