Techniques

The Magic of Blurs: A Guide to Creating Artistic Images

by Alfred and Fabiola Forns | September 30, 2010

© Alfred and Fabiola FornsBlurs have always been an intriguing part of photography. They can be technically challenging to create, and require practice, technique, and luck to do well. A variety of subjects are well suited to blur photography, including birds, flowers and even landscapes. Who has not tried to blur a bird in flight or a waterfall?

Low light is almost a prerequisite to blurs, as it provides the ideal condition in which to use slow shutter speeds. If you want to try blurs in stronger light, the use of neutral density filters can make it possible. A 0.9 strength neutral density filter blocks three stops of light and is an ideal choice for many circumstances. Another option is Singh-Ray’s Vari-ND filter, which allows you to vary the strength of the neutral density filter from 1 2/3 stops to 8 stops and has a built in warming polarizer. Although you can still add another ND filter on top of this one, the darker you go, the more difficult it will be to autofocus.

In this article, we will cover a variety of blur techniques, from panning to multiple exposures, and will dedicate a section to each, with examples. Remember, practice is the key to mastering these techniques, so do not despair if you do not get perfect results at the beginning.

Panning Blurs

Panning blurs are the most common type of blur photography. Panning requires a steady hand and smooth tracking of the subject. In order to synchronize your movement to the subject’s speed, you should you start tracking the subject in the viewfinder before you press the shutter.

The shutter speed of choice is dependent on the subject’s speed, distance and angle. The further away, the slower your shutter speed will need to be to render the background blurred. For example, a bird flying across a distant field could be photographed successfully at 1/8 of a second, while the same bird much closer to you may only require 1/60 of a second.

It is desirable to have sharpness or at least some definition in the head of a bird, leaving the body and background blurred. Of course, you can have pleasing images where nothing is very sharp, but the human eye feels more comfortable having some degree of sharpness as reference.

To create pan blurs, focus on the subject using a single focus point (depending on the size of the subject in the frame, this may not necessarily be the center AF point). Once you acquire focus, follow the subject smoothly in the viewfinder and when you feel your speed and the subject match, fire a burst, continuing to track the subject after the burst is over. The smoother you can pan, the better you will be. You can experiment with different shutter speeds, depending on the effect desired. As in any other type of photography, composition and exposure are important. Don’t forget to check your histogram to double check the exposure. Panning blurs can be done hand held or with a panning head.

© Alfred Forns - f/18, 1/15, ISO 50, 840mm

© Alfred Forns – f/18, 1/15, ISO 50, 840mm

© Alfred Forns - f/6.7, 1/50, ISO 500, 600mm

© Alfred Forns – f/6.7, 1/50, ISO 500, 600mm

© Alfred Forns - f/18, i13, ISO 400, 200mm

© Alfred Forns – f/18, i13, ISO 400, 200mm

Zoom Blurs

This technique works with zoom lenses and slow shutter speeds. We recommend starting this with the use of a tripod and very slow shutter speed. A slow shutter speed of one second or more will allow you to press the shutter, hesitate to burn the image onto the sensor and then zoom, which creates a more recognizable center of attention. Once you have more experience, you can increase the shutter speed to 1/8 or 1/15th of a second, or even hand hold the camera and lens.

You can zoom your lens from wide-angle to telephoto or vice versa. We favor starting at the wide end and zooming out. You can experiment with the focus in the center, or move the point of focus to a side for a stronger composition. Centered captures can also be cropped if needed.

Once you have a bit more practice, you can combine panning and zooming for interesting effects. Colors and shapes play a major role in the success of these images.

© Alfred Forns - f/16, 1/8, ISO 50, 320mm

© Alfred Forns – f/16, 1/8, ISO 50, 320mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/18, 1/15, ISO 400, 360mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/18, 1/15, ISO 400, 360mm

Motion Blurs

This technique requires a long exposure and very small camera movement. It works extremely well in very colorful subjects, such as flowers. Do not shake or move the camera too much – less is more here. The idea is to get a subtle movement that resembles brush strokes on a painting.

Another version of motion blur is to keep your camera steady while letting a moving subject travel through the frame. If you want to exaggerate the movement, pan in the opposite direction, but keep in mind that the blur will be much stronger and you may lose definition in the subject.

© Fabiola Forns - f/32, ¼, ISO 50, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/32, ¼, ISO 50, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/18, 1/15, ISO 400, 360mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/18, 1/15, ISO 400, 360mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/29, 1/15, ISO 100, 340mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/29, 1/15, ISO 100, 340mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/25, 1/20, ISO 200, 400mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/25, 1/20, ISO 200, 400mm

Multiple Exposures

Most high end Nikon cameras have the multiple exposure feature (no Canon digital SLRs currently have this feature). Using this feature, the camera will calculate your exposure, divide it by the number of frames in your multi-exposure image, mix those frames together, and provide you with a single NEF file. It is important to keep the “Auto-gain” option on in case you decide to take a different number of frames than indicated, as not to offset the final exposure. We normally use about nine frames, in a rapid burst, with minimal or no movement, hand held. The way you will move the camera will depend on the subject’s shape – for example, vertical movement works well for trees. You can also play with a tripod mounted camera and rotate the lens in the collar for each frame, maintaining consistent focus in one central point.

