How to Show Artistic Motion in Still Photography

How to Show Artistic Motion in Still Photography

The word photography is almost synonymous with the word still. Photographers take stills. Videographers capture motion. This may be a prevailing thought but it isn’t true of creative photography. Cameras are set up for almost any vision to become reality. This is especially true when illustrating artistic motion in photography. When highlighting motion in a photo we must consider two things: which shutter speeds will allow us to highlight movement and when should we move (or not move) the camera itself?

Jay and Heather Goodrich ride from a point of view perspective along the Lost Lake Trail near Seward, Alaska.

A ride from a point-of-view perspective along the Lost Lake Trail near Seward, Alaska. Taken with a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye on a Canon 5D Mark III at 1/50th of a second, f/22, at ISO 1000.

How to Use Shutter Speeds to Express Motion

The shutter speed is the main adjustment on our cameras responsible for highlighting or stopping motion. You can freeze motion with very fast shutter speeds or blur motion with very slow shutter speeds. Here are some of the general shutter speeds available on most current DSLRs and how they work within a motion parameter:

Slow Shutter Speeds (hours through 1/15th of a second)

These shutter speeds allow us to express time (like stars moving across the night), blur motion, and, as we approach 1/15th of a second, keep some parts of our subject tack-sharp while blurring other parts of the photo. This is useful while panning our cameras at the same speed as a moving subject.

Mid-Range Shutter Speeds (1/30th of a second through 1/125th of a second)

Shutter speeds in this range allow us to stop action if it were to approach us head-on. It can add a combination of blur and sharpness to flowing water as well. These speeds are typically fast enough to completely freeze slower-moving subjects, such as when people move during portraits, but still can blur backgrounds when panning with a moving subject.

Learn More:

Do you need Image Stabilization? Flaunt it if you got it but for sports photography you do not have to spend the extra money on it. Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction) is very handy for handheld slow shutter shooting but doesn’t further improve the fast shutter shots you’ll likely be taking out on the field. Additionally, the IS/VR process eats up battery life. A good rule of thumb is to shoot at a shutter speed that is not slower than the length of your lens. For example, for a 300mm lens, shoot at a shutter speed of at least 1/300th of a second. If that lens has image stabilization, though, you can fudge on that minimum shutter speed and still stand a chance at sharp handheld images and this is where IS/VR is really useful. Keep all this in mind when trying to decide between renting, say, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens (currently $83 for a week) and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 original (currently $57 for a week). Learn more in 10 Sports Photography Gear Tips.

Fast Shutter Speeds (1/250th of a second through 1/8000th of a second)

Our goal is to typically freeze action when using shutter speeds this fast. Elements moving straight at us will be tack sharp at 1/250th of a second. Subjects moving sideways through our frames will need even faster shutter speeds. Think of a cheetah running across the plains in Africa. 1/250th will not stop its motion but a 1/1000th of a second probably will.

The artistic side of motion in still photography is going to hover from the bottom of the mid-range shutter speeds all the way through the longest shutter times. Here are a series of photos taken in Great Smokies National Park that illustrate how shutter speed changes the look of flowing water. Once we have the shutter speed settings figured out, we’ll hone our camera movement techniques.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Rushing water cascading down one of many beautiful streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Remember, to maintain the same exposure for every frame you’re changing your shutter speed one you’ll have to adjust your ISO or f/stop to compensate. Learn more in Exposure Triangle: 3 Key Settings for Great Photography.

How to Stabilize the Camera with a Moving Subject

The easiest camera motion technique starts with putting the camera on a tripod. Then, set a shutter speed between hours (though usually just whole minutes is sufficient) and 1/30th of a second. Create a beautiful composition and release the shutter. Anything that is moving within your composition (water, leaves, grass, etc) will become motion-blurred and everything else in the frame will be tack-sharp. This is how the series of shutter speed examples from the Great Smokies was created.

How to Move the Camera with a Moving Subject

A bicycle rider heads to work near Yang Shao China.

A bicycle rider heads to work near Yang Shao, China. Taken with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II on a Canon 1D Mark IV at 1/5th of a second, f/16, and ISO 100.

I typically pan my camera with my moving subject using the following technique. I use it when I do not have my tripod and the light is too low to create a tack-sharp photo that has motion as part of the design. However, if I have subjects rolling by, like the one from China above, I will adjust my camera settings to give me a slow enough shutter speed to pull off this effect any time of the day. If you are in bright sunlight, adding a neutral density filter (B+W, Breakthrough Photography, and Singh-Ray all manufacture great versions) will help slow things down by taking away light which, in turn, allows you slower shutter speeds without overexposing.

