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3 Tips for Creating Dramatic Images using Motion


There is a common misconception that if your image isn’t tack sharp and free of motion blur then it isn’t a good image. I’d like to show you three ways you can use motion blur to add drama and interest to your photography.

Misconception: motion blur in photography = a bad image

I would disagree and say, not necessarily so! It really depends on the subject you are shooting and your intention as the photographer and artist. Using blur can add interest and show implied movement in the image. It can help add a feeling of speed. If your are shooting a subject like sports, for example, you have use a fast lens and fast shutter speed to freeze motion at the peak of the action. OR you can introduce intentional motion blur by using a slower shutter speed to add a sense of speed. Neither is right or wrong, they’re just different. You get to choose and if you aren’t sure, do both!

Three tips for adding motion to your images

  • panning a moving subject
  • long exposures for affect
  • zooming or moving the camera during the exposure

Let’s look at each in more detail.



Panning is a technique for photographing moving subjects which allows you to get the subject relatively sharp, and blur the background. This adds a sense of speed and works particularly well when you have a background that is unattractive or distracting. The basics behind panning is you choose a slow shutter speed, and move your camera to follow the subject. Here are some tips on setting your camera for panning and giving it a try.

  • use high speed or “burst” shooting mode to take multiple images while holding down the shutter button
  • select Shutter Priority on your mode dial
  • start with 1/30th of a second and adjust slower and faster as necessary
  • practice following the moving object after it passes by
  • just like in golf, follow through is the key. Point your camera towards the approaching subject, shoot and follow them as they move through your field of view, and keep following their motion even after you stop shooting.

It takes a little bit of practice and a lot of trial and error but can result in some really stunning and creative images. Try shooting the same subject using a fast shutter speed and freezing the motion, then try panning and compare. It’s not something you will use for every subject, but it’s a good technique to have in your bag of tricks!

Here are a few examples of panning.


1/25th of a second panned


1/30th of a second, panned


1/25th of a second, panned


By long exposures I’m taking about a shutter speed slower than you would usually be able to hand hold the camera. There are many reasons to use long exposures including: moving water, capturing star trails at night, car headlights moving through your scene, and night photography in general. You will need a sturdy tripod, a remote trigger to fire your camera and time. I say time for two reasons: one you will have to wait for some really long exposures sometimes, especially star trails; and two because you will need time to shoot, adjust and correct. A lot of photography is trial and error and in this age of digital photography we have the huge benefit of being able to have instant feedback so we can correct or adjust in the field and continue shooting.

Here’s an example of the same subject photographed at different shutter speeds. Which do you prefer?

1/5000th of a second

1/5000th of a second

1/40th of a second

1/40th of a second

Besides night photography another common reason to use long exposures during the day is to photograph waterfalls and moving water. Keep in mind neither approach is right or wrong, you just yield different results based on the choice you make. A faster shutter speed will freeze the water in mid air (like the first image above). A long exposure will blur the water, and if you use a long enough exposure it can even disappear or become misty looking. Here’s a comparison:

1/100th of a second

1/100th of a second

2.5 seconds

2.5 seconds

With moving water, there also comes a point where doing a longer exposure doesn’t look any different. Compare the image below a 5 seconds, to the one above at 2.5 seconds. The water looks pretty similar, but what did happen was the tree above was blurrier in the 5 second one, so I chose to use the 2.5 exposure.

5 seconds

5 seconds

Here are a few more examples of long exposures.

Do you see the motion in the images below? What is moving in each?

motion-dps-01 motion-dps-02 motion-dps-03 motion-dps-04 motion-dps-05

For more information on how to shoot these types of scenes read:


Last but not least, you can add motion by zooming your lens during the exposure. Basically what you do is physically rotate your zoom lens to change the focal length during a long exposure. This works really well and gives some really neat affects on night scenes with lights, neon signs, and even fireworks. But try it during the day too and see what you can create. It often results in a rather abstract image, sometimes completely obscuring the subject to make it unidentifiable. But that’s okay! Experiment and play with this idea. Have fun with it and get creative.

Some tips for zooming during your exposure:

  • Zoom in first to focus and lock it there so it doesn’t shift when you press the shutter button. You can use focus lock (a bit cumbersome), use autofocus and then turn it off, or use your camera’s back button focus capability. Whichever you choose just make sure you’ve focused with the lens at the longest focal length where it’s more critical than a wide one
  • Practice rotating the zoom mechanism on your lens. Get comfortable with which way to turn it, and how to turn it smoothly without making a bumpy mess.
  • Use an exposure of one second or longer. It’s pretty hard to do this a a/100th of a second!
  • Experiment with different zoom speeds (how fast you rotate the lens) and timing. The image will look different if you pause at the beginning and then zoom quickly, versus zoom slowly at the beginning and pause at the end of the exposure.

Here are a few examples of zoomed exposures

No zoom

No zoom. Notice all the small lights in this hotel lobby.

2 seconds

2 seconds

Also 2 seconds, notice how different they are? That's the zoom timing.

Also 2 seconds, notice how different they are? That’s the zoom timing.

2.5 seconds. Abstracted image of the sculpture in the first non-zoomed image (bottom left corner)

2.5 seconds. Abstracted image of the sculpture in the first non-zoomed image (bottom left corner)


No zoom, I thought it was boring so I played with panning and zooming while on the carousel. Parents were looking at me funny after my 4th time around.

No zoom, I thought it was boring so I played with panning and zooming while on the carousel. Parents were looking at me funny after my 4th time around.


Zoomed version. Is it better? Debatable but it’s the process of playing that leads to creating great images. Always continue to play.


If you haven’t really played with long exposures much, I challenge you to try some of these techniques. Find some moving subjects and blur them on purpose. Or find something that will make an interesting abstract and blur it by zooming.

The point is that not every image has to be tack sharp and some have absolutely nothing in focus and they’re still great images. Don’t get stuck on technical things like sharpness and try experimenting with out of focus for a while. Add some motion using these tips, or maybe even shoot completely out of focus on purpose. Come back and share your images and experience with us.

Have you got some great motion blur images? Do share those as well in the comments below.

Got another tip you want to add to the list?  Please do!



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3 Tips for Creating Dramatic Images using Motion

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Darlene Hildebrandt
Darlene Hildebrandt

is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through free articles on her website Digital Photo Mentor and online photography classes. She also teaches all about photo editing using Lightroom, Photoshop, and Luminar Neo and has courses available on all three.

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