Showing motion in your photos

Posted by on Jun 1, 2016 in Techniques, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Showing motion in your photos

The ability to catch and portray movement in a photo is a critical skill to learn, it can help elevate your photography and provide an engaging focal point for the viewer. The skill when learnt can be easily applied to a wide range of photography but becomes an essential component of sports or action type photos. Ranging from kids playing in the backyard through to pro-surfers or motor racing, exciting and engaging photos can be crafted by controlling the way motion is shown. As a photographer you have a number of options open to you when it comes to showing how things are moving within your photo’s frame and your camera settings become critical to achieving the desired method.

Each of the methods shown below can be used with most any moving subjects in the photo but results may vary due to the speed of the subject and skill level. The best advice is to practice, practice and more practice.

Freezing the motion

It might sound counter intuitive to discuss freezing movement as an option here but often this method can produce spectacular results that will leave the viewer enthralled. Take a fast moving sport like surfing for instance, when the motion is frozen you get to see every droplet of water, the emotion on the surfers face can be captured and examined. This gives a glimpse into a world rarely seen and that is what can captivate the viewer. This method does not work well for every type of action though, motor racing or pictures of propeller aircraft can look static and boring when all of the motion is frozen, the wheels or blades freeze and can look a bit unnatural.

On the Wing_KD

On the Wing by Ken Dickson Canon 7D with Sigma 100-300mm – 1/3000 sec @ f4.5

The secret to freezing the motion is using a fast shutter speed. When the shutter is activated on a fast shutter speed, it is only open for a very short period of time and thus the objects in the frame do not get the chance to move. One of the best ways to control the camera for freezing the motion is to use the Shutter priority mode, set the desired shutter speed, the ISO to the lowest native setting (100 or 200 normally) and let the camera take care of the aperture. You will find that camera will try and generally try and use a low aperture value, e.g. f4, it needs to balance the short time the shutter is open by making the hole larger in the lens. Remember small aperture number equates to a bigger hole for light to get through the lens. It is important to keep an eye on the aperture value chosen by the camera as a restriction comes into play based on the best aperture value of the lens in use. If the camera cannot set an appropriate aperture (sometimes indicated by a flashing aperture figure) then the ISO may need to be adjusted up making the sensor more sensitive to light.

Suggested shutter speeds to freeze motion:

  • Person walking – 1/125th – 1/250th sec
  • Person running – 1/500th – 1/100th sec
  • Sports (football/surfing) – 1/500th – 1/2000th sec
  • Flying bird – 1/500th – 1/2000th sec
  • Racing cars – 1/2000th – 1/8000th sec
Wave impact_KD

Wave Impact by Ken Dickson Canon 7D with Sigma 100-300mm. 1/1550 sec @ f8

Blurring the motion

The opposite approach to freezing motion is to portray the subjects movement as a blur within the photo frame. This approach imparts a sense of drama and urgency to the photo especially when the moving subject is contrasted against a static object. This approach can be used with a wide variety of subjects but is particularly effective when used on cars and traffic.  Another good subject to capture with this approach is water, waves and waterfalls looking especially dramatic.

Stuck in the stream_KD

Stuck in the stream by Ken Dickson Canon 40D with 17-85mm – 30 sec @ f16

The secret to this approach is using a longer shutter speed. With the shutter being open for an extended time, the subject has time to move through the frame and that movement is captured as a blur. The length of time the shutter needs to stay open will be dependent on the speed of the moving subject, quite often a tripod will be required to ensure the camera is held steady during the exposure.

Once again Shutter priority mode on the camera can be used here, allowing the desired shutter speed to be selected and allowing the camera to take care of the aperture. Once again the lowest native ISO setting should be selected as well. The key to bear in mind is that as the shutter speed gets longer the camera will set a larger aperture value (smaller hole) to reduce the amount of light coming in and balance the exposure. This has the effect of creating more depth of field and having more of the photo in focus.

Bus Lane Shuffle_KD

Bus lane shuffle by Ken Dickson Canon 7D with Sigma 17-70mm – 1.3 sec @ f22



The last approach discussed here is panning. In this approach the aim is to portray the motion by showing the subject in focus and the background blurred. This approach provides a very dramatic view and can make even slow moving subjects look like they are setting speed records. Panning works very well when capturing photos of kids playing e.g riding bikes or running. Motorsport is another area where panning is used to dramatic effect.

124 races by_KD

124 Races past by Ken Dickson Canon 7D with Sigma 17-70mm – 1/100 sec @ f10

Out of all of the approaches discussed today, panning is going to be the hardest to master. The idea is that the camera needs to be moving at the same speed as the subject and is using a medium to long shutter speed. Putting aside more complex arrangements such as mounting the camera gear to the moving subject, a photographer can still get very good panning photos when standing on the side of the action. The first consideration is the direction of the motion in relation to the photographer, ideally the direction will be across the front of the photographer i.e left to right or right to left. Panning photos cannot be achieved with the subject moving towards or away from the photographer. The photographer should frame the subject as it approaches from either side, follow the subject with the lens twisting the body in order to keep the subject in the centre of the frame. When the subject is parallel to the photographer the shutter is pressed, ensuring the camera follows the subject the whole time much like a golf swing follow through. Needless to say this technique does take a lot of practice and can very challenging on fast moving subjects like race cars.

Shutter priority is best used to select the desired shutter speed letting the camera take care of the other settings as required.

Suggested shutter speeds for use when panning:

  • Person running – 1/15 – 1/30th sec
  • Racing cars – 1/50th – 1/250th sec
Taking it easy_KD

Taking it Easy by Ken Dickson Canon 7D with Sigma 100-300mm – 1/50 sec @ f14

Learning and practicing all of the approaches above will help your to enhance your action photos significantly. As described, each approach is better suited a particular type of subject but do not be afraid to try any of the methods in for your subjects as surprising results can be achieved. When motion is portrayed well in a photo, viewers cannot help but be enthralled with the outcome as you are showing them the world in a different manner to which they regularly see it.

Ken Dickson is an Australian based photographer with nearly 30 years experience. A regular contributor to international competitions, Ken holds honour levels both within Australia and Internationally. He started in photography when travelling the world with the Navy using both film and slide film. Moving to digital in 2004, Ken has embraced the available technologies to continue his artistry. With a love for sharing his knowledge and experience Ken helped to launch Ozlight Photo Adventures ( providing courses and practical workshops in all aspects of photography.

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