What Is Motion Blur in Photography and How to Capture It

Have you ever wondered how you can add a sense of motion to a still photo? Motion blur is your answer.

You can create a sense of movement and bring your images to life using motion blur.

Join us as we uncover what it is, how to capture it, and when to use it.

What is Motion Blur in Photography?

Motion blur is the streaking effect recorded when your subject, or your camera, moves during an exposure. Not to be confused with camera shake, motion blur is a photographic technique used to portray a sense of movement or speed.

Colorful, spinning amusement park rides photographed with motion bur
Motion blur has been used here to capture these amusement park rides. Photo by Jason Chen

Camera shake, on the other hand, is the unintentional blurring of an image when a photographer accidentally moves the camera while taking a photograph.

How to Capture Motion Blur

Capturing motion blur is a relatively easy technique to master once you have the basics down.

The following steps will help you on your way to motion blur mastery.

1. Decrease Your Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the most critical factor to consider when capturing motion blur. A shutter is the curtain in front of the camera sensor that opens to let light in when you take a shot. A fast shutter speed will freeze motion, while a slower shutter speed will cause your subject to blur.

A diagram showing how camera shutter speed affect the subject of a photo
The more you increase your shutter speed (left to right), the more motion blur you will get.

Which Shutter Speed Will Blur Motion?

There is no perfect answer to this question. It all depends on the speed of your subject. The slower your subject is moving, the slower your shutter speed will need to be.

You can use this table as a rough guide.

SubjectShutter Speed (s)
A person walking 1/60 or slower
A moving car 1/125 depending on its speed
Light trails and light painting 10 seconds and longer
Waterfalls 1/6 down to 30 seconds
The movements of a group of dancers onstage are emphasized with motion blur
Dancers perform onstage at the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival in France. Photo by Ahmad Odeh.

Bear in mind that as you decrease your shutter speed, more light will reach your camera’s sensor. This can result in overexposed photos (too much light has reached the sensor). Your picture will look washed out and will lose detail. To compensate for this you will need to adjust either the aperture, ISO, or use filters.

2. Use a Smaller Aperture

A photo of a camera lens showing a small aperture
Use a smaller aperture (higher f-stop number) to let less light into your camera lens.

An aperture is the adjustable opening in your lens that lets light into your camera. The wider the opening, the more light reaches your camera’s sensor.

Aperture is measured in f-stops. A high f-stop number (f22) indicates a very narrow opening, whereas a low f-stop number (f2.8) indicates a very wide opening. It seems counter-intuitive, but you’ll get used to it.

A diagram showing how wide each aperture f-stop opening looks
The smaller the f-stop number, the bigger your aperture (left to right).

So, if your image is overexposed (too much light) as a result of using slower shutter speed to achieve motion blur, you can reduce exposure by increasing your f-stop number.

3. Use the Shutter Priority Mode

If you’re not comfortable shooting in manual mode and making the adjustments yourself, use shutter priority mode.

The advantage of using shutter priority mode for taking motion blur photos is that you control the shutter speed (the most important setting when it comes to motion blur). Your camera will select the rest, giving you a perfect exposure and more freedom to focus on getting the perfect shot.

A Nikon camera dial from above set to shutter priority mode
Set your camera’s mode to shutter priority mode if you’re not comfortable in manual mode.

4. Reduce Your ISO Setting

ISO represents how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. It can range from ISO 50, up to 204800 in some newer camera models. The higher the number, the more sensitive to light your sensor will be.

For capturing motion blur, you’re going to want quite a low ISO, since your shutter speed is going to be low. If your ISO is too high you will get overexposed pictures. If you’re shooting during the day in sunlight, ISO 100 should do the trick.

Man sits on top of a bamboo train while he hurtles down tracks as the scenery around him shoots past as a green motion blur
I used a low ISO to get this shot. My settings were f22, 1/25, ISO 100.

5. Use Neutral-Density Filters to Create Motion Blur

Neutral-Density (ND) filters are like sunglasses for your camera lens. They block the amount of light entering your camera and allow you to take longer exposures.

ND filters are your friends if you want to capture motion blur with long exposures during the day. Without an ND filter, the following photo would be overexposed at such a slow shutter speed.

A cascading waterfall photographed using a slow shutter speed and Neutral Density filter, to create motion blur in the water
I used an ND filter to capture this waterfall in Laos. I used a shutter speed of 13 seconds, at f22, ISO100.

6. Stabilize Your Camera

Unless you’re panning–-a technique we will get to shortly–-stabilizing your camera is a must. Failing to do this will result in undesirable camera shake.

I suggest using a tripod for shutter speeds below 1/60. The general rule is to use a tripod when your shutter speed is less than the reciprocal of your focal length.

Related Article: Best iPhone Tripods

That means if your focal length is 100mm, your shutter speed for handheld shots shouldn’t be less than 1/100, and if your focal length is 50mm, your minimum shutter speed for a handheld shouldn’t be less than 1/50.

Motion blur light trails along a street frame a golden temple in Bangkok
I had to use a tripod for this shot as I took it at a shutter speed of 10 seconds.

Secure your camera on a tripod or rest it on a stable surface. Use a time delay or remote trigger to completely remove the risk of any shake.

Use Panning to Create a Sense of Motion

A panning shot to create motion blur around a cyclist racing down a road
The speed of the cyclist is emphasized by the blurred background. Photo by Jacek Dylag.

Panning is when you move your camera along with your subject’s plane of motion as you take the shot.

