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You can use a couple of ways to freeze motion in photography. Many will say that you need flash to freeze motion. If it’s really, really fast, yes you’ll need to use flash, but there’s a lot of movement that can be frozen without having to use 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? Let’s find out…

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

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.

Photography dogs with high shutter sped

This was taken 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.

Further reading: Panning photography – capturing action with motion blur

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.

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.

How to take sharp photos of moving subjects

Taken an hour before sunset. Camera settings: 1/1250, f4, ISO 100 and focal length was 44mm

Focal length of lens

This leads to focal length, because 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. As a result, freezing motion with longer focal lengths is not as easy as with shorter focal lengths.

Further reading: What is focal length and how to use it in photography

Fast shutter speed settings for moving subjects

If you’re wondering what is a fast shutter speed, as you can see, your shutter speed will depend 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.

Aperture settings for motion photography

The fastest shutter speed on most cameras is about 1/8000th, which is really fast. So you can imagine that if a shutter is going to open and shut that quickly, there needs to a lot of light for an image to be captured at the maximum shutter speed. If not, your image will be underexposed at best, or at worst, you’ll just have a completely black image.

The most obvious fix 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. If a subject is moving, you need to bear depth of field in mind. If they’re moving fast, there’s an even greater risk that they’ll be blurry as they might move beyond the focal plane of your focus during the shot.

With a very wide aperture, you again need to assess the 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.

Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

Composition when there’s movement in a photo

Speaking of movement across the frame, from a composition point of view, it’s considered better if the motion is from left to right of frame, rather than from right to left of frame.

This of course is in an ideal situation 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 make movement from left to right in direction.

Further reading: Does the left to right rule really matter in photography composition?

How to use focus when freezing motion

While this doesn’t have anything to do with using a high shutter speed to freeze motion, I can’t not talk about the best way to use focus when capturing movement. So here are a few pointers…

How to focus and freeze motion

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.

1. Back button focus to capture motion

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

If a subject is moving, you need to be able 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 of a chance there is of it being in focus without back button focus.

The point of back button focus is to be able 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).

Further reading: Back button focus – how to use it and why it’s your BFF

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…

Fast shutter speeds for family photography

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, rather than single. You then have a choice of:

  • continuous high
  • or continuous low

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

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

Further reading: 3 creative photography tricks using continuous shooting mode

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 will affect your choice.

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

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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Freezing motion with a fast shutter speed
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