How To Use Zoom Blur To Add Action In Your Photos

How To Use Zoom Blur To Add Action In Your Photos

Most of us own a zoom lens of one type or another. While I have no specific stat, I’ll say 98% of us do. It seems like a good number and might even be low.

With nearly all of you armed with this type of lens, let’s take a look at a fun way you can add action to your photos. The technique is actually quite simple but takes some practice to master. It is known as zoom blur; blur caused by activating the zoom feature on your lens while the shutter is open. NOTE: While the same effect can be achieved by physically moving your camera closer or further from a subject while shooting, we’ll stick with the zoom feature in this post.

There are three factors that are most important when using zoom blur:

  • Where you start the blur (zoomed in or zoomed out)
  • How much zoom travel
  • How long you spend with the shutter open

Where You Start The Blur

Where you start has a big impact on the outcome of the photo. You can either start zoomed back or zoomed in. My preference is typically to start zoomed out and I’d suggest it for anyone starting out. The reason is it typically allows for the clearest image of the subject before the zoom blur is added. It also gives more of a feeling of the object moving away from the photographer. Here by example, are two different shots of the Memorial Stupa in Thimphu, Bhutan. First, going from zoomed in to zoomed out. (Click on each image for a larger version.)


This image is dominated by the golden frame around the statue as compared to the full stupa in which is sits. This is mostly due to the shutter length (1.6 seconds) and spending more time zoomed in than in transition. For a second example, this shot was started zoomed out and then, using a tripod, I zoomed straight in.


This shot was 2 seconds long and I allowed more time at the beginning to burn in the stupa image before zooming in. Allowing more time toward the main subject, versus time spent zooming, will allow your main subject to stand out more.

How Much Zoom Travel

Next, it matters how  much you zoom while the shutter is open. For the shot above, I wanted the lights to extend all the way off the screen. But it didn’t quite work as too much light filled the screen for my liking, obscuring the  stupa. Instead, I decided to zoom only part of the way in, hoping it would allow for more of the scene to be visible. I also started further zoomed in to see more of the base of the stupa.


I am also helped here by the center point of the zoom being lower than the brightest lights. This helps when the scene is brightly lit and the light can have a tendency to wash out areas of the subject. For instance, the statue in the center is not blurred because the zoom was fast enough to not let too much of its light be exposed.

BONUS TIP: Give It A Bit Of Movement

Especially when dealing with lights at night, adding in a bit of movement can give some interesting effects. For instance, in the examples below I panned slightly up or down to change the path of the blurring lights.




I will be the first to admit these images aren’t stellar, put-on-a-magazine-cover images. They’re about experimenting and having fun. At times though, with practice, zoom blur can produce some remarkable results as seen in the examples below from Flickr.

Copyright Ernst Vikne


Copyright Balamurugan Natarajan

Copyright Heather Wizell

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Benn January 25, 2012 03:10 pm

    Great advice and pics!! I use these techniques sometimes during the reception shoot at weddings. You can get some beautiful effects when combined with interesting artificial light:)

  • Daniel January 17, 2012 04:41 am

    Although I'm not nearly as gifted as Jeff, I can also tell the photo of the lion was not zoomed in/out but done in Photoshop (how can I tell? Well, I read the author's comments on Flickr). It's a nice example anyway. Thanks for posting!

  • Jeff Plum January 16, 2012 02:17 am

    The examples you show from Flickr were done in Photoshop afterwards with the radial/zoom blur filter. They were not zoomed during the shot. How can I tell? Because I can.

  • Rupesh January 15, 2012 06:18 pm

    i cant do this with my CANON 350D. Please suggest the process get blur effect by using CANON 350D?

  • PaulB January 14, 2012 06:24 am

    Good example photos, I like the effect gained when used with illuminated buildings.

  • Petra Webb January 14, 2012 06:12 am

    Wow some great effects!! Thanks for the tips. I don't know if it is just me though but the pictures with the brush in it (like the top pic and the one with the jumping man) are making me instantly dizzy looking at them! LOL

  • Stephen Emlund January 13, 2012 10:04 am

    I love this idea. A friend showed me this a few years ago and I've been doing it ever since. It's really cool to do when shooting bands or music scenes - like this one -

    I also used this zooming technique when I was at a museum in Kansas City -

    BTW - 'krash flash' - I love the colors in your photos. Really cool stuff!

