How to Capture Motion Blur in Photography

Motion blur is a great way to show movement in photography.  Motion blur makes a still image have movement and gives the viewer an idea of what the subject's direction, speed or activity.  Motion blur is as useful in landscape photography as it is in sports photography and does a great job of creating different effects.  For example, in landscape photography I often reduce my shutter speed to give water that nice glassy look, while in sports photography I will reduce my shutter speed to give my subject a sense of movement.  

In this image I used a nice long shutter speed to give the clouds movement and to make the water nice and smooth.  In reality, the water was somewhat choppy and didn't make for a great shot.  If you want your water to look like this try and get a shutter speed of at least 5 seconds.  For this shot I actually took the photo of the dock first, then I ran out and did a self timed shot.  I then edited the two photos together in photoshop.

In this image I used a nice long shutter speed to give the clouds movement and to make the water nice and smooth.  In reality, the water was somewhat choppy and didn't make for a great shot.  If you want your water to look like this try and get a shutter speed of at least 5 seconds.  For this shot I actually took the photo of the dock first, then I ran out and did a self timed shot.  I then edited the two photos together in photoshop.

What Shutter Speed To Use for Motion Blur

This is a tricky one and is really dependent on what you're looking to accomplish.  For the shot above, I used a 30 second shutter.  However, for the shot below I used a 1/60 sec shutter speed.  Your shutter speed is going to vary greatly based on what you're trying to accomplish so there is no magic number for motion blur.  However, there are a few guidelines that I've posted below to help get you started. 

This shot was taken at a shutter speed of 1/60 while I tracked the subject.  Basically I keep the camera centered on the subject and move with it while I snap away.  Because I am staying focused on the subject he appears to be still while the background shows blur or motion.  Had I snapped the photo while the subject just moved through the frame and not tracked him the background would be clear and he would be blurry. 

This shot was taken at a shutter speed of 1/60 while I tracked the subject.  Basically I keep the camera centered on the subject and move with it while I snap away.  Because I am staying focused on the subject he appears to be still while the background shows blur or motion.  Had I snapped the photo while the subject just moved through the frame and not tracked him the background would be clear and he would be blurry. 

Motion Blur Shutter Speeds

  • Waterfalls- 2-3 Seconds
  • Stars (if you want streaks)- At least 60 seconds
  • Car Lights- 10-20 seconds
  • Human Movement (Walking)- 1/30
  • Human Movement (running)- 1/60
  • Car Driving- 1/80- 1/120 seconds 
  • Glassy water- 10 seconds

Best Shutter Speed for Capturing Water Movement

If you're looking to get that nice motion blur water look you will need to slow your shutter speed down to at least 1/2 second.  For really fast moving water you can get motion at around 1/30 seconds but if you're looking for the motion blur that's seen below you will need to get your camera on a tripod and reduce your shutter speed to at least 1/2 second.  I've found that there tends to be a real sweet spot when capturing water movement.  If you're photographing a waterfall or river and you slow your shutter down too much it will just turn into a white blur, too fast and you don't get the motion.  What I like to do is start my camera at around 1/2 second and slow the shutter down until I get my desired effect.  Keep in mind that as you slow your shutter down you will start letting in more light which will in turn start to over expose your photo.  You will need to adjust either your shutter speed or your ISO settings to keep the exposure at your desired level.  

I've found in general, most of my waterfalls and rivers tend to look the best at around a 3 second exposure.  Anything more and it becomes too blurred, anything less and it doesn't have that wispy look that I like.  

This was shot at 1/3 seconds.  This was an extremely fast moving river so my first attempts of 3 second exposures offered very little contrast in the water and ended up just being a giant white blur.

This was shot at 1/3 seconds.  This was an extremely fast moving river so my first attempts of 3 second exposures offered very little contrast in the water and ended up just being a giant white blur.

This was a 4 second exposure.  As you can see it offers around the same amount of blur as the photo above.  However, the river was moving a lot slower here than it was in the photo above.  

This was a 4 second exposure.  As you can see it offers around the same amount of blur as the photo above.  However, the river was moving a lot slower here than it was in the photo above.  

Best Shutter Speed for Capturing Driving Lights

Again, this is a tough one.  For this, you need the shutter open long enough to get a really good streak of light from the car.  However, the longer you keep the shutter open the more exposed your photo will be come.  I've found to get a nice light streak I usually need a 10-20 second shutter speed.  However, unless it's really dark out that shutter speed will greatly over expose your photo.  You'll most likely need to apply a good Neutral Density Filter to help combat the extra light coming in.  

This is a 20 second exposure and was needed to get the long, streaky light.  However, I had to apply an 8 stop Neutral Density Filter to achieve the proper exposure.  

This is a 20 second exposure and was needed to get the long, streaky light.  However, I had to apply an 8 stop Neutral Density Filter to achieve the proper exposure.  

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Equipment Needed for Motion Blur Photography

Because motion blur photography is often done with slower shutter speeds you will most likely want the appropriate equipment.  Generally I will use a tripod, remote shutter release and ND filter. 

Tripod

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A good tripod is pretty essential to motion blur photography because it will help keep your camera still.  While there are a ton of tripods on the market this is something you will want to invest a little money into the first time around.  Cheap tripods break easily and will have trouble keeping your camera still if there is any wind or movement.  I've tried a ton of different ones on the market and I think my favorite so far is the SLIK series of tripods.  

Remote Shutter Release

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A good shutter release is money when it comes to motion blur photography, mainly because it allows you a hands off option with your camera.  Anytime you touch your camera, especially when you have a slow shutter speed, you risk creating unwanted blur.  I personally like the Hahnel Capture remotes, especially for astrophotography.  Regardless of what you get, a good shutter release is crucial when working your camera under 1/8 second.  One option is to always put a countdown timer on your camera if you don't have one, it's a cheap alternative.  

Neutral Density Filter

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A neutral density filter essentially reduces the amount of light let into your camera allowing you to reduce your shutter speed or alter your aperture.  ND Filters come in a wide variety of Stops.  

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