Photographing The Shape Of Motion With Shutter Drag

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

My commercial photography business is all about creating very sharp images for my clients, but sometimes it’s fun to play with time and motion. Photography is basically the process of capturing light—it’s quality, color and direction. Time, however, can have a big impact on an image. The duration of an exposure, usually controlled by shutter speed, impacts much more than just the exposure. This is where the fun begins.

Most of the time we love fast shutter speeds. They “freeze” the moment. But on the other hand, fast shutter speeds also hide the beauty and grace of movement.

The swirl of a dancer, the sensuous shape of a breaking wave—these are all hidden by a fast shutter speed. Shutter drag, or lengthening your exposure, reveals a whole new world of fluid color and unexpected shapes.

Let’s explore the world of motion blur and see how we can use this technique to create more creative images.

A long exposure blurs some skaters and leaves others sharp

An exposure of 1/4 second blurs some skaters and leaves others sharp

Landscapes or seascapes with moving water are often captured at slow shutter speeds, due to the small aperture necessary for great depth of field. During that long exposure, moving water blurs and softens, contrasting beautifully with the highly detailed environment in which it flows. Very long exposures will even turn waves breaking on a beach into something that looks very much like fog or smoke.

Shooting with your camera mounted on a tripod is critical with this type of image.

Slow shutter speeds blurs traffic in L.A.

Slow shutter speeds blurs traffic in L.A.

This long-exposure approach is effective in any situation that has moving parts—traffic in L.A., a Ferris Wheel at a fair or skaters flying over the ice at a rink. Shutter speed will be used to determine the amount of motion blur you want to include in your image.

Panning produces recognizable team ropers and steer with a soft, blurred background

Panning with a shutter speed of 1/30 second produces recognizable team ropers and steer with a soft, blurred background

Panning is another photographic tool that makes use of shutter drag.

Subjects can be separated from a busy background using a slow shutter speed and panning the camera with your subject. Depending on the motion of your subject, backgrounds can become quite soft while the subject remains surprisingly sharp. This technique is often used in sports and wildlife, but takes practice in order to keep your subject sharp.

My personal favorite use of shutter drag is creating rather abstract images.

Athletes and dancers are some of my favorite subjects for this approach, but almost any subject will work. The trick in making this type of abstract image is to move the camera during exposure in a manner that is out of synch with the subject’s movements, leaving everything blurred to some degree. I usually try to keep the subject recognizable, although sometimes it’s a toss up. That’s the beauty of motion blur. You can make your subject as sharp or as abstract as you like. It just depends on your mood.

Flowers blowing in the breeze produce motion blur

Flowers blowing in the breeze produce motion blur with a shutter speed of 1/10 second

If you are interested in giving shutter drag a try, and who wouldn’t want to try it, give yourself an assignment. Spend an afternoon creating at least one image for each of the three shutter drag scenarios. I think that you will find that at least one of these techniques becomes a favorite. After all, many of us took up photography to see the world differently.

Give it a shot!