Intentional Blur- How to Create it and Why it’s Awesome


An abstract blur of cotton grass, Fairbanks, Alaska, in autumn.

Open up any photography magazine or website, and I promise there will be at least one article, and a half dozen ads, discussing image sharpness and how to get it through technique or gear. Don’t get me wrong, sharpness is great. When I’m shooting a classic landscape or portrait, if the image is a hair out of focus, it goes in the trash. But, at times, blur is exactly what you want, and occasionally, it’s exactly what your sharpness-obsessed brain needs. All you need, is a camera that allows you to manually control shutter speed.

Abstract Panning Blur

Creating abstract blurs is a chance to explore color, and pattern, and forget about the nit-picky details of composition. Frankly, it’s a fun way to screw around with your camera, and the results can be very cool.

An abstract blur of Fireweed, Fairbanks, Alaska, in autumn.

I made the above image in the small wetland below my home in Alaska. In the autumn, the fireweed fades from green, to orange and red, and these plants erupted from the background. Photographically, I didn’t care about the fireweed itself, I wanted to create an image with the feeling of an explosion. After a moment of pondering, I decided a blur might do the trick. I set the camera shutter to 1/10th second, and panned the camera parallel to the direction of the stems (up and down).

The process is simple, but can feel strange. The camera must be in motion for the entire length of the exposure (usually longer than 1/15th of a second). If you pause, start too soon, or end too early, then elements of the image will retain detail, and the clean washes of color will become confused.

Below are a couple of examples using a patch of autumn foliage. In the first (below left), I moved the camera slowly, while the second (below right) is a quicker motion:

AK-FAI-autumn-blur-abstract-11 An abstract blur of Fireweed, Fairbanks, Alaska, in autumn.

Linear patterns, like the fireweed stems I noted above, or trunks of trees, make great subjects for this kind of image. Below are two interpretations of a forest. The first of these images was made during the blue hour of a snowy winter morning, the second is a very fast vertical pan of cottonwoods, on a bright spring day.


You can also experiment with jiggling the camera as I did in the image below. The results can be very painting-like, and are quite unlike any other type of image I know how to create.

Zoom Blurs

A zoom blur, as is obvious from the name, requires a zoom lens to execute. The result is an image that appears to blur outward, from a comparatively sharp center point. Often, it gives the impression of forward motion, or viewing the subject down a long tunnel of color and pattern. Bright subjects, like flowers, often work well. When done properly, this technique yields an image that is a celebration of color.


Just as you need the camera in constant motion to create an effective panning blur, you’ll need to make sure the zoom is activated throughout the exposure. Try 1/10th second as a starting point. I’ve experimented with this technique in a variety of situations, even on a colony of King Penguins (below), where I think the technique emphasizes the chaos and noise of the tightly packed birds. It can also be effective for portraying motion, as I did in the image of the mountain biker (second image below). For this image I used a small zooming motion, instead of a dramatic pull back, as the cyclist approached me.


Subject Blur

In the techniques I described above, either the camera, the lens, or both must be in motion, but blurs can also be effective when it’s the subject that’s moving. Most landscape photographers will already be familiar with the technique of blurring moving water through the use of a slow shutter speed. This technique requires a tripod to be effective, and composition, unlike in abstract blurs, now plays an important role.

Your shutter speed will dictate how the blur appears in your final image. Slowly moving subjects like rippling waves, may require several seconds to blur, while a fast tumbling creek or waterfall may only need 1/15th second. Experiment, and see what you get. In the two images below, the bear and waterfall required only 1/15 second to blur, while the slower moving creek required nearly a half second.

A Brown Bear fishes for salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, AK, USA.


1/8th second at f16

1/8th second at f16

Water is the obvious subject for this kind of photography, but don’t limit yourself. Several years ago, I was hiking atop a ridge in the Alaska Range. It was mid-summer, a few minutes before midnight, and the sun was just setting behind the mountains. It was windy, and tufts of golden tundra grass were waving rapidly back and forth in the breeze. I knew that when the last light of day departed, those tufts of grass would be lit up, and all the rest of the world would be shadowed. Quickly, I set up: tripod placed low, long shutter speed (1/4 second), and waited. Sure enough, for just a moment, the only thing lit by the sun was the blowing grass stems:

Blowing tundra grass lit by evening sun, Alaska.

Action Blurs

This last technique is frequently used to give the impression of movement and speed, and is often used in sports and wildlife photography. There are two flavors of action blurs. The first is when the camera is panned to track a moving subject. This results in an image with a sharp, or semi-sharp subject, and blurred background like the image below.


The second is when the camera is still, and the subject is in motion. The outcome is a blurred subject, with a sharp background. Both result in an image that clearly tells the story of motion.


Results using this technique are hard to predict. The combination of long shutter speeds, and moving cameras and subjects, can result in many failed images. But when it works, the results can be awesome.


Rapidly moving subjects may require only 1/60th of second (or faster) to provide blurred motion, but slow subjects may need substantially longer shutter speeds. It’s a game of trial and error. Running and cycling races, or other sporting events, are great places to practice the technique, as you can shoot again and again while experimenting with different shutter speeds. Once you’ve mastered the method, you can break it out on higher stakes subjects like fast moving wildlife, where you may only get one opportunity to get the shot.


