How to Create a Dynamic Zoom Burst Photograph

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Who doesn’t love warp speed? In this article, you’ll go hurtling into the future at warp speed nine, and you don’t need any federation star fleet spaceships to do it! A DSLR camera with a zoom lens and a tripod is the only equipment you’re going to need for this exciting technique. There are similarities to light painting by camera rotation, and the zoom burst is indeed another form of kinetic light painting. Let’s take a look at this technique, what it will give to your photos, and how to do it.

zoom burst photo cityscape

In this photo, a friend stood still in front of Marine iCty in Busan.

What does this technique add to your photograph?

Put simply, this gives a still frame a much more dynamic edge. This article will look at how you can apply zoom bursting to architectural photos and is best used in an urban environment. The nature of still frames is of course that they’re a single moment, by changing the focal length during long exposure you can add movement and urgency to your frame. The zoom also produces leading lines within your frame that all lead up to your main subject within the frame.

How to take zoom burst photographs

Taking a zoom burst photo is a simple technique, in fact, you can even do this handheld. The effect is achieved by changing the focal length of your camera lens during a long exposure. Follow these steps:

  1. Choose a scene that has mixed areas of light. You can use a forest with mottled light, or an apartment building where some lights are on and some are off.
  2. The exposure should be between half a second and 2 seconds long.
  3. You can take this photo handheld but it’s better to use a tripod.
  4. Change the focal length of the lens during the exposure. Zooming out tends to work better during the night for longer exposures, and zooming in works better during the day.
zoom burst lights

A photo that uses zoom with no stationary phase. This photo is colorful and abstract.

How to take zoom burst photos that show structures

Now that you know how to make a simple zoom burst, which looks abstract in nature, it’s time to move a step further. Now you are going to see how you can introduce architectural structures into this frame.

1 – Choose the correct location

Not all locations work well for zoom bursts, especially if they’re too cluttered. You need to choose a building that’s well lit and not surrounded by others. There are other options you can look at as well such as Ferris wheels or sculptures. Any location you choose should allow you to zoom into the structure, and then zoom out on the lights that surround it.

zoom burst too many buildings

When there are too many building in the frame, the zoom burst shot can get busy.

2 – Set the camera on a tripod

If this is going to be a long exposure of 25 or 30 seconds, you will have to use a tripod. You need to secure the tripod in position, making sure it doesn’t move about. A lot of tripods let you hook your camera bag to the extendable center, doing so will steady the tripod. Apply the same logic you would use to attain a sharp image. The focal length movement of the lens will prevent you getting maximum sharpness, though.

3 – Select the right lens

The best lens for this type of photo is a super zoom, one that goes from 18mm-300mm. A super-zoom gives you maximum flexibility over composition and allows for more creative photographs. If you don’t have a zoom with this kind of range, you can use a kit lens. The 18-55mm lens works very well for the zoom burst.

4 – Focus the camera using Live View

Now compose your photograph in the position you intend to finish your zoom burst. The final composition will be at the wider or widest end of your lenses focal length. Turn the camera’s Live View function on, and zoom into the central structure you wish to focus on. Use the lens’s manual focus so that the image on the Live View screen is sharp. Keep the camera lens in manual focus to prevent loss of focus during the exposure. Keep a mental note of the focal length where you focused, especially if that isn’t the widest part of the lens.

castle zoom burst photo

In this photo, Nagoya castle was focused on using a zoom. I zoomed into the castle.

5 – Zoom into the target area

Select the area of the scene you want to have as the center of your zoom, this should have been decided already during initial scene composition. Ensure that all your settings remain the same, as this is the final step before you begin the exposure. Set the camera to expose for 25-30 seconds, at f/8 or f/11. You can use a smaller aperture if you need to in order to get a longer exposure.

6 – Carry out the zoom burst

Set the camera to the 2-second timer (or 10 seconds if you want to prepare yourself for the zoom). Hit the shutter button to begin the countdown to the exposure. At the point when the shutter is about to open begin slowly zooming out. As the camera is exposing, continue to zoom out keeping it as smooth as possible to avoid camera shake.

You should be zooming out for between two and five seconds, the longer the zoom is the more pronounced the light trails will be in the image. As you zoom keep an eye on the focal length of the lens so you finish at your composed position.

The ferris wheel is a great subject for zoom bursts. The middle is empty, and there is a ring of light to zoom out.

