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How to Create Better Photos by Adding a Sense of Motion

Photographing subjects in motion can be kind of tricky because of the very nature of photography as an art form: cameras capture still images, not moving pictures (unless you are Harry Potter and like to read the Daily Prophet).

Of course, one solution is to record a movie with your camera or phone, but even a movie is in itself a series of still images projected quickly, that only give the illusion of motion. Each individual frame is not moving, but put together it appears as though everything you see is changing. Another solution, and one I generally prefer, is to use some knowledge of composition to create a sense of motion in a single photograph. It’s not all that difficult, but these techniques do require a bit of knowledge, a lot of practice, and in the end your photos will be much more dynamic and interesting as a result.


One of the most basic elements of composition is called the Rule of Thirds. It has to do with putting your subjects off-center in order to add more visual impact to your photos. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and some people swear by it while others reject it altogether, but understanding how it affects motion photography can go a long way towards giving your pictures an extra boost. To offer an example, take a look at the following image of my niece on her bike.


My niece on her bike. There’s clearly a sense of motion, but putting her in the center is not the best use of photographic compositional space.

This image involves a technique called panning, which helps create the illusion of motion by tracking a moving subject with your camera, while the shutter is open. But, take a look at how the girl is framed – she in the center of the image, and you can see her surroundings on all sides. It seems like a good picture at first, but take a look at how a simple compositional change can have a dramatic impact on the sense of motion created by the image.


Putting the subject off-center shows not just that the girl is biking, but the space into which she is traveling.

I took this second picture using spot focus on my camera which allowed me to select which focusing point to use, and selected a point on the left side of the frame. Doing this placed my niece right along one of the vertical gridlines, if we look at this image as it relates to the classic Rule of Thirds:


Both the girl, and her bicycle, line-up with the one-third dividing lines, which helps create a more pleasing and dynamic composition.

Aligning my subject on the left third of the image (and the horizontal center of the bike along the bottom third) has done a couple of things. First, it makes for a more pleasing image due to the off-center placement of my subject. It allows us to see more context overall, since she is on one side and not dominating the entire image. Second, the other goal this placement accomplishes has to do with motion – we see her not only biking, but biking to somewhere. By showing us where she is going, our minds essentially create a greater sense of movement because we can see more context.

This works almost any time you have an object in motion, whether you employ the panning technique or not. Simply placing your subject on one side of the image (often along one of the dividers according to the Rule of Thirds) such that it is moving in the direction of the rest of the image (put more space in front of the subject than behind), will help your photos will seem much more dynamic and interesting. It helps your viewers to get a sense that they were actually there with you at the moment of the picture.

If panning isn’t quite your thing, you can still employ some compositional techniques to create a greater sense of motion. Here’s a picture of my other niece riding her bike that I took from a standing position. I see pictures like this posted online quite a bit, and while they are not bad photos, a change to how they are composed can dramatically alter the visual impact.


My other niece biking, taken from a standing position without much thought put into overall composition.

Again you see that she is in the center of the image (above), and while this picture is perfectly serviceable, there is a lot that can be done to create a greater sense of motion. Here’s another picture of the same scenario, but taken from ground level as she approached me down the alley.


Altering my angle to be low to the ground, and putting the girl on the right-hand side, creates a much more dynamic photo. This was shot with a DSLR but could have easily been taken with any camera or even a mobile phone.

I had to lie on the ground to get this shot, but the results were well worth it. The low angle helps make the shot much more interesting, and the open space on the left side shows us the empty street that she will soon be riding on. This general framing is used all the time in photos of moving objects, and is a favorite of the advertising industry as well: you will often see pictures of sports cars not from the top and side (as in the first of these two bike photos) but from a low angle, and the front wheels turned away from the viewer, much more akin to the second photo. And sure enough, this image also conforms quite well to the good old-fashioned Rule of Thirds.


There are other ways to play with composition to create a sense of motion in photos; the Rule of Thirds is just the beginning. This photo of a man walking past a fountain violates the first rule about showing the subject on one side moving towards the rest of the image, but it works because we’re not so much interested in where he is going but what the entire scene is about.


Putting the subject on the left side of this photo creates a different mood and tone than if the man were on the right-hand side.

By using a longer shutter speed, and holding my camera still I was able to capture motion, not only in the man walking, but the water rolling off the fountain. If the position of the man and the fountain were reversed it might look as though he is walking into it. But as it is, the motion of my human subject is one part of the picture as a whole, and the falling water adds another dynamic layer to the image.

The placement of the man creates a bit of tension as well; he is clearly carrying something, and from the words on the wall it’s obvious that he is walking past a library. Is he a student that’s late for class? Is he walking fast to catch up to some friends who are out of the frame? Putting him on the right-hand side would make the image seem a bit more casual and informal. But, intentionally composing this shot so that he is about to walk out of the frame, imparts a different feeling on the viewer that can be very effective when used properly. Also note that both the fountain and the man line up roughly with the traditional Rule of Thirds grid, which helps create a more pleasing composition all around.

I should note that the reliance on the Rule of Thirds can become a crutch, and there are many creative ways to take motion-based images without it. What about you? What are some compositional tricks you have found to help create a sense of motion in your photographs? Do you have any favorite motion images to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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