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How To Use Zoom Blur To Add Action In Your Photos

How To Use Zoom Blur To Add Action In Your PhotosMost 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.

Image: Copyright Ernst Vikne

Copyright Ernst Vikne


Image: Copyright Balamurugan Natarajan

Copyright Balamurugan Natarajan

Image: Copyright Heather Wizell

Copyright Heather Wizell

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Peter West Carey
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.

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