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How to Use Slow Shutter Speed to Create Motion Blur

Starting out as a photography assistant in a daily newspaper, I had one thing drummed into me. Make sure it’s sharp. This was the cardinal rule. It was appropriate for the situation.

Any kind of unintentional fuzziness, especially when it renders the subject indistinct, looks awful when printed on newsprint.

Adding motion blur, or any other form of blur, in a photograph can work extremely well when circumstances are right.

Merlion Park, Singapore Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 8 seconds

Two main techniques for creating motion blur in a photo are subject movement and camera movement.

Times when adding motion blur is the right choice

Deciding to add motion blur is best when:

  • Some parts of the composition remain sharp
  • The light is favorable
  • You find the shutter speed sweet spot
  • You have a means of stabilizing your camera
Poi Sang Long Festival Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1/20th of a second.

Adding some flash can at times truly enhance a photo made with a slow shutter speed. I find this works best when you sync your flash with the rear shutter closing.

Keeping some of it sharp

Using a slow shutter speed to create motion blur, I find it’s best to ensure that some parts of your composition remain sharp. Whether you are moving your camera or your subject is in motion, your results will be stronger when not all the composition is blurred.

Using a slow shutter speed and moving your camera in relation to a moving subject, is known as panning. This will keep your subject sharp and the background will blur. Getting a perfectly sharp subject while panning is challenging because it requires the camera to be moving in sync with how fast the subject is.

Tuktuk Panning Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1/25th of a second.

Having your camera locked down while your subject or the background move you will have a better chance to render your subject sharp.

Getting the exposure when the light is right

Bright sunny days make it challenging to capture motion blur in a photograph. You need to use a slow shutter speed for the effect to happen. Setting your aperture to the smallest opening and your ISO as low is it can go will not always allow you to use a slow enough shutter speed.

Using a neutral density filter in bright sunshine will make a slower shutter speed possible. At times I have coupled a neutral density filter with a polarizing filter to cut the light entering the lens even more.

Market Scene Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1/4th of a second.

In this photo I had my friend stand very still to achieve motion blur in the people walking behind her. Being such a bright sunny day meant that even with my aperture set to the minimum opening of f/11. My ISO was set at one hundred and still did not allow me to use a slow enough shutter speed. I attached a four-stop neutral density filter and a polarizing filter so I could set my shutter speed to 1/4th of a second to capture the motion blur.

At night and in other low light situations achieving a slow enough shutter speed is simple.

Finding the sweet spot for optimal blur

Choosing a shutter speed setting appropriate to the pace of movement in your composition is important. Having too much or not enough motion blur will give you a poor result. This varies greatly depending on your subject and the style of photograph you are creating.

Photographing waterfalls, people walking or traffic at night, all require different shutter speeds for best results. Generally, slower moving elements in your composition need slower shutter speeds. Things moving more quickly need faster shutter speed or there will be too much motion blur. It also depends on how much definition you want to retain in whatever is moving.

Twently Second Waterfall Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 20 seconds.

Flowing water, like in this waterfall, can be completely blurred. In fact, waterfall photos usually look best when a shutter speed of more than two seconds is used. I used a twenty-second exposure for this photo and there’s absolutely no definition in the water. It is still obvious what it is though.

On The Sidewalk Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1/10th of a second.

Keeping the motion blur balanced is more important with some subjects. For this photo of people on a sidewalk in Bangkok, I chose a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second. A slower shutter speed would mean more blur and less definition. A fast speed would show less blur and may just look like it was a mistake. I was happy to capture an image where the people walking are blurred yet their feet are reasonably sharp. The young woman modeling for me was very patient as it took quite a while to make a composition with the right number of pedestrians in my frame.

Experimentation is key to finding the sweet spot with your shutter speed. You need to decide how clear or how blurred you want your subject and other elements in your composition.

Camera stability is important

You can use a slow shutter speed even if you do not have a tripod. Learn to hold your camera well and be in control of it. I do not often carry a tripod so am forced to use alternative means of preventing unwanted camera movement. Unintentional camera movement creates ghosting which introduces extra fuzziness to photos.

Flames Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1/20th of a second.

Hand holding a camera while panning can be preferable for some more than using a tripod. Keeping a steady movement along with your subject is what’s most important. If you are panning with a passing vehicle you do not want to be jiggling your camera up and down as you track your subject.

Finding a firm surface to place your camera can be a good substitute when you don’t have a tripod. You may need to place something under the lens so your angle of view is level. I find my mobile phone or wallet often come in handy for this.

Using a tripod does make things more straightforward when using a slow shutter speed. With a tripod, you have more stability and often more control of your angle of view.

Coffee Roasting Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1/4th of a second.

Introducing rear curtain synchronized flash

Many cameras give you an option to synchronize the flash so it fires just before the shutter closes. Doing this combined with a slow shutter speed and movement produces interesting effects.

As the flash is triggered near the end of the exposure it looks like the movement is partially frozen. Using a very slow shutter speed when there’s fast movement your subject may appear semi-transparent.

Tricycle Taxi Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 4 seconds.

I used a four-second exposure for this photo of a tricycle taxi in Chiang Mai. You can see the ghosted image of two people just above the handlebars of the cycle. They were riding past on a motorbike just at the end of the exposure as my flash fired.

Conclusion

Photographing movement using long exposures it pays to give yourself plenty of time to experiment and take lots of photos. Varying your shutter speed. Choose a faster or slower speed with the same subject. This can create vastly different looking photos.

Iron Bridge Using a Slow Shutter Speed to a Create Sense of Motion

© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Shutter speed: 1.6 seconds.

If you’ve never often used a slow shutter speed, begin to explore the possibilities. If you’ve had some experience, try some new angle or subject. Please share your photos and comments below.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience.

Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography.
Check out Kevin’s Blog for articles with a more personal approach to photography.