How to create motion blur in your action photos

Taking action photos can be exciting and can get your adrenaline pumping even when there is the element of danger for you as a photographer. Not something that’s recommended – stay out of harm’s way! But nothing beats the thrill of capturing the moment of a Batter hitting a ball, a soccer player performing a bicycle kick, an Evolution XI skidding around a corner or a 3-year-old running at full speed in the backyard. There’s an art to every form of photography, and so it is for taking action shots.

Isn’t a sharp photograph effective enough?

The basic aim is to capture a sharp photograph of your subject, and to do that you may need to use a high shutter speed to avoid your subject being blurred.

The action is frozen in this scene by use of a high shutter speed.

Compact cameras typically have a sports mode, and on a D-SLR you can take control over shutter speed by using either Shutter Priority [S] / [Tv] (Time Value) mode or Manual [M] mode to set the shutter speed at a reasonable number to capture a sharp yet well exposed photograph. Your photograph may come out just as you intend: sharp, well-exposed and even well framed, but the only problem is that the image may appear static and somewhat lifeless.  There’s no sense of motion, and you may feel as if something is lacking. Not to say that all photographs may lack because the action is frozen, but for certain scenes the fascination of viewers will be enhanced if you compose photographs with motion blur. Photos composed in this way may almost give you an impression as if you are actually living  in the moment when it all happened.

The Panning Technique

There’s a technique used by Sports photographers called panning. The principle is simple; requires some amount of practice, but once you get it right you’ll start producing photos with your moving subject(s) reasonably sharp while every static element in your photo having motion blur.

D-SLR Set-up

For your D-SLR set-up, you’ll need to change your dial to [Tv] mode, and change your shutter speed number to about 1/60 (which means a 60th of a second) for starters. You may need to increase or decrease depending on the situation. Once you’re in [Tv] mode, your D-SLR will automatically set the aperture value (i.e. f-number) to compensate for the shutter speed you’ve set in order to properly expose the scene you’re aiming at. AI SERVO mode is a specially designed focusing mode for moving subjects, and it is a good selection to make as well. Also it’s a good move to use continuous shooting (burst) mode, so that you can take multiple images within a single second.

Getting the shots

The usual way to take a photograph is to hold your camera steady and press the shutter release button as you try to avoid any evidence of camera shake. With panning, it’s the opposite! This is one technique that definitely goes ‘against the grain’ of ‘orthodox photography’. What you’ll need to do is to follow your moving subject and then click away. Try to do this smoothly, keeping your camera parallel to the line of motion of your subject.  When you do this, you’re matching the speed of your panning with the speed of your subject so as to capture decent sharp images of your subject. There’s no care for how everything else may look, because everything else will be blurred — the effect you want. It’s this blur that creates the feeling of motion in your action photographs.

An image of a bus taken using the Panning technique.

Practice for perfection sake

You can also take photographs the typical way using slow shutter speeds. In this case, the subject may be massively blurred, likened to a blurred image of a super hero flying through a well-known city while everything else that is static remains sharp.

An image of a bus taken using slow shutter speed. The Panning technique was not used.

But the panning technique is one that is highly recommended for action shots, and needs to be practiced for perfection sake. As said before, the technique is simple, may require a little trial and error as you may need to adjust shutter speed settings, but once you experiment and practice you’ll get some awesome action shots with relatively sharp subjects and blurred everything-else.

In Summary…

  1. Set your D-SLR to Shutter Priority mode, starting at about 1/60th of a second. (There’s always room for adjustments)
  2. Additionally set focusing mode to AI Servo, and shooting mode to continuous.
  3. Use the panning technique as you follow your subject with your camera taking shots throughout.

About Shane Brown-Daniels

I'm a freelance writer and event photographer who is always up for an adventure. From capturing the beauty of a woman, the strength of a man, onto the adrenaline-pumped action scene, you'll find me aiming for the shot.

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