Shooting motion

‘Without motion life is but a lethargy’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

‘Being is movement.’ Plutarch

We spend our whole life in motion and everything around us is in motion. Rest is a relative term, often the result of an illusion, a mirage depending on the point of view. We think that the stone next to us is still, but it is part of the earth and the Earth goes around the Sun… Movement and change make us feel alive and trigger our emotions and aspirations, feeding our desire for growth. The faster water moves down the stream, the clearer it is. When it stops, it turns into a swamp.

Movement and change have been the subject of philosophical thought since antiquity to this very day, the main problem being that we are tormented by our inability to freeze a moment. ‘Then to the Moment I’d dare say: Stay a while! You are so lovely!’ cried Goethe’s Faust. Or, quoting a Pink Floyd song… ‘Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day Fritter and waste the hours in an offland way’. We have all dreamed of freezing a moment, but unfortunately no one ever has. The only way, perhaps, is to capture an image on the light-sensitive material of our cameras. Capturing moving objects in a static frame is a challenge similar to the one of trying to convey the feeling of three-dimensional space onto the two-dimensional sheet of paper. We must use some form of optical illusion or psychological suggestion. In this chapter we will look into three different methods of shooting motion.

Part one: Shooting motion at low shutter speeds using the panning technique

Camera Sony A99, 24-70/2.8, S1/15, F11, 100ISO. The carriage was moving at a relatively slow speed and although I knew I would not get a second chance, I took a risk and shot at low shutter speed. I managed to take only two shots, but both turned out successful.

When using this popular method, our goal is to achieve a combination of both moving and still static objects within the frame in order to create a sense of motion. The moving object should be sharp and well-defined, while the background should be blurred. In this way the viewer can ‘feel’ the speed because of the resulting powerful illusion of motion. This technique can be used only if the object is moving parallel to the camera. You cannot use this method when the direction of the movement is towards you. It is also a good idea to have a distinct contrasting background filled with different objects – trees, buildings, etc. A blue sky or a solid one-colour wall are not a good background for this type of photography.

To achieve this effect we need to shoot at relatively low shutter speeds – for slow motion (a walking person, a slowly moving bike or car) shutter speed can be set at 1/15 – 1/20 sec. You need to take a stable position and move the camera parallel to the moving object. When using such low shutter speeds, it is important to keep the camera steady in order to avoid vertical shakes; it is also important not to move too quickly or slowly relative to the main object. Otherwise, the whole scene will be blurred and we will lose the contrast between the sharply defined moving object and the background. For higher speeds – a car, a train, etc., shutter speed can also be set higher (shorter exposure time) 1/40 – 1/50 or even at 1/100 sec. You should know that the term ‘shutter speed’ is professional jargon. The correct term would be ‘exposure time’. 1/40 sec is a measure of time. The higher the shutter speed, the shorter the exposure time and a less defined motion as the background will not be as blurred. Low shutter speeds (longer exposure times) enhance this motion effect, but also increase the number of failed shots. Therefore, it is a good idea to take several shots in a series in order to select the best one.

Suitable camera settings: Shutter speed priority mode with auto ISO (S – speed in Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and Sony models, Tv – time value in Canon, Pentax and other models). You select the shutter speed, the camera automatically choses the aperture and the ISO.

Camera Sony A900, 70 -200/2.8, S1/13, F11, 1600ISO. Unlike the predictable forward motion of a car, a bike or another vehicle, shooting ballet using the panning technique is extremely difficult. Motions are fast, often unpredictable and not only along the horizontal line. You need to take dozens of photographs in order to produce 1 or 2 good ones. I personally find that it is worth it because of the strong impressionistic, almost magical feel of the image… In this particular case the background is black, but the two figures behind the main one, moving at a different speed, create some contrast.
     Camera Sony A7Rmk3, 28/2, S1/40, F11, 100ISO. In this photograph the car is moving faster and respectively the shutter speed had to be higher. There is always some risk that the people will be blurred because they move independently from the car itself. Taking a series of photos allows you to select the best shot.
Camera Sony A7mk3, 24-70/2.8, S1/25, F13, 100ISO. Photograph taken from a high viewing point with a motion in a curve. This is a complex situation which requires a lot of precision when guiding the camera. The background is at a distance from the moving car. This means that the angular speed of the camera motion relative to it will be low. When the background is nearer, the effect will be much stronger. In order to convey the feeling of motion more clearly, exposure time should be as long as possible (low shutter speed). In this case 1/25 is a compromise. Any shutter speed higher than that (shorter exposure time) and I will have a sharper car and almost no blurring of the background. Any shutter speed lower than that and the background will be well-blurred by the motion of the camera, but you run the risk of not producing a sharp image of the car without any chance for repeats.
Camera Sony A7mk3, 28/2 , S1/30, F11, 250ISO. The low point of view, combined with the trees at the back, creates an interesting kaleidoscope effect. The orange bus enhances the colour contrast.
Camera Sony A99mk2, 24-70/2.8, S1/30, F5, 100ISO. The cars were moving between two small villages in Austria, the weather was rainy and the fields through which the narrow road was winding did not make for a good background which could enhance the feeling of movement. In order to make this shot I had to go ahead of the column, keep my distance and find a place with buildings in the background which could create some contrast. The reflection on the wet asphalt made the dynamics even more pronounced. The whole scene and the shooting process you can see here from 1:20 to 2:20:
Camera Sony A99mk2, 24-70/2.8, S-1/30sec, F8, 100ISO. In this case we have an interesting combination of blurring in the foreground and in the background. The black and white vision highlights the graphic contrast between the naked trees which seem to be stretching out their branches towards the white car.
Camera Sony A7mk3, 24-70/2.8, S-1/30sec, F5.6, 160ISO. Again motion photography panning a person. Unlike the smooth forward movement of the cars, when people are moving, there is also vertical movement which often leads to failed shots.

