3 ways to capture motion in a photo

How do you show motion in your photos? A photo is of course just a still frame. In this article I'll show you how to use your camera in the right way to be able to create the illusion of motion in your photos.

Oh, and if your cool action packed photo happens to be one of a vehicle, be sure to upload it in the Xpozer Photo Contest!

First things first. I'll explain the basics of your most important camera settings to get to the pretty motion blur effects you're looking for. When you already know your camera settings inside and out, skip that part and go straight to the creative options I laid out for you.

How to get your settings right, depends on the camera. Use your camera's user manual if you need it. I will explain how to use certain aspects of your camera, but note this is not a step-to-step guide to getting to know your particular type of camera. Luckily, the terminology is mostly the same with the major brands. 

I'm going to be explaining how your camera's sensor is influenced by your camera settings. The sensor in your camera sits behind the lens. It's a piece of hardware that captures light and turns it into electronic signals. It's the electronic equivalent of old fashioned film. That's all you need to know, really.

Shutter speed, ISO en aperture

Do you already know everything about your camera settings? Then click here to skip ahead and read about the 3 creative options I recommend >

The holy trinity of your camera settings: shutter speed, ISO and aperture. These three camera settings will determine together the way your photo looks. They influence light and sharpness, and are dependent on each other. This is how they work:

1. Shutter speed

The shutter speed determines for how long your camera's sensor will be exposed to light.

The shutter speed can be as long or short as you like. A shorter shutter speed will keep your subject recognisable. A longer shutter speed makes your subject less or not at all recognisable anymore. A longer shutter speed can make for some pretty interesting abstract photos.

2. ISO 

The ISO value determined how sensitive the sensor is to light.

Wanneer je merkt dat je foto te licht wordt, doordat je langer licht toelaat op je camerasensor bij een langere sluitertijd, zet je je ISO-waarde omlaag. Een lager ISO-getal maakt je camera’s sensor minder gevoelig voor licht. Daardoor raakt je foto minder snel overbelicht.

3. Aperture

The size of the aperture determines how much light reaches the sensor.

The aperture consists of little flaps in your lens. These flaps can be brought closer together and further apart to make your lens opening bigger or smaller.


F-number

The opening of the aperture is expressed in an f-value. The smaller the opening, the bigger the f-value. A small f-value means the opening in your aperture is bigger, and more light reaches the sensor.


Depth of field

The aperture has a direct link with the depth of field in your photo. A bigger depth of field means that a larger part of your photo is in focus. A smaller depth of field means that a smaller part of your photo is in focus. In the photo of the aperture, you can see that only a small part is in focus. Only the flaps are in focus, everything else isn't.

The aperture determines the amount of light that can reach the sensor behind the lens.

In the table below you can see the relationship between the depth of field, f-value and light sensitivity.

Aperture

F-value

Sensor

Depth of field

Small

High

Less light reaches the sensor

Larger part of photo in focus

Big

Low

More light reaches the sensor

Smaller part of photo in focus

When your aperture is small, the f-value is high, and the sensor will receive more light. That makes the depth of field larger.

With a larger aperture and a higher f-value, the sensor picks up more light and the depth of field is smaller.

Tip: Use Manual Mode

Set your camera to (M) Manual mode to have more control over all of the camera settings. This way, your camera won't 'help' you with your settings in the wrong way.

Now you know the most important settings

Aperture, ISO and shutter speed work together to determine depth of field and light. After some practice, you know exactly which values to choose to get the perfect settings in no-time.


Motion blur option 1:
Subject in motion, still surroundings

You can show motion in a photo the way you perceive motion with your eyes. You as a human being, know something is moving, when the distance between yourself and the subject changes, but the distance between yourself and your surroundings doesn't.

A camera can capture motion, by using a longer shutter speed. The camera captures a still frame, and the subject becomes blurred because it's moving. The movement of the subject will be visible in the photo, because lines turn into smudges and colors mix together. You can play with these effects and create abstract artsy photos. Train stations and roads are great subjects.

How to capture your subject's motion?

For a motion blurred subject in razor sharp surroundings, there are a few things you have to remember. Shutter speed, tripod, ISO-value and timers are important succes factors. Let me elaborate on that below.


Tripod

Tripods are annoyingly bulky and sometimes heavy. I have a love/hate relationship with tripods, but they are quite important when it comes to shooting with slow shutter speeds. Without a tripod, you might be able to shoot without showing motion blur by camera movements, but only with short shutter speeds. At 1/100 of a second you might get it done, but anything longer just doesn't work without a tripod. When using a tripod, always make sure to turn off Image Stabilization on your camera. It could ruin your photo.


Timer

Even with the best tripod, pressing the button will cause your camera to move. Even the tiniest movement will be captured when using a long shutter speed. Just set your timer to 2 seconds and the movement will have stopped when the photo is taken.


