by Alex W.
Beginners in the photography world are often told to keep their shutter speed high and avoid motion blur.
This is good advice for somebody just starting out in photography, but eventually you’re going to want to start pushing the boundaries and breaking some long-standing photography rules.
There are plenty of ways to push the boundaries in photography, but creatively using motion blur can be one of the most dramatic.
It’s also a good way to set yourself apart from the millions of smartphone images uploaded to the internet every single day!
Want to learn more about shutter speed? Check out our handy Shutter Speed Chart / Infographic here.
The one rule when trying to creatively use motion blur is that you must use a shutter speed that is slow in comparison to your subject.
The exact shutter speed can vary wildly – 1/500 second can be slow when shooting Formula One cars, but you’ll need a much longer shutter speed if you want to capture the movement in some gently lapping waves.
This is where trial and error, and eventually experience, comes into play. For example, after a lot of practising I know that a galloping horse is sharp at 1/800 second, so if I want to capture the movement I’ll opt for a longer shutter speed such as 1/30 second.
But if you increase the shutter speed the image will be overexposed, right?
Remember the Exposure Triangle. If you want to increase the shutter speed you’ll need to reduce the amount of light recorded by the sensor in other ways:
Being familiar with shooting in manual mode will make all of this a lot easier to get to grips with.
Now, what about some specific techniques for creatively using motion blur in your photography?
For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to long exposure photography as the technique often used in landscape photography and cityscape photography – with the camera mounted on a tripod using shutter speeds that are too slow to handhold.
This is the most commonly used and traditional technique for capturing motion blur, and is often used to smooth out moving subjects such as water and clouds.
This particular technique of implementing motion blur into your photography is probably the most widely used. It can be useful when you want to simplify the scene you’re shooting, or in the realm of cityscape photography to create leading lines.
You’ll need a tripod for this kind of photography, so take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Buying a Tripod.
Subjects such as waterfalls, rivers or the sea can often look a bit underwhelming when photographed at ‘normal’ shutter speeds, and using long exposure photography to capture the movement of the water is a great way to inject some creativity into the shot.
Extremely long shutter speeds can help to simplify a scene, rendering the water an ethereal blur and allowing the other parts of your composition to shine.
Conversely, if you increase the shutter speed a bit, while still keeping it long enough to capture the motion, you can inject a sense of drama and dynamism to the image.
Capturing the movement of the clouds is often simply a byproduct of shooting long exposure photography, but sometimes the clouds themselves can be the star of the show.
Unlike water, shorter shutter speeds such as 1-10 seconds aren’t really long enough to capture sufficient motion blur in the clouds. Instead, you’ll have to think big and most likely attach a neutral density filter to your lens.
As we discussed in our beginner’s guide to astrophotography, the Earth’s rotation results in the stars appearing to move around us. This opens up some very interesting opportunities for us as photographers.
By using ultra long exposure times (or stacking multiple exposures on top of one another) we can capture the movement of the stars across the sky, and the effects can be pretty sensational.
You can find some of our top astrophotography lenses here.
Car Headlights / Taillights
This is most often used in cityscape photography, and we discussed it in further detail in our 11 Tips for Cityscape Photography article.
Anyway, the premise is that you can use a long shutter speed to capture the movement of car lights, rendering them as dramatic streaks of light to add an extra element to your cityscape images.
Long exposures can even be used in some street photography situations to portray the essence of fast-paced city living.
For example, shooting a long exposure of somebody stood completely still in the middle of Times Square will allow you to capture the chaos of a busy New York City street scene while also making your main subject stand out.
While traditional long exposure photography blurs the motion of relatively slow moving subjects to produce more calming images, panning utilizes motion blur in a very different way – By emphasising speed.
As such, panning is often used with very fast moving subjects such as planes, racing cars and fast moving animals.
The basic premise behind panning is that you track the movement of your camera in time with the movement of your subject while using a slow shutter speed. The result, when done correctly, is a relatively sharp main subject and a completely blurred background, which gives the impression of speed and movement in your final image.
Admittedly, this does take a bit of practise and a lot of trial and error to nail down, but the results can take your action or sport photography to the next level.
This technique is a little out of left field. Rather than capturing the motion of the scene, Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) aims to capture the motion of your camera.
The premise of ICM is simple – You simply move your camera while the shutter is open.
In practise, it’s quite a bit more difficult than that. The idea is to create abstract images of the world around you, and it takes a lot of trial, error and practise.
There’s only one thing you need to remember about camera settings in ICM – Shutter speed is everything.
Since we’re creating abstract images, we really don’t care about things like depth of field or diffraction. Basically, our aperture becomes a tool for getting to the most suitable shutter speed.
The actual shutter speed depends on the subject and how fast you’re moving your camera, but I find anywhere between 1/20 second and 2 seconds works well in the majority of situations.
Your imagination is the limit when it comes to ICM. You can find success literally anywhere.
For example, this photographer created a series by photographing small mounds of dirt, and the results are absolutely stunning. Here are some ideas to get the creative juices flowing.
It will come as no surprise that you can move your camera around freely. Up and down, left to right, diagonally, and even right to left!
Some of these are more suited to certain subjects, but ICM is all about experimenting with your creativity, so go wild!
About Alex W.
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.