A how to guide to capturing hand-held motion blur in your photography

At blue hour, the street lamps are turned on and with a small aperture, you can get the star burst effects from them.

Capturing motion blur in your photography is a useful technique to learn and use. I first discovered motion-blur after watching a YouTube video and then trying it out for myself whilst I was in Japan – but thinking about it now, I kinda jumped into the deep end with the motto of “trial-and-error” without doing any practicing.

Motion-blur is great to use it for invoking a sense of movement in a scene, which would look dull and boring if there wasn’t nothing exciting happening.  Simply adding in the motion blur from a moving object enhances the photo and you don’t have to visit exotic places; urban and street scenes are the best locations (more on that later).

Rather than capturing a still moment with the person and the train, capturing a hand-held motion blur gives that sense movement, whilst the rest of the scene remains sharp and still - a how to guide to capturing motion blur in your photography
Rather than capturing a still moment with the person and the train, capturing a hand-held motion blur gives that sense movement, whilst the rest of the scene remains sharp and still

While it may look difficult to achieve, it is in fact very easy to set-up – the trick is practice. I have been asked if I use a tripod to capturing motion-blur, and while you can do that (in view it is cheating a bit), to many people’s surprise, my motion-blur photos are all captured hand-held; no tripod is used. This is purely because of travelling, and carrying around a travel tripod isn’t always the greatest idea to do…

So, how do we go about setting up our camera and capturing these hand-held motion blur photos?

The equipment and settings

As I mentioned in one of my articles about what photography gear I use, I use a Nikon DSLR D7200. I should point out that even with a basic entry DSLR, such as the Nikon D3200 or even a micro-four thirds camera such as the FujiFilm X-T20 or a compact camera, you can capture hand-held motion blur photos; having the most expensive, high range equipment is not always needed. Just bear in mind that as long as you can put the camera into a Manual (M) mode, and can adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO – that is the important part of the equipment.

While this doesn’t really apply to micro four-thirds of compact cameras, with DSLR bodies, your kit lens is perfect to use! May sound odd (and again, people are surprised that I use the standard kit lens with my D7200 for all my work), most kit lenses come with a handy feature called “Vibration Reduction”, or “Optical Stabilisation” depending on the manufacturer.

Most kit lenses and more expensive lenses have "Vibration Reduction" (VR) (red box) as well as automatic/manual focusing (blue box) switches - a how to guide to capturing motion blur in your photography
Most kit lenses and more expensive lenses have “Vibration Reduction” (VR) (red box) as well as automatic/manual focusing (blue box) switches.

Vibration Reduction (VR) is ideal as allows the shutter speed to be slowed down further than the focal length of the lens. For example, at 20mm without VR, the shutter speed can only go down to 1/20th of a second to maintain sharpness – if you go down slower to 1/10th or 1/5th of a second, the photo will be blurry (unless the camera is on a tripod). Likewise, on a 50mm lens, the shutter speed can only go down to 1/50th of a second and no further; you can read more about this principle in detail. However, the VR on a lens throws that principle out of the window by using little motors to mechanically stabilise the inside of the lens, which we use to our advantage to achieve shutter speeds slower than 1/20th of a second for capturing motion-blur.

Next are the settings. Use a small aperture, anywhere between f/8 to f/13. Going smaller to f/16 or f/22 isn’t ideal as the image will begin to soften and appear blurry which is the opposite of what you want. In a nutshell, this is due to diffraction of the light by the blades in the lens, and you can read more about it here. By keeping the aperture between f/8 and f/13, you maintain sharpness from the front of the image all way to the back of the image when you compose and focus the scene.

The shutter speed, as mentioned above, should be set anywhere between 1/10th and 1/2th of a second. This bit requires some tinkering to find which works best, but for me I find that at around 1/5th of a second is good mark.

Finally, once the aperture and shutter speed have been set, the ISO is THE ONLY setting that you should need to adjust to get a balance exposure in the photo. Of course, this depends on the lighting around you, but if you find yourself going above ISO 3200 (any higher and the noise of the camera will be very noticeable in the photo), then adjust the aperture (so go from f/13 to f/12 etc).  ISO, shutter speed and aperture are all linked together, so if you are unsure how each setting affects the others, watch some videos on YouTube to gain a better understanding (it’s where I learnt the basics of Manual mode!)

Also, remember to shoot in RAW format, if the camera supports it – this will allow us to edit the photo easily compared to JPEG format.

The scene

Ideally, you want the weather to be calm and not windy! (I’m talking from past experience about being in London on a very windy day trying to capture hand-held motion blur photos…) You want to be as still as possible, so everything is sharp except for the moving object. As I said earlier, street/urban scenes are the best with traffic or people moving around.