The next series of photos was taken during an evening walk in Genoa. Camera Sony A7Rmk3, lens Sony 28/2. Shutter speed priority 1/20-1/30 sec with Auto ISO. My purpose was to recreate the typical Italian atmosphere with the small and fast mopeds whizzing by every second of the day.

The method described above is used for photographing sports competitions, shooting cars in motion, etc. This approach is applicable for objects moving in parallel to create a sense of motion. Here the accent is on the main object which needs to be sharp and clearly defined, evoking both artistic and reportage photography.

Part two: Shooting motion at low shutter speeds and a static camera:

Camera Sony A7 , 16-80/3.5-4.5, S1/10, F9, 400ISO. A typical urban landscape at dusk in the Italian city of Verona In this case it was important for me to emphasise on the atmosphere and on the motion. If I had shot at high speed, I would have lost the sense of motion. The car would look as if it was parked and there would be no way of knowing that it was moving. If I had shot at slow speed with panning, I would have lost the urban environment.

Another way of shooting moving objects at slow shutter speed (long exposure time) is using a camera which is as stationary as possible. In that way you achieve the opposite effect – all still objects are sharply defined while the moving objects are blurred. It is logical – if the camera is still and the exposure time is for example 1/10, 1/5, 1 sec, all moving objects will travel a certain distance over that time and the light which they reflected will produce a blurred contour onto the photo-sensitive material in your camera. In this case, the longer the exposure time and the higher the speed of the object, the less clear and more blurred its photographed image will be. This was in fact the main problem at the dawn of photography nearly 200 years ago. The first photography emulsions had very low sensitivity towards light. For this reason they required very long exposure times, sometimes up to several hours. This made photographing moving objects an impossible task. There was no way you could ‘freeze the moment’ if your exposure time was several minutes or even hours. The streets in the first urban photographs were empty. All moving objects – people, animals, carts, etc. could not reflect enough light to appear on the photo-sensitive plate. Nowadays we have sufficient sensitivity, and shooting at low shutter speeds is a sought-after effect aimed at achieving artistic expression.

With this method of shooting we also use the shutter speed priority mode – S (Tv), selecting the desired speed, while the camera automatically sets the aperture. Unlike panning, though, in this case the camera needs to be static. To make sure it remains stable, it is best to use a tripod. This is absolutely necessary if you shoot at speeds below 1/10 sec or if the camera has no stabilisation system, at speeds below 120 sec with a wide-angle lens. Tripods are the only possibility when using exposure times longer than 1 second. This topic has been discussed in detail in another chapter related to night photography, urban landscapes, etc. Here I will only look at situations where we shoot without a tripod, often in situations and under conditions where you have no time to carry and set up one.

Camera Sony A7mk3, 24-70/2.8, S-1/8 sec, F18, 100ISO. This is a photo taken during a photo shoot. I love shooting in an urban environment. I saw the painted facade of a building and it immediately called to mind the unforgettable novel by Pavel Vezhinov ‘Night with the White Horses’. In my mind I could associate the stunning effect of the surreal white horses floating in the air with only one thing – a dream. And in dreams faces are ever changing and never clear. A slow shutter speed was the only way I could even begin to come close to the powerful message of the book and the nightly visions of the main character.

