Blurring and Freezing Subjects

Our free online photography course originally ended with the previous lesson on Trial and Error. After photographing about 30 of the United States National Parks, I decided to add a few more lessons. The remainder of these lessons will be more like tips and techniques. The lessons won’t be long but they will contain valuable information that I just had to share.

Someone once told me that you’re ‘there’ as a photographer when you can blur water. Some people absolutely hate pictures of waterfalls with blurry water. One photography expert recently said that blurred waterfalls have been overdone. Whatever your opinion might be, if you don’t plan on taking pictures of water falling freely from its source or capturing a race car at 180 mph, then you might want to skip to the bottom of this page and click forward to the next lesson.

Water is one of the most difficult subjects to photograph. I’m not referring to a peaceful lake with no moving water that any moron can walk away from with a decent picture.  I mean moving water.  Waterfalls.  Brooks. Streams. These natural beauties present difficulties found in no other source from nature. The next time you’re standing at a babbling brook, set your camera on full auto mode and take a picture. Is the picture perfect? Didn’t think so. Flowing water contains multiple depths that each contribute to the overall scene. Light reflects off each one of those depths in its own unique way. Try taking a picture of a wave crashing onto the beach.  The white crest almost always looks washed out in pictures. If your picture shows the true blue color of the water, the crest and other parts of the wave will look washed out. If you’re able to get a good shot of the white crest, the blue will be too dark to even recognize. How do you photograph an ever-moving subject like water?

Shutter speed. If you skipped the chapter, you might want to read our lesson on shutter speed. By slowing down the shutter speed, you can blur the water. For this you almost always need a tripod. Unless you have hands of steel and can hold the camera absolutely still, USE A TRIPOD. For this example we’ll say we’re photographing waves breaking onto a sandy beach. The sand is reflecting the bright sun, which presents a second problem with lighting. Set your camera on the tripod and turn the camera to the full Auto mode. If you push the shutter release button down halfway the camera should display the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO it thinks are the best settings for the picture. Use the settings as a reference and switch the camera to manual mode. Set the camera at the aperture that was shown in the full auto mode. Let’s say it’s f/5.6. Since the sun is bouncing off the sand, we know we want the lowest ISO setting possible. Make sure the ISO is set at 100. We set the aperture and ISO. Now we need to set the shutter speed. Set the shutter speed at the same setting that was shown in full auto mode. Let’s say it was 1/250.  The camera settings should now be ISO 100, f/5.6, and 1/250. Take a picture and check it in the LCD monitor.  This was our first picture so resist the temptation to throw your camera in the ocean and walk away!

If your first picture was too bright, we know we need to reduce the amount of light. We can do this by choosing a slower shutter, a smaller aperture (larger number), or decreasing the ISO. We can’t reduce the ISO because it’s already at the lowest setting. For now let’s leave the aperture alone and change the shutter speed. If your picture was too bright, let’s lower the shutter speed. Change the shutter speed to 1/125.  Take a picture.  Change the shutter speed to 1/60 and take a picture. Change the shutter speed to 1/30 and take a picture. Once the shutter speed is below 1/30, you should notice the waves starting to blur. Change the shutter speed to 1/20 and take a picture. Let’s stop here and look at our pictures. At 1/20 shutter speed, is there enough light in the picture? If not we need to make an adjustment. Since we’re experimenting with the shutter speed, we should either increase the ISO or choose a wider aperture (smaller number.) If the picture is too light, change the ISO to 200 or choose a wider aperture.  Don’t make both adjustments at the same time or you won’t know which is producing the best result! After you’ve increased the ISO or moved to a wide aperture, take another picture. Keep adjusting the settings and taking more pictures. Sooner or later you’ll find the right combination!

Since we’re at the beach taking pictures, let’s not overlook the sand. How much sand is in your picture? Remember, the sun is reflecting off the sand. How do we deal with that? There are several options. You could move closer to the ocean and include less sand in the picture. You could use a telephoto lens and concentrate solely on the waves. You could also position yourself lower to the waves. If you’re standing up and the sun is directly over head, the sunlight would reflect off the sand at approximately a 90-degree angle. Sunlight is also reflecting off the ocean. Assuming you’re still using the tripod, try shortening it so your camera is closer to the sand. It’s worth a try! If you still can’t get a decent picture, try moving closer to the waves.  Or, try moving back and using a telephoto lens.

Most water can be blurred at a shutter speed of 1/8 to 1/30 second. It depends on the volume of water, the amount of light reflecting off the water, and how much blur effect you’re looking for. Remember the different depths of waves and splashes in the water itself. It’s almost impossible to photography long distances of splashing water. You might need to focus on one particular section of water to avoid the multiple depths.

Freezing subjects is the opposite of blurring them. To capture moving subjects you need to use a fast shutter speed. Choose an aperture and start with an initial shutter speed of 1/1000. If the subject is still fuzzy or blurry, increase the shutter speed to 1/1250.  If there’s too much light in the picture, decrease the ISO or switch to a smaller aperture (larger number).

In photographing moving subjects there is a technique called panning. Panning simply means following the subject with your camera before taking the picture. Let’s say you’re watching a race car zip around the track.  Normally you’d wait for the car to whiz by and then snap a picture. You could also catch the car in your viewfinder as it’s on the way then snap the picture as the car passes. The results are totally different!

Here’s a neat trick for freezing moving subjects. Let’s say you’re still at the track photographing race cars. When the car is in focus, press the shutter release button down halfway. This will lock in the aperture and shutter speed. Then when the car passes, press the shutter release button down to take the picture. Practice makes perfect. If done correctly, the race car will be in focus but the background will be blurred. The result is a picture that looks like you were moving at the same speed as the car!

Receive a free Certificate of Completion for this photography course. Pass a 40-question test on this course with a score of 70 or higher and receive a certificate of completion. Visit our Basics of Digital Photography Certificate of Completion page for more information.

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