Choosing a subject

You can use long shutter speeds on many different subjects, like vehicles, people, waterfalls, fireworks and the ocean. Anything that moves, really.

Tips for your camera settings

The subject choice determines the way your settings should be. The same goes for the lighting conditions. 


Tip 1: Avoid unnecessarily long shutter speeds

When the subject moves faster, you can use a shorter shutter speed to capture the movement. With a faster shutter speed, there is less chance of overexposure.


Tip 2: Avoid overexposure

Overexposure makes your photo white, and at the very least, details disappear. Slower shutter speeds are therefore more difficult in bright light. Your camera's sensor receives too much light and your photo is ruined. To avoid this, make sure to capture less light (if possible) and set your ISO lower.


Tip 3: Avoid noise from high ISO

Play with your shutter speed until you get the desired motion blurred effect, but also play with the ISO value until you get the right amount of light. When shooting outside during a sunny day, your ISO should be very low (maybe 200) when you are shooting long exposures. Be careful never to set your ISO too high, as it will create noise. From which ISO value you will experience noise, depends on the camera.


Tip 4: Exposure compensation

Some light conditions are very difficult to handle for your camera. But, there is something called Exposure Compensation. It is sometimes marked on your camera with a +/- button and sometimes wheel with numbers between -3 and +3.

Example: A white dog in a sunny, snowy landscape is quite hard for your camera. It likely underexposes your photo by a lot. Try setting your Exposure Compensation to +1 or +2 and see the difference.


Motion blur option 2: Subject still, surroundings in motion

You can also choose to show movement by getting only your moving subject super sharp, while everything else has motion blur. You camera has to 'track' the motion to be able to have your subject sharp and still. Your own movement will cause the motion blur in the background.


How does this work?

For a super sharp subject and motion blurred background, set your camera's shutter speed, ISO and aperture accordingly. How?

Shutter speed

Your shutter speed value is up to you. With shutter speeds slower than 1/100 of a second you will notice motion blur occurring. Play with different shutter speeds and compare the results.


Focus

When you track your subject with your camera, you could use a little help. Normal auto focus isn't your friend right now. You'll want your camera to track the subject itself. Do so by choosing Continuous Focus (a.k.a. AF-C). Hold your shutter button, but don't push it all the way through the click. Your camera will focus on the focal point of your choosing and it will 'track' the moving subject within the 'focus rectangle' in your screen or viewfinder. Click the shutter button all the way through when you want to take your photo.


Continuous Shooting/Burst Mode

You don't want to miss the perfect shot. That's why you also choose the Continuous Shot mode, a.k.a. Burst Mode. This setting lets you take photo after photo by just holding your shutter button.

Tip: Canon calls this ‘AI SERVO’ or ‘SERVO AF’. 


ISO

With longer shutter speeds, lower your ISO. It makes your sensor less sensitive to light and your photos are less likely to be overexposed.


Aperture

Your aperture determines the amount of the background, subject and foreground are in focus. If you want your whole subject and more in focus, use a bigger depth of field by setting the f-value higher. Use a lower f-value when you want a smaller part of your photo in focus.


Tripod

Unless you are panning your camera to track horizontal movements, your tripod isn't the ideal solution here. In most cases, you'll want to use a camera stabilizer, also called a gimbal. It will keep your camera straight, even if you move yourself. A good one is not quite cheap, so get informed before choosing one.


Choice of subject

This technique can be very interesting with any moving object, like a vehicle, people playing sports or running animals.

Tips for camera settings

The tips from the previous chapter still count here. There are just two things I'd like to add.

Tip 1: Continuous Shot

Use Continuous Shot to keep shooting many photos quickly.

Tip 2: Gimbal
Use a gimbal to help you keep your camera steady.


Option 3: Action while still

Even without any motion blur, you can create a very dynamic looking photo which looks like it's moving. Check out the photo below. There is little to no motion blur, but you can clearly see that there is movement. Of course it helps that you know that grains of sand don't just hang in the air. This valuable life experience helps your brain to 'finish' the movement in the photo when looking at it. The composition helpst, too. By keeping your camera straight, everyhing in your photo will look like it's standing still. By choosing to angle your camera, even slightly, your photo got a whole lot more dynamic.

Even though there is no motion blur, you know that drops don't just hang in the air. You know what motions are happening here, and your brain just lets your fantasy go wild.

The photographer that took the photo below clearly thought his composition through. All those diagonals make it seem that everything is moving, even though there is no motion blur.

Motion blur needs practice

Pack your gear and practice your knowledge and techniques. When you know your camera through and through, you will notice your photos are improving and they get better and better, because you make conscious decisions.

Your best photos are worth printing on Xpozer. Or upload the best one in the Xpozer Photo Contest. Who knows, you might win an Xpozer 4Pack!