Snow geese lift off at sunrise to create an abstract motion blur in New Mexico.

Snow geese lift off at sunrise to create an abstract motion blur in New Mexico.

Whenever I am panning with my subject, I will experiment with shutter speeds between a 1/15th of a second to 1 second. I also try to pan with my subject at the same rate of speed that my subject is traveling all while depressing my shutter release. It will take you a few tries every time you use this method to walk away with a photo that you like. A great way to practice is at places where subjects keep going by, like car races or areas with lots of birds.

Moving the Camera or Lens with a Fixed Subject

A cactus is blurred by spinning the camera with slow shutter speed.

A cactus is blurred by spinning the camera with slow shutter speed.

What happens when I have an overcast day with zero wind and subjects that are completely devoid of movement? I experiment. I will try things like spinning my camera over a cactus.

Cone flowers are abstracted by zooming the lens during a long exposure.

Cone flowers are abstracted by zooming the lens during a long exposure.

Or adding a zoom lens to my camera and trying to zoom the lens during a longer shutter speed. I will also try panning the camera with subjects that have defined lines. The perfect example of this occurs while standing in an autumn forest on an overcast morning. I will pan the camera with the vertical lines of the tree trunks using a shutter speed around 1/10th of a second.

Autumn wind blows through the leaves of aspen and cottonwood near in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Motion Camera Blur.

Autumn wind blows through the leaves of aspen and cottonwood near in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Motion Camera Blur. Taken with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II on a Canon 1D X at 10th of a second, f/16, and ISO 100.

The results when trying these methods are extremely varied. So you need to be patient and look at your camera’s LCD after every photo. Trying a creative motion experiment like this with film could take hundreds of rolls to yield likable results compared to using a digital SLR. With modern cameras, you now have the ability to truly experiment relatively easily with any concept.

Stabilize the Camera with a Moving Subject by Adding Flash

Rex Flake riding single track after dark in Leavenworth, Washington.

Rex Flake riding single track after dark in Leavenworth, Washington.

In my article How to Shoot a Time-Lapse: Intro to Interval and Exposure Settings and Techniques, I discussed the “holy grail time-lapse”. This type of time-lapse is created by shooting from sunrise to sunset and well into the night as stars begin to move across the sky. Artistic motion in still photography has its own form of a “holy grail shot”. This type of photograph highlights movement by not only blurring it but by freezing it as well. How can we pull this off? By adding an off-camera flash.

Flash gives you the ability to freeze just a millisecond of time, which yields a ghost in a field of blurred motion. To start, you need to have a moving subject. It is best to have an assistant help. You also need a tripod, a flash, and a lot of patience. In this case, I used a mountain biker riding in the dark. I used the rider’s lights to illuminate the trail and create the blurred motion lines as he rode through the switchbacks with my slow shutter speeds. After a bunch of trial and error, I figured out that my rider was making it through the switchbacks in 8 seconds. That is how I chose my final shutter speed. We tried a bunch of different flash settings but settled on my assistant manually releasing the flash several times during the camera’s exposure. His first flash pop happened exactly where you see the ghost of my mountain biker. Then, within the remaining seconds of my exposure, he popped the flash to light up various parts of the forest. It took us 15 tries to get everything exactly the way we wanted but the rewards were a photo that I hadn’t seen before. I can honestly say that trying something different has never let me down from a creative photography standpoint.

Blowing snow is captured with a highlight on the motion and an abstraction of the known process.

Blowing snow is captured with a highlight on the motion and an abstraction of the known process.

While this style of photography can produce many failed attempts, I feel that the keepers really highlight something different and unique. It also allows us to stay one step of any photographer who uses a camera to create just snapshots. An artistic-motion photograph requires really thinking about your approach and anytime loose planning is involved, creativity begins to boil. Next time you are out exploring with your camera and a moving subject catches your eye, don’t just capture it – try to illustrate that subject in a new and artistic way.

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Jay Goodrich

Jay Goodrich is an internationally published adventure photojournalist living in Jackson, Wyoming. He started his professional career as a formally-trained architect. There was something about the corporate world within architecture that just didn’t work for Jay. Instead of complaining or continually living a life that didn’t satisfy, he built a business that opened doors to the world and is focused on the foundations of design and art that he learned while studying architecture in college. Find out more about Jay on his website.

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