‘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
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.
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:
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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