Capturing motion in an image can completely change the look and feel. Whether it’s a still subject with a motion-blurred background, a quick action frozen in time or the flowing of water, photographing movement can enhance the story you’re trying to tell. Motion as a compositional element in your frame helps add to the mood and emotion you want to convey.

Here are five ways to photograph movement. I’ve included my gear and settings in the captions so you can see how I’ve captured each unique look.

1. Freeze movement to capture emotion.

Freezing movement is a great way to capture the emotion, expression or joy in an image. Look for moments when a person or object is in mid-motion, like falling dominos, a child jumping or the flip of hair during play.

Use a high enough shutter speed to completely freeze the movement and adjust your other settings from there. Look for other compositional elements, like sun flare and contrast, to further add to the mood of your image.

Frozen motion dance party
In this photo I wanted to capture the joy of our living room dance party. Settings: f/2, 1/250, ISO 250.
Freezing motion in photography, dominoes fall as a child plays
In this image, we were in a dark pub so I had to increase my ISO to 2,000 in order to make sure I had a fast enough shutter (1/320) to freeze the moment. I used an aperture of f/1.8 to keep the focus on the dominos and allow my son to fall out of focus in the background. Taken with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens.
Girl climbs a tree as her hair is photographed in motion
Here, my daughter was climbing in the woods with sun flare behind her and I was able to catch the movement of her hair as she reached for her next handhold. Taken with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens at f/2, 1/4,000, ISO 100.

2. Convey the speed of life by blurring the foreground or background.

Blurring the foreground or background helps show the hustle and bustle going on around your subject. It also allows you to convey the speed of life, as it creates a great contrast between the rush of movement and the calm of your still subject.

To create this effect, you’ll need a slow shutter speed. I like to lower my ISO as much as possible and then begin with a shutter speed around 1/13 of a second. From there, I can see how my image looks and make adjustments depending on the amount of blur I want to create. If you’re using a tripod, you’ll be able to use slower shutter speeds without getting camera shake, but you’ll still need your main subject to remain as still as possible in order to achieve sharp focus.

You’ll usually need to close down your aperture to limit the light coming in so that the slow shutter speed doesn’t end up overexposing your image. This does increase your depth of field, but with the blur you’re aiming for it isn’t an issue to not have the pretty background bokeh you’d get with a wider aperture.

Pro Tip:

Blurring the foreground or background is a great technique to use during client sessions. For example, you can convey the chaos around a sleeping newborn by capturing the still baby in sharp focus while blurring her siblings running circles around her.

Motion blur of a woman still on a bench while people walk by
For this photo of my friend sitting on the bench, I was hand-holding my camera as steady as possible while she stayed as still as she could. We waited for people to walk past to capture the blur of a busy street in contrast with her sitting peacefully. Taken with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens at f/16, 1/13, ISO 64.
When traveling on trains, I love capturing blur out the window, but the light is constantly changing, which creates a challenge in getting the exposure just right. But, you can capture some great reflections with the outside world rushing past. Taken with a Fujifilm X-100T at 19mm using f/5.6, 1/25, ISO 100.

Panning

To blur your background while your subject is in motion (think of a child running or a person on a carousel) use a technique called panning. This is where you follow the subject with your camera as he or she moves past. It’s tricky to master, so my advice is to just keep practicing. I shoot on burst mode and hope for the best as I get into the swing of moving my focus point with my subject.

Lights add movement to the carousel scene
Here, I'm panning to show the speed of the action as my daughter and husband ride the carousel. Taken with a Sigma 20mm DG HSM Art lens at f/11, 1/20, ISO 50.

3. Show excitement and action by blurring your subject.

Another great way to convey frantic action is to blur your main subject. This can help you capture the emotion or drama of the moment as the subject moves around.

Take, for example, this image of a girl on a roundabout. I was photographing her giggling and enjoying her dad spinning her, and then decided to climb on with her and play around with shutter speed. Blurring the background as I kept her in focus wasn’t very effective as the ground behind her was all one color. So, I hopped off (feeling dizzy!) and tried again with her blurred instead. This worked much better, especially with the strong contrast of her pink and blue dress against the orange roundabout.

Taken with a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens at f/7.1, 1/20, ISO 100.

4. Capture the movement of water to enhance your story.

I love the way water moves, be it a trickle a ripple or a big splash! You can get great bokeh with water droplets; they really light up in the right conditions with backlight.

Play with shutter speed for water shots. You can use a fast shutter to freeze the shapes of splashes and drops, or a slower shutter speed to capture the smooth flow of a waterfall, for example.

There are so many ways to play with water movement. Think of a shower, sprinklers, hoses, paddling pools, and bath time, for example.

In this photo of my kids playing in the sprinkler in the late afternoon, I wanted to keep my aperture wider to capture the water droplet bokeh while freezing the joy on my kids’ faces. Taken with my Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens at f/2, 1/800, ISO 100.
During an in-home newborn session, I wanted to freeze the droplets big sister was dripping into the bath. I love seeing the different shapes you can capture in water using a high shutter speed. Taken with a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens at f/1.8, 1/2000, ISO 1250.
In this photo, movement is conveyed by the bubbles gathered around the children after they leapt into the pool. Taken with my Fujifilm X100-T in Seafrogs underwater housing at f/2.8, 1/4000, ISO 100.

5. Photograph moving light to add sparkle and magic.

I love capturing light trails with a slow shutter. Recently, I tried using the same technique to add another dynamic to my Christmas tree shot. I love my rainbow Christmas tree and wanted to capture the glow from all the lights (I use three sets!).

I set up my tripod and played around with a ring prism for extra sparkle. I dangled the prism from a string in front of my lens, spinning and twisting it to catch light trails around the edge of my shot.

My gear

Cameras: Nikon D750, Fuji X100-T

Lenses: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens, Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens

Gear: Seafrogs Underwater Housing with dome, Ring Prism (a simple chandelier ring I love to play with, it only cost £4!), Manfrotto Tripod 550 with Joystick Ball Head

Editing: Adobe Lightroom

In this photos I used a ring prism to create light trails and also captured the motion of my daughter spinning. Shot at 35mm, f/1.6, 1/5, ISO 320.

When photographing movement, timing is everything. I always shoot motion using a continuous shutter so I can capture multiple shots and can choose the best ones. It’s fine to have a ton of fails before you get a great photo. Sometimes what works and what doesn’t is only a matter of seconds!

Practice until you find your favorite ways of photographing movement and know what works best for you and the mood you’re trying to create or capture in your images.

Photos by Bex Maini