Making the Most of Motion in Photographs

Making the Most of Motion in Photographs

2800 1857 James Tocchio

In years of photographing, I’ve learned that not all photos need to be crystal clear and sharp. In fact, shots that are technically imperfect often end up being the most engaging, since these bring with them a sense of energy and liveliness.

Capturing motion in a still image can be difficult, especially for those who might be new to photography. Here are a few simple ways to easily imbue our photography with that elusive feeling of energy and movement.

First, let go of the “perfect photo”

The world around us is constantly in motion. A great way to show that is to simply get out there and shoot it, without worrying so much about making shots that are perfectly exposed and perfectly sharp. Instead, embrace the limitations of your environment and your gear. Don’t worry that your light meter is saying that your shutter speed is somewhere way down in the tenths of seconds or that you’ve got a somewhat slow lens. Just keep your hand as steady as possible, shoot at these slow-as-molasses shutter speeds, and see what comes out.

If you’re shooting film, don’t stress that you accidentally loaded low-sensitivity film before heading out for the night. Shoot lower ISO stock even in low-light situations. You may be surprised by the results.

Some of the best photos I’ve made of my daughter or my dog are technically imperfect messes of blur and motion. But these are also the shots that most accurately represent the excitement and never-ending energy that these creatures seem to posses.

One shot in particular, taken at the New England Aquarium, shows a shape that’s hardly recognizable as being my three-year-old kid. But few photos I’ve made so readily bring to my mind the moment in which they were made (she was running that whole day, and the shot reminds me of the many hours that I watched her twirl and dance among the dimly lit fishtanks).

Try Panning Shots

One of the most popular ways to emphasize movement in a photo is through panning. This technique most easily showcases a fast-moving subject by blurring the background of the image while keeping the subject in focus. This requires a steady hand to keep the subject in the same relative position within the frame for the entire span of time that the shutter is open, a task that’s easier said than done. But practice makes perfect.

To try this out yourself, simply set the camera’s shutter speed to a relatively slow speed, handhold the camera and move it in unison with the subject.

The easiest way to do this successfully is to use a camera that’s capable of shooting in shutter-priority mode. In this mode, simply set a slow shutter speed (somewhere around 1/4th or 1/30th of a second, depending on light conditions) and let the camera automatically set the correct aperture. Now just track your subject and try not to sneeze.

If you only have a full manual or aperture-priority mode camera, you’ll have to experiment a bit more. Try setting your aperture to whatever value will achieve a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second (or thereabouts) and see how that works. If you’re shooting in bright conditions, don’t be afraid to close down that aperture. If you’re shooting on film you won’t be able to immediately see your results and adjust as necessary. If this is the case, shoot a bunch of frames at varying speeds, take notes, and see what develops.

Try Double Exposure and Multiple Exposures

Double (or multiple) exposure photography can be polarizing. Some people consider it hackey, while others love it. I haven’t been able to make a decent multiple exposure photo, to be honest, but I’ve seen some incredible shots made by others and I think it’s a great way to capture, if not motion per se, than certainly a sort of energy.

The shot shown below is a good example of what I mean. It’s a handheld multiple exposure shot made with a Rollei 6008. The idea was to capture the energy of the city in an abstract way, and I think the photo pulls it off pretty well.

To make multiple or double exposure photos you’ll need a camera that’s able to do this. Most modern digital cameras will do multiple exposures without any trouble, but older film cameras sometimes lack this feature. Check your manual to see if your camera can do it. If not, get a Minolta XE (the camera that launched this website!), or any other of the hundreds of film machines that have this capability baked in.

Try long exposures

We’ve written about capturing the motion of smaller subjects; people, animals, objects. But what if you want to show movement on a larger scale; movement in cities and nature, the movement of the universe? It’s possible to do this with photography, and it’s not even that hard. Long exposures will get you there.

By shooting long exposures in cityscape and landscape photography we’re able to show the bustle of the city, the passage of time through the movement of the ocean or rivers and streams, and even the paths of the stars.

What you’ll need – a good tripod, a camera that’s capable of bulb or timed exposure shooting, a remote shutter release, possibly a neutral density filter, and patience. The rest is simple. Find a photogenic location, set up your tripod, mount the camera, set the exposure time (usually thirty seconds or longer to get really fluid water or gorgeous star trails), and remotely trigger the shutter. Wait for your exposure to finish and see what you’ve made.

Depending on your light conditions, you may need to really choke down that lens aperture or mount a filter to kill some light. Trial and error are your friends here, and once you’ve made a few shots in this way you’ll realize there’s nothing to it.

Some photos in this article have been contributed by readers and are marked with credit. Many thanks to Alex LuyckxDevon Salyer, Pascal Jean Provost, and Reinier de Guzman, and David Libson.

There are plenty of other ways to make the most of motion in your photography. If you’re a motion master, link us to your most energetic photo in the comments below and tell us how you made it.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Just use an Argus C-3, multiple exposures are a breeze! (And often a complete accident). I’ve gotten some fun pictures with that little gem. For film cameras that don’t have a multiple exposure ability, there’s a little trick that can work. When you wind for the next frame, hold down the little button you press when rewinding, and keep tension on the rewind crank. The camera will cock, but (theoretically) not wind on another frame of film.

  • I’m not a master of anything. This photo was a happy accident. But it was taken in the morning before the light had really started to reach between buildings. I had my camera set at f8 and 1/30 trying to capture the guys working down in the alley way. Just as I released the shutter this man walked in front of me. This is my favorite shot from this trip. Even shooting at 1/30 is low enough to capture good movement with people walking and moving.

  • Pascal Jean Provost March 29, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    Great article James! Inspiration is the best part of shooting. I get mine by walking near rivers. I am a stream walker. Sometimes carrying heavier film cameras and tripod. The combination of light, water and sounds are delightful and quite immersive. Water motion is easily captured with shutter speed around 1/8. I like not knowing what I photographed and discover later when getting the film back from the lab that there is something sweet to look at. I would never have seen with bare eyes.

    • Your shots are beautiful. Thanks for sharing them and thanks for making them! Inspiring me to find some streams this Spring.

  • Very cool!
    I shot this one hand held at a recent Ciclavia event in downtown Los Angeles. I think the shutter speed was about 1/4 sec at f16 with Fuji C200 in a Leica 1f with Voigtlander 25mm lens.

    Continuing on the biker theme, neon bikers with a Leica M5, CV 35 1.2 hand held at about 1/15 sec. Portra 400

  • Hmm, I tried to comment but it disappeared (never showed up) three times now.

    Anyway, dig this article.

    • That’s weird. I’ll look into it pal.

      • It’s not a biggie, but seems to happen if I include a link to a pic on Flickr. If i do not include the link, it works fine.

        • Got it. Auto spam filter tends to dislike comments with links. Fixed it for you.

          • Cool! Leica M5 w/ Voigtlander 35 1.2 and Portra 400.

            [url=][img][/img][/url][url=]NeonBikersS-1[/url] by [url=]desmolicious[/url], on Flickr

  • Very good article!
    I got this one at a local fair, those men were threshing grain at night, on a very old thresher, lighted by the lamps.
    I shot it with an Olympus Omd Em10 MII mounted on a tripod ,200 Iso, 2.5 sec.


    keep the Light flowing!

  • Terri Williams May 18, 2021 at 2:09 am

    Thank you very much. It looks excellent.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio