Contradictory to what you're told when you first pick up a camera, it is OK to have blur, and quite a lot of it, in your shots when you're photographing the right subject and want to emphasise speed or create a sense of motion. When we say it's OK we don't just mean a shot you accidentally took out of focus will pass off as something creative, you have to deliberately adjust your camera's settings or know how a quick twist of your lens will give you the blur that's needed to add a sense of action to your shot.
Photos by David Clapp
How To Add Blur
The two ways we are going to look at are slowing down your shutter speed and using zoom blur (movement of your lens). The second can be a little harder to get a grasp of but after a few tries it should become easier.
If you've never shot action-style images before you may first think that a subject that's moving through your frame quick will need a quicker shutter speed to ensure you capture them as they move through your frame. You can do this but most of the time you'll just end up with a shot that freezes them in place and all sense of motion will be lost. However, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule such as a rally car or cyclist hurtling through a muddy puddle. As they move through the water, they'll more than likely cause spray to fly everywhere and a quick shutter speed will freeze the spray as it jumps up towards the sky, surrounding your subject. It's the spray here that helps emphasis the action and their pace so using a slower shutter speed will mean this excitement would be lost.
Slow Things Down
For times when there's not mud and water flying everywhere try slowing your shutter speed down to add some much needed motion to the shot. How slow you have to go will depend on how fast your subject is moving, how much light is around etc. and the whole process can be a little unpredictable, however it's worth sticking with and experimenting as you can get great results, some of which are surprising sometimes.
The hard bit can be trying to get the balance of blur and in focus parts of the shot right. Most of the time a blurred background that has streaks running through it in the direction your subject is moving with a sharp subject sat against it is what you'll be looking for, however if your subject is a little blurred it can emphasise motion and add further drama to your shot. Don't go too over the top with the blur though as they can just end up merging together which makes it hard for the eye to focus, meaning it's hard for the viewer to settle on one point of the image and it can make it look like you just took a bad shot.
For shots where you want your subject to be sharp make sure you're focused on them as you follow them through the frame. A quick auto focus system will help ensure your shot is focused quickly and accurately. Trying to focus manually with fast moving objects can be tricky, however it can be done if you plan on pre-focusing on a spot, say on a particular bend on a track, you know your subject will have to pass through. Just remember to lock your focus after you've set it up and be ready to hit the shutter button at the right time.
Switching to continuous shooting mode which most cameras now feature will increase your chances of capturing the action when panning or pre-focusing on one spot. You'll need to start shooting just before your subject comes into frame though to ensure you don't miss a shot due to shutter lag. If you're panning make sure you keep the pan going even after your subject has left the frame and you've got your shot.
To brighten your subject so they pop from your frame and to freeze them in place while the background is blurred switch to slow sync flash which combines a slow shutter speed with a burst of flash. The slow shutter speed means the camera will blur the background and further subject movement. Depending on if you're using front or rear curtain will change when the flash is introduced, freezing your subject's movement at different points of the shot.
To really emphasise your sport and action shots, giving them a dynamic edge, try using zoom burst to create blur that you deliberately create by twisting the zoom on your lens as you take a shot.
As well as emphasising movement it can help make your subject, who's not blurred, 'pop' from the frame. A burst of light from a flashgun will help freeze your subject and add sharpness to the image.
On paper it's a simple technique but it can take some time to actually master. You need a lens that will zoom and experimenting with different lens lengths will change the overall effect. Changing the starting point of the zoom and the length of time you zoom for and how quickly you move the lens will also change the final look of the shot. For action shots it's best to use shorter exposures which you start while you're moving the lens. Starting zoomed out and pulling the zoom in during the exposure makes it easier to capture a sharp shot of your subject with the zoom blur surrounding them.
Adding a little bit of camera movement will adjust the pattern the zoom blur creates and can be used to direct the eye on a particular path through your shot.
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