Movement photography essentials – camera technique & composition

In movement photography there’s a difference between capturing motion in photography and portraying motion in photos.

The first is camera technique to show movement in a single frame. The other involves composition to create the feeling of movement in a photo, combined with camera technique.

We’ll look at:

  1. How to capture movement photography
  2. Using composition for movement
  3. Three examples of movement photography with detailed explanations

Using composition for movement photography

1. How to capture movement photography

The art of movement photography can be divided into two categories:

  • Implied movement photography
  • Blurred movement photography

freeze motion photography tips

Camera settings to freeze the dancer in mid air: shutter speed 1/1250, aperture F4

Implied movement photography

Also known as freeze motion photography.

We’re used to the concept that photography is a moment in time captured, frozen.

So in a photo of somebody walking, running, jumping etc we recognize that they’re moving, even if they’re frozen still in the shot (on account of photos don’t move). The motion is implied by their body language.

Capturing and freezing the movement in photos involves:

  • Shutter speed
  • Flash

Photographing purely with natural light, if your shutter speed is high enough for the movement, it will be frozen. The faster the movement the faster you need your shutter speed to be to freeze it.

Further reading: Freezing motion with a fast shutter speed

The assumption with flash is often that the more powerful the flash, the better you can freeze motion. But this is not true. To freeze movement in photography with flash, the most important factor is flash duration.

To keep flash duration short, regardless of what flash you use, adjust your ISO. A higher ISO means that the flash won’t have to work so hard to light a scene so the flash duration will be shorter.

freezing action in photography

Camera settings to blur moving fairground ride: shutter speed 1/80, aperture F9

Blurred movement photography

Instead of freezing movement, capturing motion blur is another way to depict motion in photos.

Motion blur can be captured by:

  • Panning
  • Zooming
  • Slow shutter speed

Further reading: 3 creative shutter speed tips that will blow your mind

Panning for movement photography

With panning, the subject is relatively frozen and instead the background is blurred, proving that movement photography isn’t just about paying attention to the subject.

The panning technique is:

  • Small aperture to ensure focus – start at F22 and go wider if you feel you need it
  • Slow shutter speed for movement blur – start at 1/30th and adjust from there
  • Lock your arms against your body and make sure you have a firm stance so that the panning motion is smooth. If panning sideways, twist from the hips.

Further reading: Panning photography – capturing action with motion blur

Zooming for movement photography

For interesting effects with a zoom lens simply turn the lens to zoom while taking the shot.

You need a slow shutter speed for this, somewhere between 1/15th and 2 seconds. Concentrate on a smooth action for the best effect. A tripod is helpful given the slow shutter speed.

Slow shutter speed for movement blur

While shutter speed is relevant in all the examples of movement photography, this way to blur movement is purely about a slow shutter speed.

how to get movement blur in photos

You can achieve some interesting effects by using a shutter speed that records the movement as a blur. How slow depends on the speed of the subject.

For these shots above and below I set my camera up on a tripod and waited for people to walk past. It was winter and overcast, so a slow shutter speed was easily achievable without overexposing the image. The rest was just trial and error.

motion blur in photos from slow shutter speed

Camera settings for both photos: shutter speed 1/20, aperture F14

Direction of movement in photography

Because in Western countries we read from left to right, the standard in photography composition is that horizontal movement in photos should be from left to right.

Of course the world doesn’t just move in one direction, so it’s not a huge disaster if you capture movement from right to left (as you’ll see in some examples further down), but if you can avoid it, then do.

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

Speaking of composition brings me to the other element of movement photography.

2. Movement photography composition

Movement photography isn’t just about capturing movement, it’s also about creating a sense of movement in a photo, a visual flow. This involves composition, not camera technique.

With composition techniques you can bring movement to a photo where there’s no actual movement captured. You can also increase the sense of movement captured with composition.

Implied motion in photos

There’s a greater sense of movement in this dance photo than the one further up the page. Do you know why? Keep reading to find out.

How we direct a viewer around a photo creates the movement.

Just as music speeds up and slows down with faster and slower beats, we can speed up and slow down the rhythm of an image. This changes the feeling of the photo and therefore the viewer’s experience.