    Ed - I love the target - really great subject for this effect!

  • BillG January 13, 2012 05:11 am

    Thanks Peter. Your sequence of examples are really informative, but you must have exceptionally steady hands to get these results. Or were these on a tripod? I'm happy to know the proper name for this technique. It's especially challenging when the subject is transient (like the fireworks in my image), but if you try enough times, you'll get some very interesting results.

  • Krash Flash January 12, 2012 12:25 am

    and some more:!/photo.php?fbid=253402698031615&set=a.253402281364990.61758.119976144707605&type=3&theater!/photo.php?fbid=253402811364937&set=a.253402281364990.61758.119976144707605&type=3&theater!/photo.php?fbid=253403078031577&set=a.253402281364990.61758.119976144707605&type=3&theater!/photo.php?fbid=253403541364864&set=a.253402281364990.61758.119976144707605&type=3&theater

  • Krash Flash January 12, 2012 12:20 am

    This is a clever effect and when done correctly can produce some amazing results.

    You can also double up with Second Curtain Flash to freeze the subject at the end of the shot.

    Here are a few examples that I have shot.!/photo.php?fbid=253402754698276&set=a.253402281364990.61758.119976144707605&type=3&theater

  • Ed Letts January 11, 2012 12:13 am

    This was one of my first attempts for a weekly assignment a while back. Thanks for reminding me how much fun it was. I need to find time to try this again.

  • ccting January 10, 2012 11:17 pm

    wow,should be turn the lens or camera? any difference?

  • raghavendra January 10, 2012 01:55 pm

    I tried it now
    it is good

  • raghavendra January 10, 2012 01:41 pm

    wow this is cool
    I have tried it

  • Beverly Lafortune January 10, 2012 05:46 am

    This is my try at zooming.

  • Niki Jones January 10, 2012 05:40 am

    Thanks for these tips, I'd forgotten that I started practicing this technique a while back. This will keep me busy this weekend.
    Love the lion shot!

  • John January 10, 2012 05:10 am

    I've been meaning to purposefully try this style of shooting for some time I've had some accidental shots where I forgot that I had clicked the shutter and started zooming in the lens without even realizing I'd done it, but yah nothing specifically to this technique. Maybe I'll give it a go the next time I'm out with my camera!

    Thanks for sharing :)

  • Laurie January 10, 2012 03:37 am

    I find for dance photography this can be a really cool, but difficult to get right trick. I think I have taken a few hundred photos like this, but only managed to get one or two come out in a way that I am happy with

  • Anotherphotographynoob January 10, 2012 03:07 am

    Tried this on a cow. Totally fun technique!

  • Fabian January 10, 2012 02:02 am

    Thanks for the tip to start zoomed out! I took some photos of moving trains, but they did not turn out well enough for showing, need some more training and luck :).

    Ah, and I don’t think that the tiger and the jump photos are created using the zoom technique, they are photoshopped (you can look in the exif data and they both have a shutter speed of 1/400, I doubt you can zoom that fast). But nice nevertheless :)

  • Guitar builder January 10, 2012 01:25 am

    I love using the zoom blur effect! But apparently there are ways to do this in photoshop too, I don't know how, but that is what I have been told. Having cut my photo-teeth back in the 70's, we did not have the luxury of digital anything, so we had to get these effects the "old fashioned way".

    Interestingly enough, when the young photographers see a photo that uses the zoom effect just assume its done with photoshop. When I tell them that I used my camera, it blows their minds that it can be done that way.

  • Fabian January 10, 2012 01:23 am

    Thanks for the tip to start zoomed out! I took some photos of moving trains, but they did not turn out well enough for showing, need some more training and luck :).

    Ah, and I don't think that the tiger and the jump photos are created using the zoom technique, they are photoshopped (you can look in the exif data and they both have a shutter speed of 1/400, I doubt you can zoom that fast). But nice nevertheless ;)

  • January 10, 2012 01:04 am

    I have used this technique for one shot I took during a concert. The result turned ok... But after reading this post I feel much more confident with my technic ! Many thanks !

  • Mridula January 10, 2012 12:52 am

    So much to learn! I felt so good when I learned panning itself! Now here is something new to learn but I am sharing one of the panning shots I took.