Go out and experiment. Blurs, be they abstract, impressionist, or realistic, can be great fun to play with. For me, it’s a fallback technique when I need to jumpstart my creativity.

Have you tried making blurs? I’d love to see what you get. Feel free to post them in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

  • Wanderin_Weeta

    This was a blur caused by shallow depth of field, from a distance of about an inch away. All I really wanted in focus was the startling eye of the hermit crab.

  • David W. Shaw

    I hadn’t considered macro as an intentional blur, but it kind of is isn’t it? Your’s does a great job of making me curious to know more about the image and the subject. Thanks for sharing!

  • J Public

    This is also where continuous clacking mode (I forget the proper name) can help when you sweep the camera with your arm. And also the 2 second timer if you rig the camera up on paracord to get it swinging and twisting while the shutter is open.

  • Pankaj Anand

    Well said, J Public.. In addition I’m sure David will be happy to be reminded of Panning (with movement of camera in the plane of motion); Pop the Camera (sounds weird but that’s the term coming to my mind) in air with shutter wide open in front of multiple light sources; and Placing emulsion, oil, paint or coloured water on a plate put on top of a sound speaker with volume high and capturing the motion.. to include in his next post.

  • steve beinder

    Autumn Tree

  • steve beinder

    Riverside willow

  • steve beinder

    Summer Breeze

  • steve beinder

    Tree Ghosts

  • David W. Shaw

    Ghosts indeed! That is very cool. Almost looks like crystals.

  • David W. Shaw

    Lovely. I like the representational images like this. You can tell what it is, but the sense of motion is clear. Beautiful.

  • David W. Shaw

    At first I thought it was a macro of stone. Very cool. What was your technique here?

  • David W. Shaw

    I haven’t tried the paracord trick, that sounds very cool. And @disqus_XJ8qCAKySL:disqus I’ve experimented with the camera popping technique (does sound bad doesn’t it?) with some interesting, but I wouldn’t say “good” results. Maybe I need to give it another try.

  • Leonard

    Here are three of my blur shots. The first is 10sec on tripod. The second is 1/3sec with camera movement. In it many of the lights can be seen to be blinking. The third is unintentional movement of 1/3sec hand held. “Check” out the planets.

  • Hi David: These are some awesome techniques you have shared.. will sure help in experimenting and creating more deliberate blurr pictures…I am sharing one I clicked some time back in Varanasi in India, the light was less and getting focus was tough, so I thought of why not blurr and try to get some bokeh.. got this as result

  • Hi David: These are some awesome techniques you have shared.. will sure help in experimenting and creating more deliberate blur pictures…I am sharing one I clicked some time back in Varanasi in India, the light was less and getting focus was tough, so I thought of why not blurr and try to get some bokeh.. got this as result

  • JeffreyDuddles

    Thanks for the ideas. I just got my first DSLR. I had a film SLR as a young man in the late 70’s and early 80’s but only point and shoots since then. I’m excited about learning all the neat techniques available. Here is a shot from my first attempt at panning shots. This cool El Camino went by while shooting passing cars. I’m looking forward to trying some of the other ideas you mentioned too.

  • David W. Shaw

    Very nice! Good mix of sharpness and blur which makes for a good sense of motion. Good luck with the new camera, hope you get some fun shots.

  • David W. Shaw

    That’s cool. Very moody, but I think the risk here is getting something that just looks out of focus. Though I think you pull it off here, if you’d manage to pull those candle flames in the foreground just into a bit of focus I think it would really add something. Still, considering the dim conditions, you did really well here.

  • Annie Hart

    Hi David. Thanks for all the wonderful tips and ideas. My creative side is jumping at the chance to get out and try some of them. I just purchased and cheap set of nd filters and attached is my first and second attempt at blurring. I want to eventually get a big stopper filter to make some creative daytime/full-sun shots.

  • Thanks David.. good point..appreciate your candid feedback…

  • steve beinder

    Thanks for your comments David..Tech stuff…f4.5 1/25sec ISO 100. Shot parallel to the rivers edge with a slight wobble mid shot and the river just hinted at on the right

  • steve beinder

    Thanks. Glad you like it.

  • David W. Shaw

    I really like the top abstract one, and the bottom interpretive. Very cool. The middle one falls too much in that in-between area for me. It’s neither abstract nor interpretive, though it does have great colors. Thanks for sharing them!

  • David W. Shaw

    I love ND filters! I have a variable ND that I’ve used quite a bit for long exposure daylight landscapes. I actually may propose an article here for using ND Filters because I think they are a very cool, and often overlooked tool. Keep an eye out for that at some point in the future. Beautiful images by the way, both very dreamlike.

  • David W. Shaw

    You know I’ve had some time to think about this shot since my first reply, and though I stand by my statement about this technique being risky, in this case, your image just works. It’s got great color and light, and the blur adds a cinematic element to the shot. I’ve seen many similar shots with candles in focus and the person blurred in the background but this breaks that formula, creating an image all your own. So yeah, I wouldn’t change it. You’ve taken a risk here, and it’s worked. Well done!