Probably some of you may ask if it is really necessary to photograph that way, when for such a long time people have been striving to freeze the moment – perfecting photographic emulsions, increasing sensitivity, increasing shutter speed, etc. There is no single answer to that question, but if I am certain about one thing, it is that people will never cease to pursue a different vision, a better way to capture the spirit, inspire the imagination and provoke thoughts on everything left unspoken. The same thing happened to painting when photography was invented. In 1839, when he saw the daguerreotype for the first time, the French artist Paul Delaroche exclaimed ‘A partir d’aujourd’hui la peinture est morte’ (‘From today, painting is dead.’). In reality, this prophecy never came to be, quite the opposite. With photography taking over the task of literally and directly documenting reality, the art of painting was finally free and it saw a true revival after the middle of the 19th century. Modernism appeared in its different forms (abstractionism, expressionism, surrealism, cubism, futurism) which oppose realism and rely on the mysterious, the subtle and the mystic.

At that time, however, photography also started to develop as an art and seek its own means of escape from literalism and reality. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century pictorialism in photography became very popular. The goal was to have greater artistic impact and approximate the modernistic trends in fine arts. Different approaches were used – selective defocus, blurring of the image, using special lenses and even causing deliberate damage to the lenses to achieve an unusual image. Playing with speed, aperture, filters, etc. When copying and developing the film, photographers manipulated the image, changed its tone or added other effects or overlaid different images. Many of these approaches are still being used today in digital photography. In particular, nearly 100 years after the first wave of popularity abated, pictorialism is again gaining popularity, especially in social media..

Camera Sony A7rmk3, 24-70/2.8, S1/10, F4, 100ISO When I shoot at weddings, I always try to create images with a lot of layers to them so that I could convey the spirit of the event as truthfully and as interestingly as possible. When I shot the photograph below, I had been observing the dancers for a long time while the bride and groom were resting at their table. I could see the paintings with the dancing ballerinas behind them and I was wondering how I could create a short story in a single frame, telling all this. I made a few attempts shooting at high speed, took close-ups, experimented with focus on the foreground and on the background, but I did not like the results. Then I decreased the shutter speed and discovered that it was exactly the message I had been going for. While keeping the focus on the bride and groom and their mood, I could at the same time show the happenings around them which corresponded to the interior of the hall
Camera Sony A900, 70-200/2.8 @ 200mm, S-15sec, F9, 200ISO The effect of the low view point and the blur due to the relatively long exposure time emphasise the distance and contrast between the passers-by and the street musician.
Camera Sony A7rmk3, 24-70/2.8, S1/10, F7.1, 100ISO. The combination of moving and still objects which is produced when shooting at low shutter speeds can also be used in portrait photography. In this case the background (the tram) is in motion and the model is still. This creates a stronger accent. ‘Urban portrait’
Camera Nikon D500, 16-85/4, S-1/40sec, F8, 100ISO. The motorboat was moving fast and I wanted this motion to be present in the picture because it brings more emphasis on the mood and emotions of the people. The only way for me to achieve that was shooting at low shutter speed and blurring the water in the background. However, this turned out to be a difficult task, because I myself was not stable and the entire shot ended up blurred. I managed to produce a couple of successful shots only at speeds of 1/40 sec.
Camera Sony A77, 16-80/3.5-4.5, S1/10, F11, 100ISO. A multi-layered street photo where slow shutter speed was used to create contrast and distance between the fast-moving indifferent crowd and the shops offering attractive discounts.

Part three: Shooting motion at high shutter speeds

One of the biggest mistakes which beginners typically make (though sometimes, quite a few advanced photographers do so as well) is selecting the wrong shutter speed for the specific situation. Quite often the objects in the photo end up being blurred and people think that the reason is that ‘the camera failed to focus’. In my experience, this is a mistake that even photographers who shoot commercially make, which should not be the case. In fact, often this unpleasant blurring of the image is due to a combination of low shutter speed, a moving object and an unstable camera.

Camera Nikon D3, 70-300/5.6VR, S-1/640, F5.6, 2500 ISO. I shot with a 300mm telephoto lens from a distance because the car was moving fast towards me. With shutter speeds 1/640sec I could freeze the motion of the car with good quality and the image is not blurred, even when magnified. As you can see, aperture is 5.6, the light reaching the sensor is relatively little and I had to increase sensitivity to 2500 ISO. If I had a lens with aperture 2.8, I could have used sensitivity of around 600 ISO.

Capturing the moment is one of the main goals of any reportage photographer. Freezing a fraction of time as short as 1/1000 sec can be a powerful means of artistic expression. The viewer can see a virtual time dissection of reality which they do not have the chance to see in real life. At the same time, it could also be a manipulation, because out of the entire time line we take only discrete values with low discretization rates, which do not necessarily give an accurate account of what is happening. Recently a client of mine from Austria said “How come I see a lot of happy faces in the photos from the church ceremony, but I don’t in the video?’ I explained to her that as a photographer it is my job to catch even the fleeting smiles on the faces of the people, while as a viewer, it is her job to simply look at the smiling faces for a long time. That is why she may be under the wrong impression that they were smiling the whole time, which is actually simply not the truth. During the ceremony people have generally straight faces and these fleeting smiles are invisible in the video. In order to convey the same emotion, the video camera needs to linger on a smiling face for several seconds as a minimum, while the camera can achieve that in only 1/100 of the second.

