Motion Photography 101: How To Capture Movement

9 July 2021

In the world of photography, we spend a lot of time polishing our skills and putting together kits that will help us to take the sharpest, crispest photos. But there are a few cases where we want to end up with blurry images. 

We’re talking about motion blur, which is the best way to show that your subject is on the move. Here, we’re going to talk about how to photograph motion and add a dramatic effect to your images.

What is motion blur in photography?

Capturing visible motion in photography isn’t new. You can see hints of it in very early analogue images, but it was often the result of the limited technology at the time so it wasn’t actually done on purpose!

Chances are, you’ve seen a lot of intentional blur photography in modern times. The most popular example is waterfall photography, where photographers go to a lot of trouble to capture the cascading water in a soft, dreamy blur, while making sure the rest of their image is sharp and still. It’s a signature of that style of photography, and the reason why we’re all so drawn to pictures of waterfalls

Car photography is another good example. In many cases, photographers use a technique called panning, which involves using a slow shutter speed to achieve a blurry finish. Instead of keeping the camera stationary, the camera moves alongside the subject as it passes. The result? An image with a sharp subject (aka the car), and the background blurred by motion.

Motion Photography 101: How To Capture MovementMotion Photography 101: How To Capture Movement

How to take motion photos: Why the shutter speed matters

Motion Photography 101: How To Capture MovementMotion Photography 101: How To Capture Movement

As for how to capture motion in photography, it’s all about a slow shutter speed. If you’re new to manual photography, shutter speed is one of the settings in the “exposure triangle” along with ISO and aperture. Together, these basic settings help you to take balanced, well-exposed images, and you can tweak them to achieve the overall “look” you’re going for (such as your desired depth of field).

Shutter speed refers to the length of time your camera’s shutter stays open when you're taking a photo. A faster shutter speed like 1/250th of a second means the shutter is only open for a brief moment. It freezes any fast-paced action or moving subjects, so you can capture crisp images. On the other hand, using a slow shutter speed such as 1/8th of a second blurs motion for a dramatic effect. Since the subjects are still moving while the shutter is still open, you’ll end up with visibly blurry images, which is what we’re going for here! But don’t worry: any objects in the background will look sharp — a slow shutter speed only blurs movement.

Now for the big question: what shutter speed should you use? There’s no right or wrong answer when choosing a motion blur shutter speed, only guidance. That being said, we recommend starting at a moderate shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, checking the results, and then slowing down even more when you’re ready.

What gear do you need to capture motion in photos?

There are few items you can add to your camera kit to capture motion successfully.

A digital camera with manual settings. First things first, you’ll need a camera — and ideally one that lets you adjust the settings manually. Some advanced digital compact cameras allow this, but if you have room in your budget, a DSLR or mirrorless model is your best bet. Along with producing high-quality images, they’re easy to use and feature simple button layouts, which makes it quicker and easier to play around with settings while you’re shooting.

A lens with a large aperture. While you can capture motion using any digital lens, it’s worth upgrading to a camera lens with a larger and faster aperture. These lenses give you more freedom when changing your shutter speed to freeze the action and isolate your subject, whether it’s a person, car or act of nature. Plus, lenses with a large aperture work well with low light and shallow depths of field, so they’re handy to have if you’re shooting in less-than-ideal conditions.

Motion Photography 101: How To Capture MovementMotion Photography 101: How To Capture Movement
Motion Photography 101: How To Capture MovementMotion Photography 101: How To Capture Movement

A tripod. When you’re shooting with a slow shutter speed, it’s essential to mount your camera on a tripod. If you don’t use one, you run the risk that your entire images will end up blurry, not just the moving elements. A tripod also reduces camera shake and frees up your hands so you can explore different angles and perspectives, so it’s a good investment for any type of photography.

A Neutral Density (ND) filter. Think of ND filters as the secret weapon of motion photography. They screw onto the front of your lens and limit the amount of light entering the camera, so you can get a good exposure. ND filters emphasise and smooth movement for that dreamy, blurry finish. They also turn up the texture and tonal contrast of your photos, producing crisp, vibrant images that aren’t washed out.

Try your hand at motion photos today

Capturing movement can be tricky at first, but practice makes perfect. Once you have the hang of shutter speed, check out our range of digital cameras and accessories and start playing around with creative blur photography.

Shop online or head to a Ted’s Cameras store and one of our friendly experts will be happy to answer your questions and guide you to the right gear.

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