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.

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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. Want to learn more about refraction? Do just that by getting Simon's refraction photography course.

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