The Ferris wheel is a great subject for zoom bursts. The middle is empty, and there is a ring of light to zoom out.

7 – Allow the camera to finish the exposure

Once you have finished the zoom remove your hand from the lens, without moving the camera. The camera will continue to expose for 20-25 seconds depending on the exposure time you used. The image will now show zoom burst lights and architectural structures in the same exposure.

8 – Carry out post-processing work on the photo

The result in-camera will look nice, but adding contrast in post-processing is important. The image has “lost” five seconds of exposure time, so adjusting the contrast helps. You can use NIK color efex, which has a filter called pro-contrast and is an excellent choice for this type of photo. The centered position of the zoom can’t be adjusted in camera, though cropping the photo in post-processing allows you to move the zoom to an off-center position.

The bridge lit with many lights is a good subject for a zoom burst.

The bridge lit with many lights is a good subject for a zoom burst.

Where should I go to take zoom bursts?

The best place to take this type of photograph is in a city, one that’s well lit, and has interesting architecture. A Ferris wheel is a great structure to use as it’s circular, which helps with the centered nature of the zoom burst. Other architecture can also work as long as it’s alone and not surrounded by other structures. A cityscape with many buildings can look too busy with too many light streaks in one frame.

You can even take zoom burst photos during the day, but you will need an ND filter to do this. An ND filter that allows you to shoot for 30 seconds will allow you to create a zoom burst using the steps listed above, though the zoom should last longer.

img_2957

I look forward to seeing your photos using this zoom burst technique, please post any images you have in the comments section below.

This is a good example of a lone building with lights on.

This is a good example of a lone building with lights on.

In this photo only zoom is used, there is no stationary phase.

In this photo only zoom was used, there was no stationary phase.

This photo shows how a zoom burst and static phase produces an image.

This photo shows how a zoom burst and static phase produces an image combining light streaks and architecture.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Bond is a National Geographic featured photographer from the UK. He’s an educator who shares his creative style of photos. Learn more about his work, get the latest information on light painting, zoom bursts and more.

  • Bob Mahoney

    I’ve taken a few of these types of photos, mainly in churches, which is a location you don’t mention, but I assure you works very well. Here’s one I took in a local church. This is an 8 second exposure, zooming in for the final 1.5 seconds. The lines aren’t quite straight as I was only using a mini-pod and had it resting on a little table that was in the church and wasn’t entirely stable on the flagstones.

    Your comment on circular subjects has made me want to go out and find a rose window, which is something I’ve never considered doing before. It might present some challenges owing to viewing angle, but I’ll give it a try sometime.

    https://flic.kr/p/xfppyy

  • christine.goldberg

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  • Simon Bond

    I’d not considered shooting in a church before, though where I’m based in Asia we don’t get churches like this to shoot. I like what you did with the windows here though, certainly gives me food for thought. Yeah the circular window would be most interesting to see, I’d love to see your picture if you get a chance to take it. Well I’m back in the UK in a couple of months, so perhaps I will try some interiors zooms. Thanks for the comment, and the photo. The photo is great by the way, nice use of the technique.

  • Noah Gampe

    Hey Simon! Since I’m not near any interesting buildings or great vantage points at the moment, I thought I’d just play around with the technique in my apartment. I used my mouse as the subject, but I love how it turned out! It did take me about 10-12 shots to get the shot that I wanted, haha. I also had to process it just a wee bit to make it a little more interesting (in my opinion). I love the rainbow photo you used in the article! Was that in Korea?

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6e09505d66424b6f22a6e885c99bd16359374cdbc1f6a6bb29e0c59fafc0131b.jpg

  • Simon Bond

    Cool Noah, that’s nicely done and good to see this applied to a still life photo. I especially like the light on the right, that came out well. Now to get out and find those buildings, of which there are plenty in Seoul. The rainbow photo is a photo taken in Tokyo of a ferris wheel, one of the first zoom bursts I took.

  • Richard Brown

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/237d844de5313bde2bc18e165b69bbaec218e53db271a0045bf61e16e387b055.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2a5235e947455d0759a72053bdd2ad27b042da55ec267897244ade9d93f07cd3.jpg

    I like this technique but have to stop myself getting carried away with it. I have found it a nice way of doing firework pictures when there is no room for a tripod. Waving the camera is another option!

  • Richard Brown
  • Mark Chandler
  • Simon Bond

    Cool shots Richard, the zoom burst works well with the fireworks and gives a unique look. Yeah I’ve also experimented with waving the camera around, it’s good for abstracts like the one you posted here.

