A photograph only shows a single moment, so if you want to capture a good image of a moving subject and have it look like it’s actually in motion, you need to put a bit of thought into things. Let’s look at how to capture movement in your photos.

There are two main problems you’re likely find when you’re taking photos of moving subjects. The first issue you’ll run into is when your shutter speed is too slow and the subject looks blurry—like in the portrait below that I took of a guy dancing on a steamship in New Orleans. It’s just unusable.

The second problem is when your shutter speed is too fast. Look at this photo by JP Valery I got from Unsplash. It’s a technically perfect image, but because the shutter speed is 1/1600th of a second, it’s impossible to tell that the Formula One car is moving incredibly fast. It’s not a bad photo, but you can’t feel the movement.

So, let’s explore how to avoid falling into either of these traps. I’m going to assume you have a pretty good grasp of what shutter speed is and how to control it on your camera. If you don’t, check out our guides to your camera’s most important settings and how to use manual shooting modes before continuing.

Freeze the Action (But Show It In Other Ways)

The first option is to crank your shutter speed up high and freeze the action. I know I just pointed out that this can be a problem, but the trick is to find other ways to show motion. Take this image I shot of my friend Will jumping off a rail. See how the trailing snow gives a sense of motion?

It’s the same with this similar image. We strapped a smoke bomb to the back of Will’s skis and you can see the path he’s taking through the air.

And this tip doesn’t just apply to skiers. It works for everything from sports to wildlife. Here’s a shot I took at a mixed ability rugby game. The action is frozen but you get a real sense of motion from how one player is handing off the guy going to tackle him.

The takeaway here is that if you’re going to go with the simplest option and just use a fast shutter speed, then you need to think about how else you’re going to show that something dramatic is happening. Some things you can consider are:

  • Really dynamic body positions.
  • Visible signs of exertion like sweat or ridiculous facial expressions.
  • Trailing clothes.
  • Stuff where it doesn’t belong, like a skier or a motorbike upside down in midair.

Blur the Stuff That Moves

The second option is to go the completely opposite direction, and use a slow shutter speed that lets all movement blur. This technique is normally used by landscape photographers, but you can use it for other stuff, too.

Look at the waves in this photo I took near where I live in Ireland. I used a shutter speed of 30 seconds to turn the waves from sharp peaks into a smooth, white foam. You still get a sense of motion, but it’s motion over time rather than action in a split second.

I did the exact same thing with this shot of the Santa Monica pier. There are actually two moving elements in this image: the sea and the people on the pier. Both are reduced to blurry motion trails that contrast with the immobile pier.

If you’re going to use a long shutter speed to blur motion, then you also need something static in the image to balance it, which is why it’s a technique normally used by landscape photographers. It’s very rare that a photo that’s all blur looks good. You will also need a stable tripod so your camera doesn’t shake.

Freeze the Action and Blur the Rest

The final option is to combine the two approaches. Freeze some elements of the image but keep your shutter speed slow enough that some things blur. Take this image from Unsplash by a photographer called Chuttersnap. The car is sharp but, because they used a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, the wheels and the background are blurred.

This is the hardest way to capture motion but the resulting pictures are often the best. There are a few things you need to bear in mind.

  • Choose your shutter speed carefully and set it manually. The shutter speed required to freeze a Formula One car is a lot faster than to freeze a human.
  • You need to track the subject with your camera as it moves. For this reason, it’s best to be side on to whatever you want to photograph.
  • Keep tracking the subject after you press the shutter button; if you don’t, it will move out of frame and you’ll end up with a totally blurry photo.
  • Put your camera in burst mode and keep shooting for as long as you can. You only need one good image.
  • Similarly, if your first attempt is unsuccessful try again. It normally takes a bit of trial and error to dial in the right shutter speed and panning speed.

If you pull it off, you’ll end up with an image where the subject remains sharp but the background and some fast moving elements get blurred. If you don’t, just try again or use one of the other methods.

One of the biggest challenges in photography is how to show action in still images. Now you should have a better idea how to approach it.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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