by Florence W. Deems

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Adding blur techniques when making photographic images can lift your images out of the ordinary. If you feel you're stuck, producing mostly "postcard" type images, then try these methods. Blurring in-camera doesn't come naturally to those of us who have been brain-washed into thinking everything, subject and background, must be in sharp focus, especially landscapes. So these techniques require practice, patience, persistence. And slow shutter speeds!

Shutter Speed: You'll want at least half a second. But more time is usually desirable. So try for speeds of one second or more. How to get these slow speeds?

1) Set the ISO to its lowest setting. Some DSLRs will go to 50, but most start at 100 or even 200.

2) Set the camera to the equivalent of aperture priority, meaning you set the aperture and the camera decides the best shutter speed.

3) Set the smallest f/stop for the lens: f/16 or f/22 for most lenses.

4) Now focus on an object and note the shutter speed your camera wants to use. If it's less than half a second, you'll need to use neutral density filters to cut down the amount of light entering the lens. Here's what I use:

Camera: Nikon D300; lens: Nikkor 50mm f/1.4; neutral density (ND) filters - screw into the front of the lens - one 2-stop and one 4-stop = 6 stops less light. ISO = 100 (lowest this camera will go); Aperture Priority usually at f/16; manual or autofocus. I also have a few other camera bodies and lenses that I use from time to time, but the above is what I prefer to use for in-camera blurs.

ND filters come in specific sizes to screw onto the front of lenses. Or you can also get ND filters that are square and fit into a holder that itself screws onto the lens.

For some blurs that involve subject movement, you'll need a sturdy tripod and head. Mine is a Manfrotto (Bogen) 458B NeoTec, with a Manfrotto (Bogen) 804 3-way pan/tilt ball head. This head comes with a quick-release plate that screws into the bottom of the camera, making it easy to switch cameras without having to move the tripod. I bought extra plates for each of my camera bodies.

Following is a chart of the different blurring techniques. Click on the names to go to that section:

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Camera Movement: This means that you actually move the camera during the exposure! You can do this either on or off of a tripod. If the tripod head is a ball type and is easily moved up, down, from side to side, diagonally, or rotatable, then you might try using a tripod for camera movement. Mostly I hand hold my camera while moving it.

Depending on the shutter speed, you may have: not much time, or a lot of time, for the intended movement. So experiment. Focus on the scene/subject, begin camera movement and then press the shutter release. Move smoothly up or down, diagonally, or sideways, or rotate the camera clockwise or counterclockwise. Check the results. Try again - and again - and again.

Some subjects/scenes look awful with vertical or horizontal movements, but look very interesting with a rotational movement. And vice versa for other subjects. Also try wavy movements vertically, diagonally or horizontally.

Other ways to move the camera, usually hand held, are: hold the camera steadily against your chest or forehead while walking as you open the shutter; or shoot from a car. With a car's speed, the closest objects will be very blurred. But the further away from the car the objects are, the less blurred they'll be. Some people shoot from bicycles or motorcycles. Usually they rig some sort of a clamp to mount the camera and have a remote control to activate the shutter.

One final way: Mount the camera firmly on a monopod, set the self timer for several seconds, then hoist the monopod and start turning around in place. This will take at least several tries to get useful images. Just getting the camera tilt right to show the subject may take several tries.

Try camera movement first with a stationary subject. When you feel like you have this technique under better control, then try it with moving subjects.

Below are four images made by Wesley Norman at Callaway Gardens near Atlanta, GA, USA, used with permission.

For the left image below, I tried to pan, matching the speed of the people walking. But since I still had the very dark 13-stop filter on the lens, I had to guess at their speed. So they are blurred, as is the background and foreground. The 2nd from left image was shot from a moving car at night.

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Camera still, lens fixed: If the camera is still and you want blurs, then you must put the camera on a tripod - and wait for your subject to move. Try out different shutter speeds for this. This means opening up the aperture some, too. What most people want is enough movement of the subject to cause blur, but leave a still-recognizable subject. People, animals, vehicles make the best subjects. But also if it's a very windy day, then the wind provides movement of leaves or whole tree/bush branches or fields of flowers or grasses or clothing on a line or even debris scudding across a street.

In the image second from left, one of the men had on a bright white T-shirt. This is the only part of him that showed up in the image, as he was walking very fast. In the image below at the right, the time of 2.2 seconds was too slow, so the moving people are just barely identifiable as people.

For another set-up, please see Special Set-up for Blurs.

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With all these blurring techniques, you will get results that fall into three categories: Images in which you'll be able to identify the object or scene, yet there'll be definite blurring; in others you'll get a pleasing pattern of colors and/or shapes, without definite identification; and the last category of results will be smears and unattractive colors which you'll undoubtedly toss. Easy to do with digital cameras, as it doesn't cost anything if you don't like any particular result. So blur away! Best of all, have fun!

On to Lens Movements

See also Tree Lights Blurs and Special Set-up for Blurs

Back to Tutorials

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