Pick a subject; I usually find a person standing at a cross walk works well, given that they’re stationary but with the blur of traffic gives that sense of movement. You can try at train crossings as well, such as in Tokyo – which is where I tried out this technique.

Given you’ve set the aperture somewhere between f/8 and f/13, you’ll want everything to be in focus. This can be achieved by setting your focus point around 1/3 from the bottom of the photo, such as at the edge of a pavement or the bottom of a lamp – most cameras allow you to move the focus point as well; this will allow the whole photo to be sharp from the front (near the camera) to the back (the distance). Ensure you are on single focus mode, and not continuous focusing, as after you have focused you want the focus to be locked and not change when you recompose the scene (if needed). You’ll notice that there are two stops when you press on the shutter button, the first stop is the focus and the second stop takes the photo. To hold that focus, press the shutter button halfway down and the camera will focus where you have set that focus point. You can use back button focusing if you know how to set it up.

If you go out at blue hour with the street lamps turned on, you’ll capture those star bursts that are only seen at small apertures. Just bear in mind that with decreasing light levels, to keep the shutter speed at the right speed at your chosen aperture, adjust the ISO to maintain the balanced exposure. Know what your highest ISO is on your camera, but as a word of caution, crop sensors don’t go any higher than ISO 3200, due to noise being obvious in the photo.

At blue hour, the street lamps are turned on and with a small aperture, you can get the star burst effects from them - a how to guide to capturing motion blur in your photography.
At blue hour, the street lamps are turned on and with a small aperture, you can get the star burst effects from them.

Given how Instagram is famous for its two aspect ratios – 1:1 and 4:5, I always shoot in portrait orientation and I compose the scene so that I have some spare room (or wasted space as I call it) at the top and bottom of the image, so when I crop in 4:5 for Instagram, I’m not destroying the main part of the image that I want. It’s a pain, but we as photographers have to work with what we’ve got! Composing for Instagram is trail and error, so practice it first to get confidence when you crop your images.

Taking that photo

Once you’ve focused, try to keep as still as possible. Try to anticipate when a car, or moving object passes through your frame, then start clicking away and don’t stop clicking until the object is out of frame! But remember to return your finger back to the halfway point on the shutter button to maintain that focus before you take the next snapshot (if you use backbutton focusing, don’t worry about this minor point). I recommend to try this first on your camera to get a sense of how far down you go to take a photo and to return to the halfway point.

I find that once I have my scene composed, I take a deep breathe and then I tuck my arms and elbows in to my body as much as possible to stabilise the camera even further. When I start taking the photos, I exhale out every time I snap. I find doing those two things gives me more stability to stand still. Once I’m out of breath, I have a look at what I’ve captured, I zoom in to 100 % and check if the background is sharp or blurry. Around 90% of the time, the background is blurry, but the 10% are keepers. Be prepared to capture five or six photos and only have one good photo that is in focus and sharp; to me, that is a success!

Editing the photo

Obviously everyone has their own way of editing photos, but I like to add something extra to these motion blur photos. I use an editing technique known as “dodging and burning”. While I use it in portraiture work, it can also be used on landscapes and street/urban photos as well!

I suggest to take a look at Denny’s Tips and YuriFineArt on YouTube about editing, and about using dodging/burning, it is difficult to show examples of this on a website.

In brief, dodging is lightening up the bright areas of the photo with a brush, and I only go up to +0.2 exposure for this, to maintain realism in the photo. Burning is darkening the dark areas of the photo by -0.2 exposure with a brush. I never go more than +/- 0.2 exposure in the editing as the effect needs to be subtle, not obvious. By doing this, it adds more depth to the selected parts of image, rather than making global edits on the whole image.

Sensor dust is a right pain for any photographer, and completely unavoidable when outdoors and changing lenses in the open. At large apertures of f/1.8 to f/8, you won’t really see the “dark spots” (sensor dust) in your photo, unless your sensor is crazily dusty and you have some big pieces of dust, but past f/8 these dark spots will become noticeable and can be easily edited out in post-processing.

Remember, you don’t need Lightroom to edit, there is a free, similar alternative called Darktable which does the exact same as Lightroom, just in a different user interface – see my photography gear article at the bottom about it.

And that is all there is to capturing hand-held motion blur photos! It is very easy to set up, and once you find the settings that suit you on your camera, you can set your camera up before you head outdoors so you don’t waste time and miss that good photo opportunity! I would highly suggest that you try this out and practice getting use to it, it isn’t very intuitive and some people may pick it up quicker than others.

If you find that you want to learn more about another photographic technique, feel free to complete the contact me form and I’ll sort something out!