Canon users can also get multiple exposure images with a little more work. This requires you to mix frames in post processing using Ellen Anon’s technique as described in Tony Sweet’s book Fine Art Nature Photography.

  • First/background layer: 100% opacity, of course
  • Second layer: (100 divided by 2) 50% opacity
  • Third layer (100 divided by 3) 33% opacity and so forth
  • Change the blending mode of the last two layers to Overlay
© Fabiola Forns - f/11, 1/640, ISO 800, 24mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/11, 1/640, ISO 800, 24mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/22, 1/125, ISO 2000, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/22, 1/125, ISO 2000, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/22, 250, ISO 640, 70mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/22, 250, ISO 640, 70mm

Blurring with a LensBaby

Lensbabies are revolutionary little lenses that have a special blurred look at the edges. The lenses do not communicate electronically with the camera and the aperture changes with a ring that you place inside the lens. Exposure is set by adjusting ISO and shutter speed in camera, and using the histogram to guide adjustments. They are fun, they are lightweight, and they can get your creative juices going.

The Muse (originally named 2.0) gets bent to find the “sweet” focus point and is still our favorite today. If you need to replicate a certain look, the Control Freak can be locked in place, and the latest Lensbaby model, the Composer, has a turning element to focus in the front.

When using a Lensbaby, approach photography with an open mind and discover the creative possibilities available.

© Fabiola Forns - f/2.8, ISO 100, 50mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/2.8, ISO 100, 50mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/2.8, ISO 400, 50mm, macro filter 10X

© Fabiola Forns – f/2.8, ISO 400, 50mm, macro filter 10X

Focus Blurs

You can also do blurs with a high shutter speed. If you want to just show colors or shapes without details, such as when shooting abstracts, or get a very shallow depth of field and minimum focus, use your lens in manual focus and play around with it. Remember to leave at least some trace of the original shape so that the subject is recognizable.

© Fabiola Forns - f/3.5, 1/1250, ISO 250, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/3.5, 1/1250, ISO 250, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/3.5, 1/1600, ISO 400, 180mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/3.5, 1/1600, ISO 400, 180mm

Abstract Blurs

Abstract blurs are similar to focus blurs, in that the main subject is colors and shapes. Abstract blurs work best with a slight movement of the camera, depending of your inspiration. Your shutter speed will be dependant on the camera movement.

© Alfred Forns - f/13, 1/8, ISO 400 400mm

© Alfred Forns – f/13, 1/8, ISO 400 400mm

Some Tips and Tricks

A great way to practice your panning abilities is at spectator events, such as rodeos and motor races. Horses move at a speed approximate to some birds, so you can use similar shutter speeds. Because cars and motorcycles move faster, higher shutter speeds are required for success. Again, the distance to subject is very important.

© Alfred Forns - f/5, 1/30, ISO 320, 138mm

© Alfred Forns – f/5, 1/30, ISO 320, 138mm

© Fabiola Forns - f/25, 1/25, SIO 125, 85mm

© Fabiola Forns – f/25, 1/25, SIO 125, 85mm

© Alfred Forns - f/7.1, 1/50, ISO 100, 183mm

© Alfred Forns – f/7.1, 1/50, ISO 100, 183mm

At times, blurs can be your best choice to get good photographs in less than ideal situations, such as if the light is poor or the surroundings are cluttered. If you have to shoot in the middle of the day, using a neutral density filter can help you slow down your exposure enough to create interesting blurs. While blurs are not for everyday use and not all people like or understand them, they do have a place in artistic photography. Learning to appreciate and capture blurs can open up your mind as a photographer and inspire more creativity in your work.

About the Author

Alfred Forns: Although he has had many different hobbies, photography has been Alfred's only constant since the age of ten. Alfred started with a Leica 3f which was a gift from his parents. Some of his hobbies have been target shooting - in which he won the State Championship several times and came second nationally, alligator wrestling (no misprint here), motorcycle road racing, diving (as a NAUI Instructor), and fishing tournaments. He loves to share his knowledge and experience with others. Alfred has a successful dental practice and leads photo instructional workshops as a team with his wife Fabiola Forns. To learn more about them, please visit www.avianscapes.com.

Fabiola Forns: Love for nature has always inspired this artistically inclined woman, who, after dabbling in other fields as creative writing, music and oil painting, has found her true call in photography. Fabiola holds a degree in Human Resources from St. Thomas University in Miami and teaches photography at Miami-Dade College. As a 2007 winner of the Birds category in the prestigious Windland Smith Rice International Awards, she constantly strives for creativity in her work. She and her husband, Alfred Forns, are a team that complement each other - you can see their work at www.avianscapes.com.

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