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Still Subject, Motion Blur

One of my biggest weaknesses as a photographer is that I don’t venture out of my comfort zone nearly enough.  I look at the work of other photographers I admire, and they’re constantly pushing the envelope, playing with new techniques, gear set-ups, lighting and perspectives.  I don’t do nearly enough of that, but occasionally I do like to play around with abstracts and motion blurs.

Motion blur is not an uncommon technique.  Those silky waterfall shots you see all the time?  Long exposure motion blurs.  They’re common in wildlife photography as well.  One of my favorite shots from Yellowstone–and a scene I continue to try and improve upon every spring–is a blurred shot from LeHardy Rapids.

Harlequin ducks

ISO 100, 1/10th of a second, f/29

In this case, the blur comes into play with the raging rapids.  The ducks, thankfully, stayed still for a tenth of a second, remaining sharp in the frame.  More often, I use a slow shutter speed while tracking moving subjects.  It can be a nice way to separate a subject from its environment by smoothing out the background.  It’s also an effective representation of speed.


ISO 100, 1/30th, f/20

Panning shots like this are extremely difficult to pull off (depending on one’s standards and goals).  I probably toss 98% of the motion blur pan shots I take because I’ve failed to nail the important parts of the animal–usually the head and face–with a sufficient level of sharpness.  A subject that’s moving horizontally is not difficult to follow while panning.  A subject that is bobbing up and down (e.g., a running animal) adds a different dimension to the movement, and suddenly it’s that much more difficult to capture sharp details.

Nonetheless, I find it very fun to experiment with these techniques.  And sometimes I’ll even apply long exposure motion blur techniques to stationary subjects.  How does that work, exactly?  A recent shoot during my fall Yellowstone photo tour provided some good examples of creative blurs.


Landscape Motion Blurs

During our time in the Grand Tetons, our group was on a constant lookout for autumn foliage.  It’s not difficult to find in late September and early October down there.  Outside the park, we found some nice groves of aspen trees that were near peak color.  Aspens are an ideal subject for “creative blurs.”  The straight, white trunks contrast nicely with the surrounding colors, which, as you’ll see, makes for lots of interesting possibilities.

When it comes to capturing a standard photo of autumn aspen trees, you’re usually at the mercy of the disbursement of trunks and patterns created by the gold or orange leaves.


ISO 400, 1/400th, f/7.1

This one’s not terribly exciting.  Everything is sharp enough, but the spacing of the trees and splashes of color don’t make enough of a graphic or visual impact.  It’s possible that zooming in on just a portion of these trees–say, the few trunks in front of the heavy gold patch on the left–could have made for a more interesting landscape photo.

When presented a semi-interesting (or downright boring) subject, you have two options: move on to the next subject or stick around and try something different.  In this case, I started playing with motion blurs.  The trees weren’t moving, so I had to provide the movement.

Aspen Blur

ISO 100, 1/10th, f/25

Suddenly, a boring stand of trees can transform into a soft, color-rich painting… all captured in camera with no PhotoShop magic needed.  How is it done?  Just set your camera to a slow shutter speed, and then move the camera while you’re taking the photo.  You may need to jerk the camera somewhat quickly… 1/30th – 1/10th of a second is not much time.  While that shutter is open you have a short window to play around.

By adjusting your shutter speed, you can change the texture of an image.  Compare the two vertical pans below. Custom Angular Development Services.

Aspen Blur

ISO 100, 1/25th, f/22

Aspen Blur

ISO 100, 1/15th, f/22

It’s more or less the same grove of trees, though you can tell the lighting has changed due to the darker trunks below.  More importantly, the shutter speed went from 1/25th to 1/15th of a second.  This meant the shutter was open longer, allowing for more time to blur and smooth the trunks and background.

Vertical pans like this, just like the horizontal wildlife pans, demand a lot of experimentation.  Getting the right combination of subject, light and shutter speed is hard to do.  In truth, I still have a lot of work to do before I get an autumn aspen pan I’m really happy about.  These are cool, but I’m not ready to hang ’em on my wall yet.

So that’s one way to go.  But there are other motion blur possibilities as well.  I’ve shown you horizontal pans (the impala) and vertical pans (the trees).  What if we went nuts and started moving our camera along a curved plane rather than panning straight?

Aspen Blur

ISO 100, 1/10th, f/14

Aspen blur

ISO 100, 1/30th, f/14

What if we zoomed in or out during the exposure?

Aspen Blur

ISO 100, 1/25th, f/22

ISO 100, 1/8th, f/22

ISO 100, 1/8th, f/22

Wait, what if we zoomed and spun the camera at the same time?

Aspen Blur

ISO 100, 1/13th, f/14

As you can see, the sky’s the limit when it comes to this stuff.  Some of the images are more successful than others.  Obviously, you have to have a taste for abstracts, which aren’t for everyone.  Vertical tree pans are common to the point of being clichéd, but that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting with them.  You may find the right combo that appeals to you or to a wider audience.  And if you get tired of straight pans, try curving or spinning and see what happens.  It’s a fun way to create your own special effects in-camera, and may also teach you a bit more about manipulating your camera settings to your advantage.


Things to Remember

A couple tips for those who are planning on experimenting with motion blurs:

  • For these type of landscape blurs, choose a slow shutter speed: usually 1/30th or slower.  You want to give yourself enough time to move the camera and achieve the blur effect.  The easiest way to do this is to drop your ISO to 100, and either select a specific shutter speed in Shutter Priority or narrow your aperture in Aperture Priority (remember, the narrower your aperture, the more your camera will compensate by slowing the shutter speed to let in more light).
  • For wildlife pans, anywhere between 1/10th and 1/50th of a second may work, depending on the speed of the subject.  The faster the shutter speed, the more likely you are to get a few more details in the “bouncing” subject sharp.
  • For silky waterfalls, a minimum of 1/15th of a second will help you achieve the desired effect.  Some photographers use long exposures up to a few minutes to really smooth things out.
  • If your resulting images are washed out, you’re letting too much light hit the sensor.  Either your subject or the lighting conditions are too bright, or you need to alter your camera settings.  It’s rare, but it can happen.
  • Clean your sensor beforehand.  No, really.  Clean your sensor!  Narrow apertures will highlight every little speck of dust on your sensor.  You’ll spend a lot of tedious minutes (as I did with the shots above) cloning out every single dust spot in the frame.  When you’re creating smooth, artistic lines and tones, you don’t need ugly little specks breaking up all those smooth contours.

Good luck blurring, and have fun!


  1. Judith A Guenther February 17, 2021 Reply

    Max, I love your work. You judged our monthly camera club competition last night at Northern Virginia Photographic Society, and I wanted to tell you that I thought your comments were some of the best that we have had. They were inciteful, helpful, not said in a critical manner and valued by all. Obviously, art is subjective and there were a few of your choices that my husband and I didn’t agree with, but I’m sure everyone in the club, no matter at what level, enjoyed seeing all the beautiful images and hearing your artful commentary.

    • Author
      Max February 17, 2021 Reply

      Nice to hear from you, Judy. Thanks for the kind words. It was fun, and I enjoy the chance to offer some critique and suggestions while finding positives at the same time. I usually have a harder time finding the positives in my own work. 😉

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