For the Love of Motion Blur

Early on in my career as an adventure photographer, I had a fondness for motion blur imagery. Using slow shutter speeds to show the motion was just part of telling the story and conveying the speed of the athletes I was photographing. I remember my first big commercial assignment with Adobe for the launch of Lightroom (way back in 2006), I went out with Ryon Reed, one of the mountain bikers we were set to work with the next day, and the evening before our shoot we created hundreds of motion blur images just to get something different. It probably looked pretty comical to see me and my assistant chasing after Ryon on his mountain bike but the results were hard to deny (as shown below). Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to incorporate motion blur into my images to enhance the feel and really convey an artistic intent—that intent being some magic mojo that comes out when you add motion blur to an image and it works.

Recently, I have also applied this motion blur technique to photographing landscapes. Below you can see a stand of golden aspens from a spot on the Alamos Vista Trail above Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have long thought blurry tree images were kind of cliché to say the least. In many cases the images just don’t work, but as I have found, if you find the right forest with trees spaced just so and the line of trees all somewhat similar then it can work–and be a very effective and powerful image.

As can be seen below, I have created a wide variety of motion blur images of many different adventure sports, not just mountain biking. Surfing and whitewater kayaking are natural fits for motion blur images though they are also very risky shots as you are likely to come away with hundreds if not thousands of crap images before one just works. You might also entirely miss a key action sequence that could have been ridiculously amazing, but that is part of the fun. Committing the to the idea of a motion blur image is risky, but when it pays off it often results in a much stronger image than a static action shot.

With landscape photography in particular it is exciting to have part of the frame blurred (as in the beach scene below) and part of the frame static (i.e. sharp). This is often done with waterfalls and waves, but in the beach scene below, I wanted to add some mystery to the scene and saw that my tripod was sinking in the sand during long exposures, thus adding a very slight motion blur. I decided to kick the tripod a few times during long exposures and got this image, which has a ghostly array of colors and “smoke” for lack of a better term that really helped propel the image out of the normal.

Motion blur can also be quite effective for portraiture—but as with sports many frames have to be created to get one that works. In the studio image below, I had the subject move while lit by continuous lighting and then froze his motion on one side with a fast flash duration–i.e. a very fast burst of light. This technique creates a mesmerizing image as if a spirit passed through the frame when the shutter was open. It also creates some very interesting lines like some thing out of a sketchbook, which make the viewer take a second look to figure out what is going on.

Taking motion blur to the next level, creating motion blur and then using strobes (or flash) to freeze the motion (but also show how fast they are moving) is a particularly exciting. This technique seems to come and go in popularity but I love it when an art director or a photo editor is willing see this type of work—and allows for the risky nature of creating these types of images. Shown below are some motion blur images of downhill skateboarding created for the FUJIFILM GFX 100S campaign where I was given full creative license to come up with something different and unique.

As for that wall of aspens, I have since gone back to this exact spot as it works better than any other forest I have ever tried, and have created images at different times of the year and with different light as shown below. This winter image may not be quite as magical as the image above created in the fall with gold leaves on the aspens, but it does have some wild shadows on the snow below. I incorporated the sun as well and used it to highlight the wild shadows that appear to be shaking the ground under the trees. The snowy ground also looks as if a wave is breaking through the trees and washing over the ground.

If you haven’t played with motion blur in your images I highly recommend trying it out. These types of images are just fun to try out since the final result will be slightly different every time.

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