‘Capturing the decisive moment’, as defined by Henri Cartier-Bresson, is a term which best summarises the essence of modern reportage photography. Personally, what I have always found challenging in photography is creating a short story in a single frame without any need for further clarifications or explanations. Freezing emotional moments in motion is one of my main shooting techniques to achieve that.

However, not all moving objects can be presented convincingly in this way. If we freeze the motion of a passing car with speeds of 1/1000 sec, the viewer has no way of knowing if it is moving or parked by the pavement, because it is standing firmly on its four wheels. In this case it is better to use the panning technique. The same does not go for motorbikes, because we subconsciously feel the motion because we know that it is impossible for the motorbike to stand still on two wheels.

Camera Nikon D100, 24-120/5.6VR, S-1/250, F5.6, 400 ISO. Shutter speed of 1/250 sec is not enough to freeze the fast motion of the wings of the dove, but it is enough for everything else.

In order to freeze motion with good quality it is necessary to have short exposure times. The shorter the exposure time, the sharper and clearer the image will be. At shutter speeds of 1/50sec, a fast-moving object will travel some distance and when magnified its contours will be blurred. If shutter times are reduced to 1/500 sec, that distance will be 10 times less, i.e. the image will be much sharper and more detailed. Exposure time (shutter speed) depends on several factors:

The intensity of the ambient light. If we have more light, we can afford to let it through the aperture for shorter periods of time in order to produce a correctly exposed image. If the light is not sufficient, we can use an additional source of light or a photographic flash with very short impulse.

The light power of the lens. If a lens has greater light power, it lets more light through and we can afford to use shorter exposure times. The light power of the lens (the so-called aperture) depends on the entrance pupil (directly proportional) and on the focal length of the lens (inversely proportional). This means that a light lens allows you to freeze motion with better quality, especially when the ambient light is not enough.

The sensitivity (ISO) of the camera. In the past photographic materials had very low sensitivity and there was no way motion could be ‘frozen’. Modern cameras have very high sensitivity and allow you to shoot with short exposure times even in poor light.

What settings should we use? We can shoot in all modes provided that the shutter speed is high. Some cameras can set the so-called ‘Minimum shutter speed at automatic ISO’ mode. This is a useful function. We set a minimum value for the shutter speed and the camera software sets the sensitivity based on all the other parameters in order to keep to this lower limit. If you are shooting a sport event, you could set the limit as high as 1/1000 sec, and if you are shooting a portrait – to 1/100 sec. We often use this function in combination with aperture priority ‘A’. Of course, we could use full manual mode ‘M’ or shutter speed priority ‘S’ (Tv) setting exact shutter speed values.

Camera Sony A900, 135/1.8, S-1/400sec, F2.5, 100 ISO. The rain contrasted both visually and symbolically with the emotions of the bride and groom. At lower shutter speeds raindrops would be more visually pronounced as elongated lines but I would risk blurring the figures because of the motion, so I chose 1/400 sec.
Camera Panasonic GH5, S-1/1600sec, F3.2, 200 ISO. The photo is actually a frame from a 4K video. The quality is good enough for WEB and 20x30cm print. Of course, what is particular in this case is that I deliberately shot at high speed with the idea of extracting photos at a later time. If you are shooting a video, the shutter speed should be lower in order to have smooth movements, or the video will be nervous and the movements will be chopped. At low shutter speed, however, individual video frames will be blurred.
Camera Sony A99mk2, 24-70/2.8 , S-1/1250, F2.8, 100 ISO. A moving shadow can be both something unusual and different.
Camera Sony A7mk3, 24-70/2.8, S-1/320 sec, F3.2, 6400 ISO. High shutter speeds allow you to capture the emotions of the moment and the flying pieces of the bread add to the documentary feel of the photograph.
Camera Panasonic GX8, S-1/400sec, F16, 400 ISO. Low viewing point to feel the ‘flight’ of the child, closed aperture to make the sun rays stand out and high shutter speed to freeze the motion.
Camera Sony A7Rmk3, S-1/250sec, F18, 400 ISO. Again a low viewing point and closed aperture to emphasise the sunlight. The shadow completes the composition as a leading line from the bottom right corner to the centre.

In conclusion: Carefully study all settings and opportunities your camera provides. This will help you improvise in complex situations and find the right solution without much thought. Exposure time is an extremely useful instrument and, as the Rolling Stones once said, time can be on your side.

Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation. Henri Cartier-Bresson