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How to Add Blur to Your Images for the Right Reasons

Bycicle Blur

Blurring is a Tool, Not a Gimmick

Adding blur or movement to a photo just for the sake of it is the same as a magic trick; razzle-dazzle but without purpose. Using a blur effect makes sense when you actually wants to say something specific with the photo. Sometimes it’s to create a sense of speed, and sometimes it’s to add an ethereal, soft kind of ambiance to the shot, but it’s not something to use just because.

Monks  before lunch

Know What You Want to Convey

Although it’s true that sometimes a random or accidental shot yields good fruit, more often than not, there is a better chance of taking a great photo if you think about the setup beforehand. Adding blur is a great option but should be used sparingly and always planned for. Take a look at your scenario and think about what you want from it; motion, speed, a little ethereal mystery? Achieving each of these in a photo takes a different attack, so plan ahead before taking the shot.

Hard versus Soft, Blurry versus Sharp

Taking good photographs means understanding contrast; light versus dark, soft versus sharp edge, focusing on the foreground or the background, etc. As for blurring, it always comes out best if the blur tool is only used on part of the photo. That way, the clearer, sharper part of the image is in contrast to the blur, and it’s this contrast that conveys the sense of speed.

Bycicle Blur 2

It’s All Right to Make Mistakes!

Iteration is fine. Much like athletes and sketch artists need to warm up, taking several test shots, playing around with speed and f-stops is a great way to prepare for your final photo. Use these shots to find your direction, see what each exposure brings. As stated before, a good blurry picture requires some planning – so take the time to plan. The digital age of photography and instant viewing has given us a great boon in terms of being able to experiment in a trial-and-error sort of way, so you can calmly view and sort out what exactly you intend to do.

Floating Monk

Choose the Best Speed

The main photographic technique for blurring is to use a slow shutter speed. Depending on the speed of the object or subject, as well as its relative direction or angle to you and your camera, you will need to play with your shutter speed. If someone is walking in a straight line, facing you, the speed needed in order to create the idea movement will be slower, perhaps 1/8 of a second. If the same person is walking form left to right perpendicular to you, you will need a faster speed, perhaps a 1/20th.

Taking still shots of subjects that are sitting, standing, etc, your speed can be as low as ¼ of a second.

Even if you are shooting at this speed, a still shot might not show the motion at all, if the subject doesn’t move. Usually for standard walking shots on the street the speed will be between 1/8 and 1/15.

Again, the mantra to remember is that different scenarios call for different things. Devotees bathing at Varanasi, someone taking their time walking through a gallery, or a cyclist in mid-race will all need vastly different shutter speeds. As well, you have to determine the degree of movement you want to portray.

In the case of the devotees in Varanasi, I did not want to reflect speed, so much as mystery, a very slight sense of motion, as if it were a dream.

Early Morning Bath

For producing a sense of mass motion, and by this I mean, small crowds strolling around galleries for example, you will sometimes need to use open exposure. This means letting people blur the image by moving, because it will create a contrast with anything that remains still.

Take Care With F-Stops and ISO

Remember that speed is only one of the three factors involved in correct exposure. The other two factors are aperture (f-stops) and ISO. My advice is to set the camera on shutter priority, (possibly “S” for your camera) and let it adjust the f-stop. See if the latter suits you, and adjust the ISO accordingly.

Monks before lunch 2

Don’t Leave Everything to Luck

Certainly, if there’s one time when you need a little bit of luck, it’s when capturing something in motion.

You should always plan and set yourself up if you want the best chance to get a lucky shot, especially when you want to work with something so unpredictable as motion-based shots. Normally, I get myself situated in my chosen venue and take picture after picture at all different speeds. It’s not unusual for me to glance at my watch and realize I’ve been in the same spot for over half an hour. But with one eye on the camera and the other on the scene in front of me, I’ve got a good view for when luck happens my way, as long as I have the patience and dedication to wait for it.

Tuc Tuc Blur

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Harry Fisch
Harry Fisch

has photographically documented more than 35 countries. He organizes and leads International Photographic Tours and Workshops in exotic destinations with his company Nomad Photo Expeditions. Winner of the people section 2012 National Geographic world photo contest, and later disqualified, he has also been a finalist in the 2013 Sony World Photo among other international awards. You can see more of his work here.