How to Use Slower Shutter Speeds to Show Motion in Your Images

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Changing shutter speed not only changes the amount of light that enters the camera, it also changes the way your images look. By changing the shutter speed, you’re allowing the film or digital sensor to be exposed for a longer or shorter period of time. That affects how motion is portrayed in your image. A short (or ‘fast’) shutter speed will freeze motion, whereas a long (or ‘slow’) shutter speed will allow you to show motion.

Let’s take a look at a few examples using slower shutter speeds to show motion in your images:

Img 1 Cycling on the boardwalk Melbourne 600px

Slow speeds – camera stationary

The image above shows what happens when you use a slow shutter speed while holding the camera still. In this case the shutter speed was 1/40th of a second, which allowed me to hand-hold the camera while still showing some motion on the cyclist. The slower the shutter speed, the more movement in your subject.

The image below was made with a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second. That’s starting to get a little slow for hand-holding so I rested the camera on the top of a fence rail on the side of the road. The image shows a cyclist riding along the road, followed closely by a skateboarder. Both the cyclist and skateboarder are blurred quite a lot, but they’re still identifiable, while the rest of the image is still in focus. It gives a feeling of movement, without moving the camera.

Img 2 Skateboard and bicycle Melbourne 600px

Panning the camera to add motion

Moving the camera while making an exposure is another way to show movement in an image. Instead of keeping the camera still and using a long shutter speed – you move, or pan, the camera with your moving subject as you expose the image. That way the subject remains sharp, while the background becomes blurred.

This image of another cyclist riding along a boardwalk was also taken at 1/40th of a second, panning with the rider and following him from right to left as he passed by. The shutter speed was slow enough that the background is blurred, while the bicycle and rider are relatively sharp.

Img 3 Orange bicycle Melbourne 600px

Remember, the subject doesn’t have to be ‘tack sharp’ when you’re showing movement. Sometimes a little blur on the subject helps to enhance the feeling of movement in the image, as it does in this case. Notice the spokes of the bicycle’s wheels are blurry too, which also helps to show movement. Using a faster shutter speed while panning would have resulted in the background not being as out of focus and the wheels would have been frozen in time with the spokes clearly visible. In essence, the cyclist would have looked like he was stationary and balancing on the boardwalk, not moving as he actually was.

Moving water

Cyclists and other fast moving objects are not the only subjects for slow shutter speeds. What about shots including moving water. I think it’s fair to say we’ve all seen images of the sea or a river with water that looks buttery smooth. That smoothness is also achieved by using a slow shutter speed.

The following three images were all taken from the same location on the side of the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. The camera was mounted on a tripod for stability and the images were made at different exposure values. The first image was made with a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second, which is relatively fast for this type of photograph. The individual ripples in the water are clearly visible. You can see some movement, but not much.

Img 4 Melbourne skyline Melbourne 600px 2

The second image was made with a shutter speed of 2 seconds. The water is starting to get smoother due to the longer shutter speed. The individual ripples are starting to disappear.

Img 5 Melbourne skyline Melbourne 600px

The final image in this series was exposed for five seconds. The water has now become much smoother due to the movement while the shutter was open. Photography is an art form and there is no right or wrong way to photograph any subject, but for me, the third image with the smooth water is much more appealing than the first two versions.

Img 6 Melbourne skyline Melbourne 600px 3

Why not experiment with different shutter speeds next time you go out to make photographs. It’s a great way to add interest to an otherwise static and maybe boring subject! All it takes is a little imagination and patience and you can come away with some really interesting and different images – like this water drain for example, which was hand-held with a shutter speed of one second. The ghostly images passing over the drain make it a little more interesting than just the drain grate itself. The most important thing is to experiment – and have fun!

Img 7 Ghostly legs Melbourne 600px

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ken Lyons

is a photographer and world traveller living in rural South Australia. He has a relaxed approach and loves to teach others about photography; making images that tell a location’s story – the place, the people and the culture. You can learn more about Ken where you can also get information about his latest workshops.

  • Bob Ray

    This article which I discovered on a FB post was a wonderful read in that it’s easy to understand and come away believing that you can actually do this, unlike so many articles from photographers whose explanations are harder to understand than the fine print in buying a car. Ken Lyons, nice write, mate …

  • Good read! I slowed the shutter speed down to show motion in the rotor blades (as aviators we can expect frozen blades are a bad thing). It is slightly out of focus though, hand held and was AI focus so when the shot was in focus, I was about to complete the shutter actuation and my focus started to track at that moment.

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks for the kind words Bob!

  • Ken Lyons

    Hi Patrick. Thanks for the kind words! Looks like your camera may have focused on the tower instead of the helicopter. I can’t see any EXIF data, so I’m not sure what your shutter speed was in this image… perhaps try single point focus with as slow a shutter speed as you can hand-hold. I can still see some movement in the blades, so that’s good! Just need to get the shutter speed a little lower and perhaps a slightly longer lens (or wait until the aircraft is a bit closer). If you’re using a long lens and can’t hand-hold at a slow shutter speed, you could always mount the lens/camera on a monopod for stability. Thanks for sharing your image πŸ™‚

  • Anil

    Hi Ken, very informative and simple worded post with emphasis on experimentation. I tried panning on an auto-rickshaw near home and got a decent result. Still need to try the water smoothing bit.

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks Anil! Photography really is a great art form isn’t it? Experimentation is a great way to learn… Try different things all the time, it’s how we improve!

  • Thank you for your very much welcomed response and advice Ken. My settings were f/11, 300mm, 1/80 sec. I really did not plan on taking this shot but my camera was on stand by around my neck. I do think you maybe right as far as it focusing on the tower as the radar dish was spinning and the helicopter was so close to it. (That would seem to explain why it started to focus in AI mode, just trying to practice in that mode for tracking moving objects).

  • Ken Lyons

    You’re on the right track there Patrick. Just pay attention to the other objects in the frame (the tower). I think with the addition of a monopod and maybe dropping the shutter speed to 1/60 you’ll end up with some nice images! Practice, practice, practice. When you’re shooting slow shutter speeds like that, you’ll most likely get plenty that don’t work, but the more you shoot, the better you’ll get. Also, try shooting a burst of images. Often when using slow shutter speeds like this, the first image will suffer from camera shake from you pressing down on the shutter button, but the second or third image will often be sharp! Hope that helps πŸ™‚

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks for sharing Jean-Paul. I really like this image! There’s a great sense of movement.

  • Guest

    at the central train station in Hamburg, germany

  • Thanks Ken!

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks for sharing Florian. I really like how you can see through the train’s windows to the opposite side of the platform. The train was obviously moving quite quickly, but it’s still obvious what it was. Nicely done!

  • SheriD

    I like taking pics of birds and other wildlife. I would just like to know if I’m on the right track. I’m somewhat new to photography. I use the Canon T3i with a 75-300 mm zoom. I don’t remember my setting on these pics, but I use manual mode more often than not.

  • Ken Lyons

    Hi SheriD… I can’t see any images?

  • this is genius! this idea definitely gives a great perspective on showing motion. all of these shots are incredible! really enjoyed reading this.
    here’s an accidental shot i made while hanging out at the park. it was taken with a point and shoot canon. it almost makes me dizzy to look at it. http://sweetergetsthejourneyblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/march-miscellaneous.html
    -Abigail

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks Abigail… although I’m not too sure about the genius part!! πŸ™‚

    Using slow shutter speeds really is a great way to show motion. Sometimes when you make an image of an object or person in motion, but use a high shutter speed, it just looks like the subject is frozen in time. By adding the blur you get a real sense of movement, just like in your swing shot above! Even with a ‘point & shoot’ you can still use this technique – just put the camera into Shutter Priority mode and select a slow shutter speed. Then experiment! Photography is all about having fun and making art πŸ™‚

  • Guest

    Nice article Ken, thank you for the tips.
    I specially like the last photo of the river and the Victoria University.

    Here is my contribution to slow motion.
    The Mustang is slightly out of focus but, as I heard the car arriving, I turn around and had like 1 second to slow down the shutter speed. I only took one shot. In this case the shutter speed is 1/15 s and it should have been a tad quicker to have a perfect focus.
    Anyway I love this photo and I have no way to do it again.

    Eric

  • Guest

    Nice article Ken, thank you.
    I specially like the last photo of the river and the Victoria University.

    Here is my contribution to slow motion.
    The Mustang is slightly out of focus but, as I heard the car arriving, I turn around and had like 1 second to slow down the shutter speed. I only took one shot. In this case the shutter speed is 1/15 s and it should have been a tad quicker to have a perfect focus.
    Anyway I love this photo and I have no way to do it again.

    Eric

  • Eric

    Sorry for the double message, I thought the photo was not included in the first one.
    Apologies.
    Eric

  • Ken Lyons

    Hi Eric… thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked the article. The Mustang image is very good. As I said in the article, you don’t have to have everything perfectly in focus to make a pleasing image. The Mustang is clearly identifiable and there is a great sense of movement. Considering you only had a very brief time to set-up and capture the image I think it’s terrific. Nicely done πŸ™‚

  • Eric

    Some photos of Prague, all with slow shutter speed.

  • Eric

    Thanks a lot Ken and yes, a very brief moment to set-up πŸ™‚
    Glad you like the picture πŸ™‚

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks for sharing Eric… Prague is a city that’s on my list of places to visit. It looks like a beautiful city with many photo opportunities! My favourite of these images is the bridge with the ‘ghostly’ people. I really like that effect. All of them make great use of a slow shutter. Well done πŸ™‚

  • Corey Gibson
  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks for sharing Corey. I really like the perspective in this image. The low angle and the slow shutter speed really add to the image. Did you set your camera down on the ground for stability?

  • Corey Gibson

    Hi Ken…yes, I had the camera on the ground for the shot.

  • It was always awesome to learn more and more for me from this page:
    Here is my Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/maharjansphotography
    Hope you review it πŸ˜€

  • Ken Lyons

    Thanks for sharing! There’s certainly a lot of movement apparent in this image. It has a real painterly effect, which I quite like. I’ll have a look at your Facebook page too!

  • Thanks you

  • Hey Ken, I am still at it practicing. I am showing you one from last week I captured (you can see the same radar tower in the distant background). Followed your advice and kept on shooting. Hand held pan @ 300mm, 1/80th, f/11 iso 100. I kept the shutter at 1/80th for jet powered (I will go slower for the helicopters).

  • Ken Lyons

    Nicely done Patrick! Good to see you still out honing your craft πŸ™‚ I like this one… the aircraft is more the focus (pun intended LOL) of the image. There is still enough movement to have the background slightly soft, while keeping the aircraft relatively sharp… I’m looking forward to seeing some with smooth helicopter blade motion πŸ™‚

  • Chris Potter

    Useful tips, I slowed down to 20 seconds for this wire wool shot

    https://www.facebook.com/photoschrispotter

  • Thanks for sharing Chris. Great capture πŸ™‚ Slow shutter speeds can be used for so much creativity πŸ™‚

  • sarad

    Rato Machindra nath jatra….well taken

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