  • Wow, thanks a lot.. you are a true thinking photographer and a great mentor…appreciate it 🙂

  • Richard Paquet

    Thanks for the great tips and ideas! I’ve only tried one type of blur from the ones you mention, I will definitely go out and pratice the others.
    Here are three I took at F1 race weekends in Montreal. Lots of misses to get a few good ones. Truly trial and error.

  • I did some experimentation when waiting for fire works. This one zoom and motion blur 6 sec exposure.

  • This one is of people with glow sticks of all varieties. I painted the light with camera movement.

  • Fadzilah Omar

    Nice article David! Thanks!!

    I captured this photo during recent company dinner. Since we were still in the mood of Chinese New Year, we are served with Yee Sang, means ‘Prosperity toss’. It is a mixture of various ingredients, where we need to toss all the ingredients before eating. I hope the intentional blur effect really shows the tossing movement~

  • David W. Shaw

    Very cool! Love how the tossing motion becomes so clear in the blur. Well done!

  • David W. Shaw

    Neat converging lines and atypical lighting. Interesting to see a portrait made with this technique. I’ll have to give it a try.

  • David W. Shaw

    I like that top one in particular, it has a real sense of motion. If like to see some with an even longer shutter speed to emphasize that even more. Thanks for sharing them!

  • Anne

    It’s fun to shoot pictures at low shutter speed out of the car window when going home in the dark (better not do this when you’re the driver 😉

  • Genevieve Laurin

    This is my favorite one so far, but when I’ve shown it to people, it failed to get the response I was hoping for. Perhaps you can offer some suggestions? I know it’s a bit on the dark side, but I kind of like the dark background in contrast with the color of the leaves.

  • David W. Shaw

    Neat! I bet another half second exposure would have blurred that building into stripes. Would be interesting to compare two images like that. Very cool! And yes good advice, keep those hands on the wheel!

  • David W. Shaw

    First point of advice: Don’t make images to please other people, make images to please yourself. If you like it, then it’s great. As for my thoughts on this, I do like it. The darkness doesn’t bother me, and in fact the near-black background really sets off the red. I like that enough detail is retained to make out the subject, it’s got real juxtaposition of color and light, detail and blur. All that said, I’m not sure about the nearly balanced composition between the blur and the darkness below, It’s almost half and half, I’d like to see a version where you chose a leaf higher in the cluster as the central point on the zoom, giving a bigger distribution of the blur and color. Or a version where there is just one central leaf the rest in darkness. The current composition, does feel a but unbalanced. In the end though, you’ve created something different, and your own, and that is what matters. Thanks for sharing!

  • Carol MacMillan

    I’m about 200 photos into a 365 project with different themes each week. Blurred was one of the themes. I tried moving the camera in various ways, vertically (images 1 &3), spinning the camera (image 2) and letting wind move the subject as in the last image. I also did some panning in images not shown here. It was a fun week.

  • William Kastern

    As a lifelong myope, I’ve often considered myself lucky because I can get these types of blur just by removing my glasses. Christmas lights are spectacular when viewed this way. The whole world is an Impressionist painting to me.

  • Genevieve Laurin

    Thanks! That is a great point about balance. As a matter of fact, I was playing with that pic and tried different things in post-prod. Do you think this version is any better? I feel the cropping puts more emphasis on the subject and I kind of like the “supernatural” feel it has.

  • David W. Shaw

    Definitely very ghostlike! I like this crop better, but miss the color.

  • Genevieve Laurin

    Thanks! I really appreciate your expert input. 🙂

  • Anne

    The result is very interesting.

  • Anne

    Thank you so much for your comment! I’m not sure if hubby agrees with the experiment, for it would have meant he had to leave the highway at the first exit and go back to give me another chance to make a shot at slower shutter speed : )

  • Anne

    Thank you so much for your comment! I’m not sure if hubby agrees with the experiment, for it would have meant he had to leave the highway at the first exit and go back to give me another chance to make a shot at slower shutter speed : )

  • Anne

    Inspired by your article I played with camera movement when taking a picture of a piece of checkered fabric. It’s great fun experimenting. Thank you so much!

  • Anne

    Beautiful! I love the sense of movement it creates.

  • Courtney

    i was laying on a bench to take this, bet it looked kinda odd

  • David W. Shaw

    Cool! I love the spinning motion. You did a great job keeping it exactly centered. This isn’t a method I’ve played with, I’ll have to give it a shot sometime.

  • So cool, David!

    Intentional blur is not an effect that I usually seek, except for blurring out the background in macro shots and that’s for highlighting whatever the subject is in the foreground and sort of hiding the stuff in the background.

    I really liked the color schemes brought about using the panning techniques and can see they’d make some nice backgrounds for some digital art.

    Here’s my best vertical pan (so far). It was taken at the forest edge looking towards the setting sun peeking through the trees: 1/10s, f/9.0, ISO 320.

    I liked the icicle effect of the bright sky “lights” and how they contrasted with the dark trees.

    I enjoy your posts as they give me things to think about other than the camera’s settings. Thanks for sharing all your experience and tips!

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