If done correctly, your subject will be in focus and the background will be blurred. This is a really useful technique if you want to create a sense that your subject is moving quickly.

Related Article: Photography Panning Tips

1. Get into the Right Position to Pan

First, your subject should be moving (obviously). For best results, position yourself so that your subject is moving at a right angle to you.

An F1 Ferrari speeds across a race track with motion blur in the background
Because the car was traveling at a right angle to the photographer, it’s almost perfectly in focus. If it was traveling at more or less of an angle, only part of it would be in focus.

2. Choose Your Panning Shutter Speed

The shutter speed you use depends on the speed of your subject and the amount of blur you want in your photo.

The slower your subject is moving, the slower your shutter speed will need to be. Bear in mind that slower shutter speeds will produce more blur than faster ones.

3. Take Panning Shots in Continuous Autofocus Mode

I recommend having your camera in continuous autofocus mode. Track your subject along its plane of movement with focus locked on.

To do this you need to swing your camera from one side to the other while you match your subject’s speed. Try to keep your camera as steady as possible and avoid any vertical movement.

When your subject is in the desired position in the frame, take the shot and follow through with the panning motion.

This technique will take a bit of practice but the results are highly satisfying once you master it.

A skateboarder skating by pedestrians who have been blurred by the panning technique
Panning will take practice, but the results are great when you master it. Photo by Alex Wong.

How to Remove Unwanted Motion Blur

If you’re finding your subjects are blurred and that’s not your aim, it’s probably because your shutter speed is too slow.

Simply increase your shutter speed and adjust your aperture and/or your ISO to get the right exposure so your pictures are nice and sharp.

A boy looks out the window of a tourist train on Nanjing road in Shanghai
My first attempt at this shot was blurred because my shutter speed was too slow for the moving train. I increased it to 1/200 to freeze the motion.

When Best to Use Motion Blur

There is a time and a place to utilize motion blur to maximum effect. Here are our recommendations for great scenarios for motion blur.

Street Photography

A hazy figure under an umbrella makes her way down a street which has been blurred with motion blur
The photographer used panning and a really slow shutter speed (1/8) to create this abstract look. Photo by Jose Vazquez.

I love street photography because there are no rules. Experiment and be creative.

For example, you can use motion blur to add an abstract touch to your photo or use it to blur pedestrians on a busy street to emphasize the hustle and bustle. Let your imagination run free.

Waterfalls, Streams, and Bodies of Water

A silky stream flows between rocks
This stream wasn’t flowing very quickly, so I used a shutter speed of 2 seconds to blur the water. Had it been moving a quicker, a slightly faster speed would have achieved similar results.

If you want flowing water to have that misty look, start with a shutter speed of about 1/6.

If you want to completely smooth out water on an image, you’ll have to set your speed much slower. The slower you go, the more pronounced the effect will be.

Sporting Events

Olympic athlete Gracie Gold ice-skates during the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships
Olympian Gracie Gold skates during the 2016 U.S. National
Figure Skating Championship. Photo by Emmanuel Canaan.

Panning is usually the preferred technique when shooting sport and athletes: the subject is in focus and you still get that sense of speed from the blurred background.

Light Trails

Light trails from traffic underline the head of the dragon on Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam
This photo is a composite of 3 shots I took and later blended in Photoshop.

My starting point for light trails is 10 seconds. The slower your shutter speed, the longer your trails will be, and the more trails you’ll have in the frame, depending on traffic.

Be careful not to overexpose though. If you want loads of trails but you find that requires too long of an exposure, you can take two or three shots with a shorter exposure and combine them later in Photoshop.

Light Painting

Steel wool set alight and spun around on a wire, creating arcs of light during a long exposure
Steel wool was set alight and spun around to create this amazing effect. Photo by Joao Marques.

Painting with light is when you use a light source to ‘paint’ patterns or colors within the frame during a long exposure.

Camera settings for painting with light are much the same as those for light trails.

Star Trails and Astrophotography

Earth's rotation is visualized in circular star trails in the night sky
I took multiple images of this shot, each with a shutter speed of 20 seconds, and combined them later in Photoshop.

As the earth rotates on its axis, the stars appear to move across the sky. You can capture this motion with very slow shutter speeds.

Star trails will start to become visible after an exposure of about 20 seconds. These won’t be very long trails though. You could decrease your shutter speed to a few minutes, although this will produce a very noisy image.

The best way to get long star trails is to take multiple shots, each with an exposure of 20-30 seconds, and combine them later in Photoshop.

Capture Clouds Moving

Clouds streak across the sky above the Arc de Triomphe
Clouds add a sense of movement to this shot of The Arc de Triomphe. Photo by Guillaume Chanson.

Capturing clouds with slow shutter speeds can add movement to otherwise static environments.

This can be used to great effect in shots of architecture and landscapes.

Photograph Anything That Moves

A skateboarder's surroundings blur as he cruises down a hill at speed
A skater bombs a hill at high speed. Photo by Jonas Nefzger.

If it moves, you can capture motion blur in your image. Use your imagination, get creative and experiment.

Get out There and Shoot Motion Blur

Now that you’re armed with everything you need to know about capturing motion blur, there’s nothing stopping you.

Get out and capture silky waterfalls, speeding race cars, star trails, or beams of light on a busy street at night.

Post your results on PhotoBlog.com. I look forward to seeing them!

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About the author

Tye V

I'm a photographer and teacher based in Shanghai. I mainly shoot street, travel and portraits on a camera I'm constantly in two minds about upgrading.

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