Freezing movement in photos with a fast shutter speed (& other tips)

You can use a couple of ways to freeze motion in photography. Many will say that you need flash to freeze motion. If capturing really, really fast motion, you’ll need to use flash, but often movement can be frozen without flash, just a fast shutter speed.

So how fast does your shutter speed need to be and what other factors are important in freezing motion when using natural light only? 

To freeze motion in photos you need to consider:

  • Direction of moving subject
  • Distance between you and the subject
  • Focal length of lens
  • Speed of moving subject
  • Aperture settings for motion photography
  • Focus settings for capturing movement

Let’s take a closer look…

Shutter speed settings for running subject

1. Direction of moving subject

If a subject is moving towards you, you have much greater leeway to freeze motion than if they’re moving sideways across the frame.

It’s just like when you’re watching a motor race. You can follow the movement of the cars easily when they’re coming down the stretch towards you.

However, when they go shooting past, you have to whip your head around to follow the car.

Fast shutter speed for running dog portrait
This photo was 2 hours before sunset. The light wasn’t as bright as earlier in the day and it was slightly overcast. Plus this dog was young, fast and excited to be called by his owner who was next to me. And he was running downhill. Camera settings: 1/800, f4.5, ISO 640 at a focal length of 200mm.

If the movement is from side to side across the frame, you could also try panning while the shutter is open. When you do this, the subject will be sharp, but the background will be blurred by the movement of the camera. In this instance, you want to include blur, so the shutter speed doesn’t need to be high.

If you don’t want any blur in the image and your subject is moving from one side of the frame to the next, you can still pan your camera to follow their movement and ensure they’re framed as you would like and are in focus.

The difference here is that at the moment you push the shutter, you want to freeze motion, so your shutter speed must be high.

More on the how fast your shutter speed needs to be later.

2. Distance between you and the subject

The further you are from your subject, the less of a difference their movement makes in the frame. It takes up less of the frame, so the movement in the frame is smaller. Therefore your shutter speed doesn’t have to be as high as when the movement is close by.

Going back to the motor racing scenario, if you’re watching cars on the other side of the track, it’s easier to follow their movement than when they come speeding past right in front of you.

Leaping dancer frozen with high shutter speed
Taken an hour before sunset. Camera settings: 1/1250, f4, ISO 100 and focal length was 44mm

3. Focal length of lens

The lens focal length you use to capture a moving subject has a big impact on freezing motion. Freezing motion with longer focal lengths isn’t as easy as with shorter focal lengths.

If something is far away and you use a longer focal length to make them bigger in the frame, their movement will be exaggerated as well. 

4. Fast shutter speed settings for moving subjects

If you’re wondering what is a fast shutter speed, your shutter speed depends on several factors, as well as how fast your subject is going.

So a fast shutter speed means different things for different scenarios. What’s considered a fast shutter speed for a child playing is much slower than a fast shutter speed for photographing high board divers. In fact, it would be considered slow.

Here are a few fast shutter speed examples to use as a starting point for freezing motion:

Shutter speeds to freeze motion for sports

Using a high shutter speed means that you might have to open the aperture wide to make up for the short time that the shutter is open, but it’s not that simple.

5. Aperture settings for motion photography

The maximum shutter speed on most cameras is about 1/8000th, which is really fast. When the shutter opens and shuts that quickly, you need a lot of light for a well exposed image. If not, your image will be underexposed at best, or at worst, you’ll have a completely black image.

The most obvious solution for very short exposure time durations is to widen the aperture as much as possible to let in as much light as possible.

The problem with this, however, is that the wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field. With fast moving subjects, you need to be aware of your depth of field. If they’re moving fast, there’s a greater risk that they’ll be blurry with a narrow depth of field as they might move beyond the focal plane of your focus during the shot.

When using a very wide aperture, you need to assess the subject’s direction of movement. If the subject is moving:

  • Towards or away from you, use a narrower aperture
  • From left to right (or right to left), you can use a wider aperture

Instead, you might need to increase the ISO, rather than widening the aperture, for a brighter exposure when using a high shutter speed.

