Showing Motion in a Single Frame
Using a slow shutter speed can seem like a gimmick -- but it isn't necessarily so. How can you use this technique to tell a story? Read on to find out!
By Kristi Odom
It’s always good to have lots of creative and fun camera techniques in your back pocket, and to know when to use them.
We love teaching new camera techniques at our adventure workshops, but we encourage photographers to use them only if they enhance a narrative.
I see many photographers using trick lenses or funky techniques way too much, and they become distractions rather than enhancements.
My photography celebrates not only the emotions in wildlife, but also the beautiful complexities of nature.
I remember the first time I took a photograph in which using a slow shutter really added to the narrative.
While on safari in Kenya back in 2006 I asked, “Why do zebras have stripes?” I have learned now that there are many different answers to that question, but the one I got then was that the stripes camouflage them and confuse predators.
I wanted to add that story to my narrative so I told my guide to keep driving past the zebras while I photographed them.
I used a 1/15 shutter speed, focused in on the zebra, and let the moving car create texture as we drove. Sure enough, the pattern in the tall grass helped hide the zebra, and helped create the image you see at the top of this article.
Standing on the platform of Brooks Falls in Alaska, I look out at bears fishing underneath a giant rushing waterfall.
There is chaos in the water, salmon leaping everywhere, bald eagles gliding, and at least 20 bears. From tiny cubs to adults weighing 2,000lbs (~907kg), they fight, shake, and grab fish from the air.
Amid all this chaos there are moments of complete stillness. I stood there and thought, how in the world do I capture this in a single frame?
This world overwhelms me because of how fast it moves. I love photography because it lets us grab fractions of a second that we get to keep forever. Still, what if we want to show the movement, the life, the chaos? How do we do that in a single frame?
There are simple techniques, like slowing down your shutter to photograph water rushing past the bears.
Tripods aren’t allowed on the platform at Brooks Falls, so I laid on the ground, put my elbows against the floor and used my arms to stabilize my camera so I could shoot at 1/15th of a second.
This, of course, is much easier with a tripod or monopod.
These fishing bears were very still. By focusing on them, stabilizing, and dropping my shutter speed, I was able to get more unique images that showed what I saw and what I felt.
Contrasting motion with stillness makes an image pop!
Just last year I rode in a moving vehicle past the mountains in Canmore, Canada and I remembered this technique. I was thinking about how much time we spend in cars moving past beautiful views.
I started a series and called it Moving Landscapes.
When you drag your shutter (slow it down) and focus on a distant static subject like a mountain, you’ll get an image with a sharp background surrounded by chaotic movement in the foreground.
I always wish I had more time with these landscapes, but I never stop as much as I should. This is how I see them and remember them, motion and all.
Speaking of landscapes: I’ll admit, I’m not an early morning person, but I do love landscapes.
I usually end up at a pretty scenic spot in the middle of the day, so it’s hard to get a long exposure shot that brings out cloud or water movement.
[Related: Guide to Choosing a Gorillapod]
A 9-stop ND filter at first made no sense to me. It takes 9 stops of light away from you. In a world where we are always wanting faster lenses, why would you want to take away light?
One of my favorite places in the world is Great Falls National Park in Virginia.
For this shot I arrived with my Nikon Z7 at midday when the sun was bright, and I couldn’t slow my shutter enough to show the motion of the water.
I then put my camera on a Gorillapod, screwed a 9-stop ND filter on my Nikkor 20mm f/1.8, and put the camera on self-timer so that pressing the shutter didn’t cause any camera shake.
I was able to slow the shutter down to 10 seconds, which brought out the texture of the moving water.
I soon became obsessed with how I can take longer photos during the day, and I wanted exposures even longer than 10 seconds.
I wanted to show how clouds move around mountains, the patterns of people, the fog moving in, and how wind moves trees.
I discovered a new technique that I had seen astrophotographers use to capture star trails, called image stacking.
Many cameras these days have a built-in timelapse feature. I wondered what would happen if I stacked timelapse images shot during the day.
With a tripod, I set up my camera to take 100-200 photos at between half-second and four-second intervals (depending on how fast the movement is around a subject).
I put my camera on manual focus, manual settings, and manual white balance and use the camera’s built-in intervalometer to trigger the shutter.
To process an image stack, the photos have to first be converted to jpegs, then loaded into Photoshop as layers (File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack).
I then select all layers, convert them to a Smart Object and blend (Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Mean).
When looking at a landscape, I watch the direction of the movement and then use it to bring the viewer’s eye into the main subject.
For this image stack from Joshua Tree, I noticed that the clouds were moving outward from the rock formation. I positioned myself so that the stack would cause the clouds to move your eye into the rocks.
During the last holiday season I went to Poland with my boyfriend. We had this amazing, life-changing day.
When walking around Wroclaw, he proposed in this little park. We celebrated with a traditional drink at a Christmas market. It was amazing!
I had my Z7, Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S, and a Gorillapod (my usual small travel kit). I looked down at all the people exploring the market as the sun was setting.
I loved the movement, the chaos and the colors of the market, so I set up a timelapse to run as we enjoyed hot blueberry mulled wine.
I wanted to capture the movement of the people all roaming through the market. I also wanted some color and chaos. When I stacked the images, something totally unexpected happened.
When I saw the image, I thought, this isn’t want I tried for, but it is exactly what I wanted.
That moment to me wasn’t about all the people, the movement and chaos in the market, it was just me and Darren in one of the best moments of my life.
When time stood still and it was just us.
One of the most important things we can do as photographers is to use our cameras to tell our own unique story. If you ever find yourself being overwhelmed by a moment, let the motion tell the story.
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