4 Ways to Add a Sense of Motion to Your Urban Photography

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It is great to walk around a new city, or a new part of a familiar city, and just explore. You never know what will be on the next block or around the next corner. When you bring your camera along with you, you can often capture a few nice skyline photos, some interesting pictures of buildings, and perhaps some street photos of people going about their daily life.

CityMotion1 Panama

But you know what is often missing from these photos? A sense of movement, and that’s what cities are all about. Cities are not just collections of buildings. They are dynamic environments full of hustle and bustle. The trouble, of course, is that it is hard to capture this movement in a still image.

So I want to show you a few techniques for adding that sense of motion to your urban pictures – how to capture the city in motion

#1 – Add streaking headlights and taillights

A common way you can add movement to your urban photos is by including streaking headlights and taillights. But don’t stop with capturing only the streaking lights, without regard to capturing the city. Streaking lights can work really well as an accent to a photo of your city. In other words, the streetlights don’t necessarily need to dominate the image, but rather just add a sense of movement to the overall image.

CityMotion6 Whitehall

The key to capturing this effect is to set up your shot on a tripod with a long exposure and take shots as traffic moves past you.

CityMotion4 Westminster

There are no set exposure settings because the ambient light is always different. Start with something like a 20 second exposure at f/8 and adjust from there. Try triggering the shutter just before traffic enters your frame. You will probably need to take several of these pictures to make sure you’ve got it right.

#2 – Panning

CityMotion3 NYCcab

Another great but often overlooked technique for capturing motion in the city is panning. Panning is where you follow a subject with your camera so that the subject is in focus and reasonably sharp, while the background is blurry and shows a sense of motion.

CityMotion11 ChicagoTrain

Panning is great because it doesn’t require a tripod and can’t be done at any time of day. What you do is follow a moving subject with your camera at a moderately slow shutter speed. The best shutter speed for this technique tends to be between a 1/30th and an 1/8 of a second. Since the camera is moving at the same rate as the subject, the subject should be reasonably sharp, while the background will be blurred.

You can use this technique on anything that is moving, whether it be a train, a car, or even a bicyclist or skateboarder. My favorites tend to be the iconic vehicles of the city.

When you get back to the computer, you can accentuate the effect a bit in Photoshop by sharpening your subject a little bit, while at the same time adding a slight blur to the background.

CityMotion5 Trafalgar

#3 – Capture movement of vehicles

When it comes to vehicles, don’t limit yourself to streaking taillights and headlights. It often works really well just to add a slight blur to vehicles in your frame to add a sense of movement. In fact, a lot of times this adds more of a sense of movement than just having lines streaking across the image.

CityMotion8 Ludgate

You will want to use a tripod for these types of shots. It is important that everything be sharp except the blurred vehicle. To capture the movement, a shutter speed of just a few seconds works really well. You will probably have to take several shots to get a good one.

#4 – Capture the movement of people

CityMotion2 OxfordCircus

The final way to capture movement in an urban setting is by capturing people in motion. This is used much less than the other techniques, largely because it is harder. People don’t have lights that streak across the screen. In addition, you have to get closer and it is more personal. But when done well, the results can be dramatic.

CityMotion9 Tube

The best way to go about it is to set up shop where you know people will be walking past you. Train stations, subway stations, and other places where people rush in and out, work really well for this. If you can use a tripod to keep the background sharp, do so.
The shutter speed will need to be a bit slower than what you use to capture moving vehicles because people move so much slower. Typically a shutter speed of about 1/2 to 1/10th of a second works pretty well.

This is another one you can do any time of day, any day of the year. It is a good thing to work on when conditions are not right for other photography you want to do.

CityMotion7 NYClady

Conclusion

Including movement can add a missing element to your urban and street photography. It is also something that you can get out and do on any particular day or night. Plus it requires no special gear. If you have a camera and a tripod, you are good to go.

So head out and try some of these techniques, and if you have any questions about it just leave it in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his book Getting Started with Photography.

  • These are all pretty much the same tip: slow-shutter.

  • Yes, you are right, they all do involve slow-shutter speeds. But that’s how you show motion, right? If any of the tips involved a fast shutter speed it would be “how to stop the action in urban photography.” So you apply a slow shutter speed to show motion in different contexts in an urban environment. And, these photos actually use very different shutter speeds: in some of these contexts the shutter speed is only a little bit slow (a fraction of a second), while in others it can be VERY slow (30 seconds plus). Hope that helps clarify.

  • Capturing the movement of vehicles:

    https://flic.kr/p/pkK9Bg

  • Yes, really nice movement. It almost makes me dizzy looking at it!

  • D Webb

    I quite like that pic. Good proportion of frozen subject matter, with peripheral blur. Nice!

  • D Webb

    This topic reminds me of Cartier-Bresson’s iconic image of a man jumping a puddle behind the Saint-Lazare station. I certainly won’t argue that the image doesn’t deserve its accolades, but I maintain that had he frozen the man mid-air, instead of as a blur, that the “suspension” of the man, juxtaposed against our instinctive appreciation of gravity; coupled with the ripples in the puddle water; would likely have been just as capable of portraying “motion”.

    I think perhaps we could try a bit harder to portray motion than simply blurring our subjects (or backgrounds/foregrounds).

  • That is an interesting thought. I wonder how we would do that? I have often tried to do it by stopping the action but never been happy with it. Your example of Cartier-Bresson’s image of the man jumping the puddle is a good one. As you note, he use the slower shutter speed. I’ve tried many pictures of action, such as jumping, at faster speeds to see if it would still impart that sense of motion. For me, it does not, but there is probably a better way to go about it.

  • Swati

    http://www.hemantgoyal.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Arc-de-Triomphe-Paris.jpg

    This is a perfect example of what you described! My SO just recently returned from Europe and I’m totally in love with this shot he took of L’Arc de Triomphe

  • marlo jolbitado
  • i absolutely love night photography!

  • marshal

    I was quite pleased to capture this shot, panning to show motion.

  • Cool. And yet you kept the people still. Nice.

  • Catherine Sproat

    I’m new to the long exposure/light trails photography but here is one I took a few days ago. I love city lights and night photography! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/13ec8babdb93eabee1b22ee3fcd853bf429c0f1f18ecaba6b2fbec8658211382.jpg

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