  • Simon Bond

    Thanks for sharing these Marc, they’re all good examples of using zoom. These shots have a lot of motion in them. I like the first one, it’s a good example of photographing a ferris wheel.

  • Richard Brown

    Thanks for the positive feedback. The article on here has given me some new ideas – I like the central still figure giving a mach effect – very Star Trek/Wars-ish!

  • Lisa Moyer

    What a cool experiment! DPS has some great articles this week!

  • Jerry Johnson
  • David Twining

    I have used this technic for some time and find it to be a very fun exercise. One photo is of log over creek and the other is bridge over same. #cc welcome. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2390af540647eb836c5da80ac54234b7eaecd9ab61b933b553c8a405eb86af19.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8b61c3792d01e1e7a511553fa5fbad5ac0da4b5252066afd7658952f7473ca35.jpg

  • drdroad

    If you’ve never tried this technique before, try it in all kinds of settings. And try the zoom both ways. Note: there is no such thing as a 18-300 zoom for a full sensor camera, as far as I can see. I wish there was. I miss my old 18-300. But 24-240 works for this.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bdf4a77bd1a01302781087632af70bf6b39da7472f0f0acf8198915af82f34b5.jpg

  • This is a cool post, I myself sometime try Zoom burst, last time I did was at Supertree show in Singapore . Unfortunately I did not had a tripod so the pics are a bit blurry 🙁

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/183b1ea4c381c556eb3f313ad07d6c901eb8dabf80f4a81828fa24a379f51f4d.jpg

  • katy

    Love esp the second one!

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Prasad, thanks for the share. Yes places like the super trees in Singapore are good places for zoom burst shots. Have you ever tried rotation though, I did that at the super trees and I liked the results.

  • Simon Bond

    I love the colour in this photo, very dynamic. You’re correct about those lenses, I have a full frame camera but am yet to get a super zoom. I know the quality isn’t there for this type of lens for the majority of shots, but for this technique it would be great to have.

  • Simon Bond

    Hey Jerry, that’s Toronto right? Nice take on an iconic city skyline.

  • Simon Bond

    Cheers Lisa, glad you like the articles and hope we can all keep up the good work going into the future.

  • Simon Bond

    Doing daytime zoom bursts like this is trickier, but you have got some results here. In the second picture I wonder about centering the walkway more within your picture. That way the zoom would accentuate the lines of the walkway fences.

  • David Twining

    Thank you

  • Jerry Johnson

    Thanks, Simon, but it’s Seattle actually.

  • Bruce Eggleston

    How do you achieve the stationary object in a zoom burst photo?….double exposure, maybe?

  • Ricardo Carrasco

    hello, Which method is better? to go from a short focal length to a long or backward

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Ricardo. I’m going to generalize massively here but I’d saying zooming out is better at night and zooming in is better during the day.
    Now zooming out is better at night in most cases because you want to spread those lights out, and away from your central object in the frame (especially if you follow the steps I suggested here.
    Daytime is different though, then zooming in works better. The shorter exposure time you’ll likely use during the day because it’s brighter means you really only zoom in with little or no stationary phase. When you zoom in the objects you zoom in on retain there form, so you get for example building and people with there proper shape.

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Bruce, no these are not double exposures. As I mentioned through steps 5,6 and 7 you do this. Expose for 30 seconds. The zoom should be quick and last 2 seconds, and the remaining 28 seconds is then more than enough to expose the stationary objects.

  • Paul K

    On the nighttime shots, what ISO was used?

  • Simon Bond

    Hi Paul. In those photos that use a zoom AND stationary phase the iso ranged between 100 and 320, with most being iso 100.

  • Bruce Eggleston

    Ahhhh, ok, I see. I read this and read this and it just didn’t click (no pun intended) Thanks, so much!!

  • drdroad

    Agree to an extent. When I had the 18-300 it didn’t take me very long to understand I needed to stay away from the very end at the long side. But my Sony 24-240 has shown no such characteristics, I shoot at maximum zoom often.

  • Brianna

    This was my first attempt at a zoom burst. I kinda like how it turned out, but now I have some tips for what to improve! CCs are always welcome!
    http://www.lotsasmilesphoto.com

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/492d92c504df6464a547242823f5d373e18d1dc8e724fed3d628cf80eaaaeca9.jpg

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