The study of movement in composition can be quite complex, so for now we’ll just look at the impact of:

  • Repetition
  • Lines
  • Curves

Repetition creates movement in photos

You know how when you’re looking at a row of identical objects, your eyes move from one to the other and then back again? If you place something completely different in that row, your eyes will go straight there and keep coming back to it. It’s a resting place for your eyes before they dash off to inspect the repeating elements.

We constantly scan the world around us for clues, irregularities, similarities and points of interest. We do the same with photos.

Using repetition to guide the viewer’s eyes, gives them something to do, which creates movement.

Further reading: How to use repetition to make your photos irresistible

composition and movement in photos

Compare this serene photo with the more energetic, yet almost identical, photo below.

How lines affect movement photography

Thick vertical lines draw our eyes upwards, are dependable and create security, while thin vertical lines invoke a sense of fragility.

Horizontal lines that are not on an angle are reassuring and relaxing and draw our eyes horizontally along an image.

How composition affects motion in photos

Diagonal lines are dynamic and create energy and movement. They demand attention and direct our gaze along their length.

dynamic implied movement in photos

Of the three, this is the most dynamic with the greatest sense of movement, because of the diagonal line of the red fabric.

Further reading: 7 types of lines in photography composition and how to use them

Curves in movement photography

Because our eyes follow the flow of a curve around and around, they create movement in photos. But the movement is slower, more meandering than a straight line, especially with an S curve.

Further reading: Curves and S curve photography composition

3. Examples of movement photography

It’s easier to explain composition concepts with examples. Here are three…

motion photography techniques with no movement

Camera settings: shutter speed 1/125, aperture F8

Unlike in the first fairground ride photo, in this photo the ride isn’t moving, but there’s still a sense of movement created with composition. Here’s how:

  • Repeating vertical lines of the thin gold poles. Spaced closely together on the right and spreading further apart as they bend round to left of camera (breaking the left to right rule)
  • Repeating, evenly spaced wider verticals of the white picket fence at the bottom of the photo
  • Repeating shapes of the horses legs to camera left, which also act as leading lines to the model, and 2 horses to camera right.
  • As we’re drawn to eyes, real or artificial, our eyes bounce between the model’s face and the horses behind her.
  • Our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of the photo, which is the white of the model’s shirt.
  • The background is out of focus and a riot of predominantly warm colors (which are more dominant and demanding than cool colors) while the model wears solid colors. So our eyes bounce back and forth.
  • A dynamic pose using an S curve shape created by her arms draws our eyes in and along the frame.

photography composition to create motion in photos

Camera settings: shutter speed 1/500, aperture F8

Here the model is moving slowly away from us, but our eyes are encouraged to move quickly around the image through composition techniques. Here’s how:

  • Repeating diagonal lines of the mountain create energy and point to the model.
  • The vertical lines and repeating pattern of the row of trees in the background also lead us to the model.
  • The model is the lightest part of the image and the repeating, high contrast patterns on her dress demand attention.
  • The model’s shadow, a diagonal line which conveys energy, leads us to the grouping of three cows looking at her, which in turn brings us back to her, then back up to the calf looking back.
  • The bull is placed at the rule of thirds, not the model even though she is the subject, and this placement draws us to the bull. His gaze takes us back to the model and we find ourselves bouncing back and forth, especially as he’s rather big and powerful looking, which is slightly disconcerting once we notice him.

composing for movement in photos

Not all movement photography is busy, sometimes we want to create a gentler movement that comes to a stop, as in this photo. Here’s how:

  • The out of focus repeating pillars in the background lead to the model, dressed in red, which is a dominant, attention demanding color.
  • The dynamic diagonal line of her hand leading from the corner draws us to her face.
  • She is placed in a block of solid white, the lightest part of the image and therefore demanding of our attention.
  • Her downward gaze then draws our attention down to the blank white of the pillar that she’s leaning against.
  • Her gaze is pensive and this solid block of white is a resting place for our eyes.
  • This movement up her arm and following her gaze creates an implied triangle, echoing her outline. The triangle is dynamic, but also reassuring and restful as it is upright, as are the solid, dependable, wide verticals of the pillars.

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