A street photo can have a lovely sharp look, where everything is in focus and frozen in time, but is can also be an imperfect image, a shaky photo that is made in such a way though that radiates dynamism and motion. Most of us just set our camera’s to A or P mode and let the camera do all the shutter speed calculations. Unless the lighting is bad, this will usually get us some pretty sharp images. There are other times when we like setting our camera to S mode and adjusting our shutter speed the maximum possible speed, so everything is perfectly frozen at the click of our shutter button. I do all the above 95% of the times I am out shooting, because I feel that if my photographs are crisp, they are somehow better. Most of the times, this is true, but there are times when I do not do anything of the above and I decide to have some fun with my camera in S or M mode by setting my shutter to slower speeds. By doing this, I can become creative with blur, motion blur!
Types of Motion Blur in Street Photography
I can think of 3 types of Motion blur in Street Photography. I am not referring to blur in general, but specifically Motion blur. In this post we will not talk about lens blur or zoom blur. Those are other techniques that don’t produce a sense of speed. Ok, maybe zoom blur does, but not in the way we want, because in zoom blur it is the focal length that changes, not the subjects in the photo or the position of the camera. We will discuss only blur types that can help give your photos movement.
The first type of Motion blur we will touch upon focuses on backgrounds and the other type focuses on the subjects, the people, etc. The last type of blurry motion that we will talk about is achieved using the Rear Curtain Sync and your Flash. So, these are the 3 most common types of Motion blur used in Street Photography. Please continue to find out how to achieve them.
Motion blurry subject with focused background
This type of Motion blur can be achieved fairly easily as long as you have a steady hand or a lens that has Optical Steady Shot technology. Actually this is a Sony term, other camera makers call it other names, for example Nikon calls it VR. Whatever the name of the technology, it will help you take steadier photographs.
When you want to make a photograph with a focused background but with blurry moving subjects, you need to set your shutter speed to a low speed, something like 1/10 of a second, set your ISO to a low number, e.g. 100, if there is daylight and focus on the background you are interested in. Let your camera choose your Aperture or if you feel like being creative, do some tests in Manual mode with different Aperture values to see what happens. Once you are setup all you have to do is to wait for someone to walk into your frame and that is when you then take the shot. Before you press the shutter button, take a deep breath and stay completely still. At that shutter speed, even with OSS technology you might get a blurry background. If you are not comfortable with holding your camera, put it on a ledge, or anything that is steady and press the shutter button while your camera sits motionless. The moving subjects will show up all blurry and your background, if done properly will be sharp, giving the feeling that something ethereal, something ghostly is moving in the photo. You will have achieved “Motion blurry subject with focused background”.
Motion blurry background with focused subject (Panning)
This type of Motion blur is more difficult as far as I am concerned because it needs good reflexes and a sharp eye. That means that it is more demanding but the results are lovely if done properly. So, if you are going to try this type of Motion blur, make sure you have set everything right, you will not get a second chance to shoot your subject.
When you want to make a photograph with a focused subject but with a blurry background, you need to set your shutter speed to a low speed, something around 1/20 of a second. You don’t want to make the speed to slow, otherwise nothing will appear on your photo, just a smudge. So, something between 1/15 and 1/50 should work great. Let your camera set your Aperture priority.
In order to get a blurred background image, you need to find a subject that is moving. Not just walking, something faster, maybe driving at a slow speed or riding a bicycle, something like that. If you want to shoot walkers, try shooting them while you are walking in the opposite direction at a slow pace. That will make the “impact” speed higher. To make your photo achieve the level of motion blur that expresses speed, you need to follow your subject with your lens at the same speed. This means that you must try and keep your subject always in the same exact spot in your viewfinder while it is moving. Then, at any time you choose to snap your shot, your camera will freeze the subject, as if it isn’t moving and the background which actually isn’t moving will appear as if it is. The reason is that you are moving your camera with the subject. This produces some really nice results!
Motion Blur with Rear Curtain sync Flash
When you are in the streets at dusk or at night and you want to use Flash to add some light to your photos, you can do so in a creative way. Instead of freezing your photos, you can use Rear Curtain sync Flash to make blurry images with plenty of motion. If you camera has this option you will be in luck. Otherwise it should have a general slow sync flash option that should work for what you want, especially if there is available ambient light in the environment you are shooting. If it is pitch black, you will need the Rear Curtain sync option. Let me explain what all this curtain stuff and syncing is all about. There are 2 types of Slow Sync Flash.
Front Curtain sync Flash
The first option which is the default and most common in all modern compact cameras and above is the Front Curtain sync option. If your camera has this option only, it usually just calls it Slow Sync Flash and that’s it. So, what does Front Curtain sync do? It tells the camera to flash first and expose afterwards. So, if you are shooting a moving subject with this option turned on, you will get a blur and a sharp image overlapped. If the motion is too fast, you will get zip. This option usually works when there is some available light or if you have pumped up your ISO to 800 or 1600 for example so your camera can expose fast before your subject get’s out of your frame. In dark situations your camera will never expose on time. Oh, make sure you use a narrow A value when you do this or you will burn your shots.
Rear Curtain sync Flash
The other Slow Sync Flash option is to tell your camera to use Rear Curtain sync. Unfortunately this option isn’t available in all cameras. What does it do? Well, it does the opposite of the Front Curtain sync option. So, what does Rear Curtain sync do? It tells your camera to expose your shot and once it has exposed it to fire the flash. This is a very good option for Flash Street Photography with a dramatic blurry effect. I only recently tried this technique out and I got some interesting results. By telling the camera to expose first and Flash later, you get your subject nice and sharp and the background goes all blurry. I really like the dramatic effect this can produce. When using Rear Curtain sync, depending on your camera and sensor size of course use similar to the following settings. Switch to Manual mode or Aperture mode. Use an f stop of 11 to get a narrow dof, turn off your Auto Focus and go fully manual, switch on your flash, activate Rear curtain flash sync, and set your ISO to 800. I know what you are thinking. You are wondering why switch of the AF. In low light conditions, AF is slow, so slow that most of the times it just doesn’t focus. Especially if you are not using a DSLR. You will find yourself clicking the shutter button and nothing happening. So, go to a place where there is enough light, extend your arm, pre focus on your hand and shoot anyone at an arms distance! Done! Also, by using MF your shooting is fast. Blazing fast. No waiting to focus. You hit the shutter button and bam!
Please note that when hitting the streets with a flash you will need a wide angle lens. Anything wider than 35mm full frame equivalent will be great. Anything above that is very difficult to master. You want the narrowest possible DOF to get sharp images with your Manual Pre Focusing.
Motion blur adds an element to Street Photography that makes it come to life. Movement. Or should I say the feeling of movement. It helps us tell a story through our photos. Give it a go. Start off with the first type of Motion Blur which I think is the easiest, then once you have mastered that, hit the streets trying to achieve cool motion blur effects using the second type of Motion Blur. Finally, once you have mastered the first two types and you have worked up some courage, pop out your flash or stick it on your camera, depending on what you use and start creating some awesome photos with Rear Curtain sync! Enjoy!
Quick Motion Blur reference table
One more thing for you all. Please check out this quick reference that will help you with your Motion Blur practices while doing Street Photography!
Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!