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3 Techniques for Capturing Motion in Photography

If you think about it, it’s funny to talk about movement when discussing photography. Photography is all about stopping motion capturing split seconds in time. At the core photography is about recording reality at 1/1000 of a second. Yet is it this very thing that pushes us to show action? How can we create movement in a still image?

Before we can talk about showing movement, we need to understand the basics of how we freeze time to being with. If the photographer wants to stop or freeze a moment they use a fast shutter speed and an electronic strobe (a flash) to accomplish this. The super fast shutter slices through time and stops the motion mid-flight. The strobe does the same thing. The best way to explain how the strobe works — and the reason I used the antiquated term strobe — was to drive home a point. If you’ve ever been to a nightclub with a strobe light, you notice how time seems to stop in small chunks as the strobe flashes. The camera’s strobe does the same thing, and the film or sensor records this moment.

But for our purpose here, we want to accomplish the opposite. We want to show movement — to somehow elongate time. We can accomplish this in at least three different ways. Let look at them.

Long exposure is the most obvious, but few people really use it effectively. When you want to show action, use a slower shutter speed. In the photo above, you see a man walking out of a green door. On the door and the walls are clues. We see a sign that, meaning mosque. We can also see papers in a Persian styled arch. All these are clues to what is happening. But I wanted to show the man moving through the doorway. The problem is if I shot the frame too slow he would be so blurred he would look more like a phantom. But at 1/20th of a second, we cannot only see he is a man, but we can also see he is wearing the clothing and a prayer cap, giving us clues to where the photo was taken. Without a tripod, shots like this can be difficult to capture. For this shot I leaned the camera against a wall to steady it.

Another way to show movement with a long shutter speed is to use a tripod and set your camera’s shutter speed to something closer to 20 to 30 seconds. If you are in a crowded location some people will inevitably remain stationary while others move. Anything motionless — like a building, a street sign, markings on the street or certain people — will be in focus while life seems to be passing them by. It’s a fun and creative technique that capitalises on the slow shutter value to show movement. It can also serve to emphasise how crowded a location is.

Panning

Another technique that a photographer can use to show movement is panning. Panning is a simple yet effective technique that delivers the opposite effect of the long exposure technique above. While panning a photographer sets the shutter to a slower speed — anywhere between 1/15th to 1/30th of a second — and moves the camera at the same speed as the subject. By doing this the subject will appear more in focus and the background will be blurred. Panning gives a different point of view (POV) than the long exposure technique. It makes the viewer feel as if they are moving along with the subject and the world is rushing by them. Done effectively, the photographer can achieve some stunning effects.