Monday, February 22, 2010

Photographing motion with your still camera

Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas“Photographing motion with your still camera” sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it.

Actually photographing motion with a still camera can produce startling photographs showing details you can’t see with your eye, or in a standard speed video. Not only that, you can make a still photograph of motion which can even give you the feel of motion.

You can use your DSLR, SLR, or Point and Shoot camera to either stop motion completely, freeze everything in motion in your photograph, which is the option most travelers take, or you can capture motion itself, by showing a bit of a blur, where you control what’s blurred and how much blur you show.

Travelers often find “motion” photo opportunities during their journeys. This week I will discuss some basic ways to capture motion, and in a later article, discuss more advanced techniques to capture the feel of motion in a still photograph and have some fun and extra creativity while making the photos.

Brown Pelican of Santa Cruz Island, GalapagosMost of the time, photographers are primarily concerned with getting their focus “spot on” and in many cases removing distractions in the photograph, which take away from the main subject. That’s why, when we travel, we’re primarily concerned with setting the aperture for our exposure, rather than the shutter speed, with our ISO or film speed set to reduce noise or grain to the extent possible.

Our “focus” changes when we attempt to capture motion in our photographs. The photographer’s choice of shutter speed is the primary key to controlling the appearance of motion in photographs. The faster the shutter speed, the less motion and the sharper the focus of the subject. The slower the shutter speed, the more blur, showing more motion of the subject.

There may be times when we want to stop all motion in a photograph. Examples are when we want to capture a bird flying across our scene to see it’s detail, or perhaps freeze the ocean.

Galapagos, Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz Island
In the photograph of the Great Frigate on the left, taken from Bachas Beach you can see the details of its wings and body.

Without the Frigate’s motion frozen, you wouldn’t be able to see the details of its feathers, and even frozen, there is no doubt the bird is in flight.

The cliffs of Espanola Island, GalapagosIn the photograph of the blow-hole and surf at the cliffs of Espanola Island in the Galapagos, on the right, without the high shutter, the evidence of the blow-hole would have gone unseen.

Even with the high shutter speed to capture the blow-hole, the feeling of motion in the photograph is unmistakable, but in other situations, that isn’t the case.

Both the photograph of the Great Frigate and the coastline of Espanola island were taken with a shutter speed of 1/640 of a second. Both photographs used an aperture of approximately f/5 and an ISO of 100.

A blurred subject, with the background in focus is one of the two primary approaches for capturing and displaying motion in your still photographs, and in the blur along with exhibiting the feeling of motion, you can also capture some stunning effects and colors.

Cars zipping along the Schuykill Expressway with the Philadelphia Skyline in the backgroundIn the photograph to the left, you can see the skyline of Center-City Philadelphia brightly lighted against the spring sky with a brilliant full moon in the upper left of the photograph.

On the roadway, the Schuykill Expressway (I76) you can clearly see the streaks of white and red from the headlights and taillights of the cars and trucks speeding along. The light streaks clearly impart the feeling of fast motion in the photograph. This kind of night “road” photography is a classic for photographers.

To capture the photograph with little noise, which will generally show itself strongly at higher ISO settings and film speeds in night photographs, I used an ISO of 100. The shutter speed used was 1.1 seconds (aperture f/5.6), much higher than the photos taken in the Galapagos above. The use of a tripod was essential in taking this photograph.

A blurred background with the subject in focus is the second primary approach for capturing and displaying motion in your still photographs, and via this method you can sometimes capture surprises in the blurred background.

Concorde Metro Stop in ParisIn the photograph to the right, the motion of the subway cars at the Concorde Metro stop in Paris is self evident.

The passengers on the station platform were generally standing still waiting for the next train, as this one pulled out, but had they been moving I would have panned my camera to keep them in good focus, while letting the train move past showing its high speed. Panning requires you move your camera with your subject to keep it in focus.

To keep the passengers on the station platform in sharp focus, and permit the train, moving at a good clip, I had to make two decisions. First where to position myself with regard to the train. If I positioned myself more to the side to be closer to a 90º angle to the train it would appear to be moving faster. That would require a higher shutter speed to catch some train detail, and would mean a higher ISO value increasing noise. I positioned myself along the length of the train.

The photograph was make with a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second at f/3.5, and an ISO of 400. I was able to handhold my camera for the photograph by angling my elbows in, and bracing them against my body, while holding the camera tightly to my head, to keep it steady.

It’s not really possible to see in the thumbnail above, but a bonus in the photo was the reflection of some of the passengers standing on the platform showing on the moving train as well as the sign identifying the Concorde station. It can be clearly seen in the 13”x19” print of the photograph hanging in my office.

Go out an try these ideas for yourself. I think you’ll be pleased.


Jim said...

Great article. I'm going to use what I've learned this weekend, weather permitting.

Rachel said...

I went to your galleries to see the Paris Metro photo enlarged. Wow, the detail you got in it was amazing. I love it.

I've got to try this. I've avoided taking photos of moving objects unless I froze them with a very high shutter speed. This is so much better.

Victor said...

Ned, your wildlife photographs are among the best I've ever seen. I look forward to more in the future.

Mark said...

Ned, what lenses were you using to take the flying bird photos in the Galapagos? Did you use a tripod for them?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Mark,

I used an 18mm-200mm and an 80mm-400mm. Both are VR lenses. I generally hand held them both, but sometimes used a monopod.

For motion shots, monopods can work well for panning, plus it travels easily. We had serious luggage and weight limits going to the Galapagos.

Normally, I would use a tripod with a Wimberly Sidekick attached to the ballhead. The Sidekick turns a ballhead into a gimbal action mount which is perfect for birding.

George said...

Thanks Ned. Your article is a great starting point for each of us to experiment taking motion photos.

I fully understand there was no way you could have given us explicit instructions for our exposures. I used your settings to guide me last night, and got some great photos in London.

You're right about practice too. It's the only way to improve our photography skills.


Susan said...

Ned, I'm going to try some city scape photos in the snow tonight, trying to capture the motion of the city in the snow. Wish me luck.

Ned S. Levi said...

Good luck Susan. If you have problems with your exposures, try bracketing over and under.

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