The methodology behind capturing the essence of speed in sports photos is relatively easy. Let’s take a look.
If we think about motion blur in photography, especially when the photograph is of a person, we often associate the photographic aspect as a detriment to the photograph. When photographing people, we want their features to be crisp and sharp. For there to be motion blur apparent, it would suggest the photographer either couldn’t hold the camera steady or used too slow of a shutter speed. As a result, there’s an element of motion blur present in the photograph.
For example, in the photo below, we can see that with a combination of a slow shutter speed and the lack of steady hands, nothing in the image is adequately viewable.
However, while that form of motion blur isn’t right for standard snaps and portraiture, motion blur is successfully used in two other forms of photography.
The first is that of the motion blur of lights or water. This is typically used in cityscapes to create a trail of lights along the highway. Or, in landscapes to smooth out running water to create a beautiful, dreamlike painting of the landscape.
The second form is used in sports photographs, where the background becomes an indistinguishable blur behind the moving athlete.
With sport-orientated cameras—like the Sony A9 II that has high-speed continuous shooting at up to 20fps and can shoot at extreme (electronic) shutter speeds up to 1/32000—you might ask: What’s the inherent need of causing intense motion blur when the technology has all the functionality to avoid it? Well, when shooting with a fast shutter speed, it allows the photographer to freeze the action.
In most sporting circumstances, this is entirely preferable, as it allows the viewer of the photograph to see that sporting moment with clarity. However, freezing the action also removes the velocity that the athlete may be traveling at.
In the example below, we can see that although the photograph is technically fantastic, the speed and drive of the runner are somewhat lost. To a degree, it looks like he’s statically posing rather than running.
For fast-action sports like football and tennis, this form of photography is perfect because it freezes the action, making both the fast-moving athletes and fast-moving ball visible. If photographers were to shoot a hockey match, a sport with a lot of action, with a slow shutter speed, it’d look like this.
However, when we want to suggest that the athlete is moving fast, say a track runner, cyclist, or jockey, employing a motion-blurred background is a nice way to visually promote the sportsperson’s speed.
In the photo below, quite like looking out the window of a fast-moving car, everything is jolting by, insinuating that the runner is moving at quite some speed.
How to Create Blurry Sports Photos
Capturing these photos is actually quite simple. Let’s take a look.
Slow Shutter Speed
First, you’re going to want to decrease your shutter speed to a relatively slow shutter. 1/60 is a good starting point, as it’s slow enough to still capture moving action, but not so slow that all movement starts to become an incomprehensible blur of colors.
If you need to increase the blur of the background, you can lower the shutter speed even further. However, when you start to move lower than 1/15, you’re also likely to blur the runner’s motion. If you want to mitigate the blur, you can move the shutter speed up to 1/125. But, I wouldn’t shoot any faster because we’ll start moving into the area where the shutter speed freezes the action.
However, these are guiding principles because, unfortunately, there’s no magic number. You’ll need to experiment in order to obtain the right results for both the athlete’s speed and desired amount of motion blur. You may find it easier to switch the camera into shutter priority mode, so you can solely focus on finding the correct shutter speed.
Pan the Camera
The second factor that contributes to obtaining a blurry action shot is the movement of the photographer. You, too, need to be panning (moving left or right from a stationary position) the camera and with the athlete for the motion blur to pass to the background. Otherwise, if you remain locked in place with your camera only pointing towards one angle, the athlete will become a blur while the background remains in focus.
As the athlete will be whizzing through the composition, it’s not guaranteed that they’ll remain centered within your viewfinder. Therefore, I also recommend making sure your focus mode is on Continuous Autofocus (AF-C / AI Servo). This will make sure that the moving subject remains in focus as they power through the shot.
Of course, if they’re rapidly moving their arms and legs, it’s likely they’ll be caught up within the slower shutter speed. But, in my opinion, this adds to the effect.
Stand Parallel to the Athlete
Finally, you need to make sure you stand parallel to the athlete. It’s the displacement of the athlete moving fast against the static background that helps produce the motion blur. Standing directly behind or in front of the athlete nullifies the effect.
Combining a slow shutter speed, panning the camera, and standing parallel creates the effect you’re after.
While cameras can now automate many features that a decade ago required manual attention, this is one photographic technique that still requires patience and practice. If you’re heading to a sporting event, it may be best to try and evaluate the settings beforehand at a training session or with a friend replicating the action (if possible.)
Likewise, until you’ve mastered the motion behind this, it may be better to use a tripod to stabilize the camera. With slow shutter speeds, the camera is more susceptible to camera shake. So, if you’re not able to pan fluidly, you’ll introduce blur to the entire photo.
For more tips on sport techniques, check out these articles:
- Diversity in Sports Photography — 2020’s “Game On” Trend
- 6 Photographers on Capturing Awesome Photos of Extreme Sports
- The Stories Behind Two World Sports Photography Award Nominees
- 5 Breakdowns on Replicating the VOX Motion Graphic Look
- 8 Sports Photographers on Their Most Dramatic Action Shots
Cover image by sportpoint.