Moving motorcyclist frozen with fast shutter speed

Composition for movement in a photo

Speaking of movement across the frame, it’s considered good composition if the motion goes from left to right of frame, rather than from right to left of frame.

This of course is in an ideal situation However, you can’t always be in the right place to capture motion going from left to right. If you can do something about it though, rather capture direction of movement from left to right.

Prefocussed dance images to freeze movement in photos
Camera settings: 1/1000, f3.2, ISO 100 at a focal length of 48mm. I focused for the first photo using back button focus, then took the remaining photos without focusing again as she made sure she jumped on the same spot each time.

How to use focus for freezing motion

While focus doesn’t have anything to do with using a high shutter speed to freeze motion, for sharp photos you need to consider focus settings. So I can’t not talk about the best camera settings for focusing to capture movement.

1. Back button focus to capture motion

My top tip for sharp focus is to use back button focus for freezing moving subjects in photos.

If a subject is moving, you need to focus on them continuously before pressing the shutter button to capture the movement. Without back button focus, you’re asking your camera to lock focus far too quickly and there’s a good chance it won’t work. The faster your subject moves, the less chance there is that they’ll be in focus without using the back button focus technique.

The point of back button focus is to track your subject’s movement, so it makes sense that the AF focus mode should be set to continuous (AI servo), rather than single servo (One Shot).

The other advantage of back button focus is that you can use it to prefocus on a particular spot (like in the series of images above).

If the subject stays on the same focal plane, because the focusing function is separated from the shutter button, you can use back button focus to focus on the subject while still. Then release the back button focus button and simply use the shutter button during the motion to capture images.

Which brings me to my next focus point…

Prefocus for fast movement in photos
Camera settings: 1/1000, f5.6, ISO 200 at a focal length of 48mm. I prefocused before the dad through his child in the air – they warned me they liked to go high.

2. Drive mode settings for motion photography

When photographing movement, set your drive mode to continuous for shooting in burst mode, rather than single. You then have a choice of:

  • continuous high
  • or continuous low

For very fast movement use continuous high drive mode, so that you can fire off more frames per second to capture the exact right moment.

The number of frames per second you can capture depends on your camera.

3. Focus area for motion photography

The last focus tip for capturing movement is to do with autofocus area.

Use dynamic autofocus (Nikon) or AF point expansion (Canon) and set the number of focus points to 9 or 21. This way you can focus on a particular area with one of the focus points and if when the subject moves you miss slightly, the focus will refer to the other 9 or 21 points to ensure that the area you want in focus is locked in.

Don’t be tempted to use more focus points than you need as it can slightly slow down the focusing and the camera might choose the wrong focus point. If you can’t use single point autofocus, then go for the next closest choice of 9. If that doesn’t work, use 21.

The size of your subject in frame affects your choice of focus area.

Extra movement photography techniques

Movement in photography involves more than just freezing a subject’s motion. Exaggerating the feeling of movement in photos, even if it’s frozen motion, creates a more dynamic image.

You might find this article on techniques for photographing movement interesting.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about fast shutter speeds to freeze motion, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my freezing motion tips have helped you to understand how to freeze motion in photos, share that too.

4 thoughts on “Freezing movement in photos with a fast shutter speed (& other tips)”

  1. As usual, clear, easy to understand and applied. Thank you Jane. You have helped me immensely in my photography.

  2. Hi, Jane
    Stepping outside my comfort zone of taking ‘still’ shots, I’ve recently been practising at our local lake where professional and student Wake boarders flock to. However, apart the odd one or two shots that I was happy with, I was unable to work out why I was ‘missing’ the boarders in shot. Although, I was getting some great ‘water trails’ as a consolation prize! I was happy with my settings – thanks to the above tutorial – and, then, by chance I also went to your BBF tutorial and Voila! The solution was there – switch the camera from Shutter Focus to Release! Which, all makes complete sense now …… So, once again, for all your hard work in producing these tutorials for us!

    • Hi Jan
      That is a bit different from your usual photography – awesome that you stretched yourself! Plus, fantastic to hear that you looked up a solution on The Lens Lounge…and found it! Made my day, thank you!


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