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Freezing Subject Movement For Sharp Photos

You had everything in focus.

You used a really good tripod and a remote release so the camera was rock steady. Still, your daughter looks like she has four eyes and three arms (and she doesn’t wear glasses). What happened? She moved. When it comes to subject movement, you will not have too many choices. You can use a faster shutter speed or get a slower subject.

A sitting subject may look sharp as slow as 1/15th

You will find adults a bit easier to get to sit still than children or pets (at least sometimes). A sitting subject may look sharp as slow as 1/15th of a second. That same shutter speed will make even Grandpa look like an Olympic runner if he is walking.

 Obviously the faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed you will need

It will also make a difference what direction the subject is moving. If the subject is approaching or receding directly to or from the camera or traveling across the camera’s field of view. If Grandpa (as long as he was so kind to let us use him in the above paragraph we’ll use him a bit more- maybe he was an Olympic runner) is walking toward you, you won’t need as fast a shutter speed as if he is walking past you. Keep in mind that his arms and legs will be moving even faster than his whole body and may be blurry even though the rest of him is sharp. Obviously the faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed you will need.

 When there is any concern about subject movement, you always want to try for higher shutter speeds

For a slow person walking towards you (like good old Gramps) 1/30th to 1/60th of a second may be fast enough. A faster subject such as someone on a bicycle (or Grandpa in his Olympic days) will need a much faster shutter speed like 1/250th or 1/500th of a second. Something like a Formula 1 racing car will take speeds like 1/1000 of a second or faster. Unfortunately there are no exact numbers; it is something that takes a bit of trial and error, plus a camera (most likely an SLR of some sort) that will let you choose a shutter speed. When there is any concern about subject movement, you always want to try for higher shutter speeds.

Again, you may not own a camera that lets you select the shutter speed.  You are then stuck with whatever speed the camera chooses. To make sure the camera chooses a fast shutter speed you can:

  • Only take pictures when there is lots of light
  • Use a faster ISO setting or film
  • Wait until the subject stops moving
  • Use the subject movement to tell the story

 How can you use a photo that is not completely sharp?

Some subjects actually look good with subject movement.

If you want to show the strength of the ocean as it crashes against the rocks you may want to use a high shutter speed to stop it sharp

Water, for instance, can look good if it is tack sharp stopped with a high shutter speed. If you want to show the strength of the ocean as it crashes against the rocks you may want to use a high shutter speed to stop it sharp.

A longer shutter speed will blur it and make it look soft and gentle

Water can also look great blurred. A longer shutter speed will blur it and make it look soft and gentle. This technique looks great for rivers and waterfalls. It depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell.

Panning is following a moving subject with the camera during the exposure

Another kind of blur that can tell a story is caused by a technique called panning. Panning is following a moving subject with the camera during the exposure. Just follow your moving subject with the camera (try to keep the same speed) and press the shutter button as it goes by. Make sure you continue to follow after you press the button (kinda like the follow through on your golf swing). This will cause the subject to look sharp and the background to blur. This is a great way to show motion and demonstrate the feeling of speed in a photo.

Panning whenever you think you may have lower light levels (an overcast day) will help you get a picture with a sharp subject. When done right; panning trades camera movement for subject movement in a way that makes a picture look sharper.

Next we’ll look at how important resoluton is to sharp photos and what is resolution anyway.

About James Thoenes

James has spent most of his life involved in photography. He is now dedicated to producing portraits that his clients will treasure for the rest of their lives.