Freeze, Pan, Blur, Throw Up
Still Photographs & Motion??? Yes!!!
Sometimes a photographic subject wants us to capture its motion. The trick is to figure out the best way—different subjects call for different techniques. If the center fielder of a baseball team is diving to catch a fly ball, or a horse is jumping over a fence, fast shutter speeds that freeze them are fine. We intuitively understand that there is motion—people and horses do not normally hang in mid-air. Using a really fast shutter speed to photograph a race car zooming past the stands, however, is not appropriate. The car will look exactly the same as if it were parked there. The important thing is to think about your subject and how best you can convey its motion. There are three ways to capture motion—freezing it, blurring it, and panning with it. (There’s a way to combine blur or pan with freeze, but we won’t talk about that here.)
It’s all about shutter speed.
Freezing motion is the simplest. You just use a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the motion of whatever it is you are photographing. The shutter speed can vary wildly—a person ambling slowly down the sidewalk can be frozen with 125th of a second. (Motion is shown by a foot being off the ground or the obviously walking position of legs.) Freezing a sprinter doing a 100-meter dash requires a shutter speed somewhat faster.
If motion is shown by some obvious attribute of the subject (like body and limb position), or if crisp detail is needed, then freezing is just the thing. It’s perfect for capturing a slide into home plate, the expressions on faces as a thrown bouquet of flowers descends towards them at a wedding, or the spray sent up as a jet ski zips through the water, like this:
REALLY high-speed photography is useful for analyzing golf or tennis swings or when Neo needs to stop the bullets whizzing towards him in the Matrix (yes, that’s how it was done). Just remember—use a shutter speed appropriate to the speed of your subject. And if you freeze the subject, be sure that something else in the frame says “motion.”
We’ve all gotten blurry photographs accidentally—there just wasn’t enough light but we went ahead and made a picture anyway. But sometimes we want blur—to convey motion or mystery. There are two kinds of blur: subject blur and camera blur. Both involve slow shutter speeds.
Subject blur means holding the camera steady and letting the movement of the subject within the frame create the blur. Like this:
You use a slow shutter speed (how slow depends on how fast your subject is moving). Let’s say you want to use blur to show motion in a kid running from home plate to first base. At a 500th of a second, the kid will be frozen. At a 250th, there will be some blurring of his arms and feet. He will get blurrier and blurrier as you decrease the shutter speed, and when you’re really slow the poor child will disappear entirely. The trick is getting enough blur to show motion but not so much that the kid is not recognizable. It takes practice and experimenting—and it’s easy to experiment. Go stand by a road and take pictures with different shutter speeds as the cars drive by. (Remember to leave enough room in the frame for the cars to move through.) If you run a gamut from fast to slow shutter speeds, you will see the cars go from frozen to disappearing and lots of stages in between.
But let’s say you want a nice, moody, blurry shot of a statue. You can hold the camera steady and talk to the statue as much as you like, but it probably isn’t going to move and create the blur for you. So you have to create it with the camera, using camera blur.
Just use a slow shutter speed and move the camera while the shutter is open and everything will get all blurry. If you move a little, there will be a little blur. If you use a very slow shutter speed, there will be a lot of blur (and again the subject may be unrecognizable). It’s another easy thing to practice. Just find a statue (or a building, a fireplug, your parked car, anything immobile) and try different shutter speeds and different amounts of movement.
Panning is the most difficult of the three ways to show motion because it requires more thought and practice. You need to move your camera with, and at the same relative speed as, your subject. In a well-done pan, the moving subject will be sharp (or nearly sharp) and everything else (the background etc.) will be blurry—that’s what conveys motion.
I could easily have made the photo at the left while Cary was waiting for the carousel to start up. In the second one, the carousel is clearly moving and Cary is trying to tell me something about motion sickness, but I wasn’t listening.
Here’s how to make a good pan:
Start by figuring out what shutter speed you want use—it depends on how fast your subject is moving and how blurry you want the background to be. The faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed you can use.
Then figure out what you want the frame to be when you press the button—what you want the picture to be. Take your position as if you were going to just shoot normally. Now, without moving your feet and looking through the viewfinder, twist your body back along the path that your subject will take. (It is much easier and more fluid to move from an uncomfortable position to a comfortable one than the other way around.) Wait for your subject to enter the frame and, keeping the subject in the same part of the frame, pan along with it. Press the shutter button when the subject gets to the previously selected spot. But don’t stop panning. Follow through is very important. Keep panning until after the shutter has closed.
That’s all there is to it. It takes practice to get it right, so go back to the road and practice panning along with the cars as they drive by.
Text © 2010 Robert Caputo