Everyone who has ever taken a picture has ended up with photos that were ruined by motion blur. You know the look-your subject is blurry, maybe even the background is blurry. These are the shots we throw away. As a result, many of us try to avoid motion blur altogether. But, today, I want to encourage you to think more creatively and improve your photos with motion blur!
Use motion blur to make your subject stand out.
First, we’re going to use motion blur to differentiate your subject from the background.
Here’s a photo I took in Shanghai in 2008. It was my first visit to the city, and I wanted to capture the bustling chaos of this busy and crowded metropolis.
To begin with, I knew the Chinese letters on the signs would help the viewer know where I was, so I didn’t want to totally blur them out by using a wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/4. Instead, I chose an aperture of f/8.0.
Now, that particular aperture can result in photos that look like you shot them with an old Kodak box camera. I didn’t want that. I wanted my subject, a street vendor, to stand out from the background. For that, I needed him to be in focus and for much of the rest of the photo to be a bit blurry.
A possible solution
How did I achieve this? I slowed down my shutter speed to ¼ second. He was standing on the sidewalk, with rushing traffic behind him and pedestrians racing past. I knew the slower shutter speed would blur the movement and make him stand out if he could stand very still. It worked. Everything but his face is in motion and a bit blurry, and the resulting photo is full of implied energy.
An important thing to remember when you use a slow shutter speed to improve your photo with motion blur is that you need your subject to be very still. I had no way to talk to him in his language, but when I raised my camera with a questioning look, he grinned from ear to ear and posed.
After I took the photo, I smiled in thanks, showed him the photo on my LCD screen and bought the bag of nuts he was holding. That’s also part of being a good travel photographer. We double as goodwill ambassadors.
It ended up being one of my favorite travel photos of all time.
Another example of slowing your shutter speed to improve your photo with motion blur:
This next photo also called for a very still subject surrounded by moving people. It’s a photo of our daughter at St. Pancras, the train station in London. We were on our way to catch the Eurostar for lunch in Paris. It was a huge birthday gift for her.
I loved the early morning energy in the station and wanted to convey it. Everyone was rushing to catch a train. I asked her to stop and stand very still. Her body is facing into the scene and across from her is a sign that places us at the station. You can even see Eurostar on the sign, if you look very carefully.
The rushing man was the icing on the cake! He
photo-bombed raced through the scene as I pressed the shutter button. Sometimes we get lucky!
Another creative way to improve your photo with motion blur
We’ve all seen beautiful shots of waterfalls, with the water turned smooth and milky using a slow shutter speed. Usually, these photos are landscape shots, and the waterfall is the subject. But not always.
For this photo of lanterns in the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul, South Korea, the lanterns were the subject. But the waterfall was beautiful with a lightshow of changing colors. So, I slowed down my shutter speed to 1/10 second. Just like the previous photos, I didn’t have my tripod with me, but I was still able to hand-hold at this speed. (I usually don’t try to hand-hold this slow, but I have a trick I use when I do try. I set my camera to continuous shooting mode and hold down the shutter button until four or five photos have been taken. Often, one of the middle shots will be in focus.)
The lanterns were a great subject, but the waterfall made the photo much more creative. (It certainly didn’t hurt that the blue of the waterfall and the orange of the lanterns were complementary colors.)
Speaking about waterfalls
This is a simple shot that I took for fun. I was able to lean in behind the waterfall at The Yards Park in Washington, DC and shoot through it, with a shutter speed of 1/15 sec. I could clearly see the wading pool, grass and trees through the water. However, when I blurred the water with a slow shutter speed, what I captured looks much more abstract.
One more example of improving a photo with motion blur
For this final shot, I was up before dawn in Belfast, Maine, standing out on a dock in the harbor. The fog was just beginning to lift. I was struck by how serene this boat looked as it floated near the Route 1 bridge.
Unfortunately, the reflection of the bridge was interrupted by ripples on the water’s surface. So, I slowed down my shutter speed to 1/15 second. This smoothed the water’s surface just enough to make the reflection clear.
As a result, it looks like the boat is floating in a box.
Even better, a truck drove across the bridge as I shot. The slow shutter speed helped to blur it and add implied motion. This highlights the peacefulness of the boat compared to the rushing traffic.
Now it’s your turn
If you have a tripod, you’re welcome to use it, but don’t let a lack of a tripod stop you. I shot all of these photos without one. None of the shutter speeds were particularly long.
Grab your camera and head out to find a spot where you can blur some movement. One detail to note is that you may have a hard time achieving a slow shutter speed in very bright sunlight, like mid-day light, without using a neutral density filter on your lens.
If you’re under lockdown, due to the pandemic, create a shot list of places you will practice this when you can leave home. You can even look through your old photos for ideas.
You might enjoy reading this blog post about shooting at slow shutter speeds.
Or this blog post about bracing yourself to shoot at slow shutter speeds.
Here’s an explanation of what motion blur is on shutterstock.