There seems to be an obsession with sharpness and clarity in photography, and while that’s not a bad thing, we seem to have forgotten how beautiful a bit of creative blur can be.
Intentional blur is different from accidental blur or the result of camera shake. Deliberately choosing to add blur to an image can convey a sense of atmosphere that would be lacking with a razor-sharp photo. Think of a field of wheat being moved by the wind, for instance. A slow shutter speed will blur the stems, creating a feeling of movement in the image.
Using a slow shutter speed to create silky-smooth water in rivers or seascapes is also a favorite trick of landscape photographers. So, how do you go about adding some creative blur to your images? This article will give you the starting points for shooting your own blur images.
Slow Shutter Speed
When you slow your shutter speed right down, you will capture any movement as motion blur. You’ll need a tripod for this, as some long exposures can last for a few minutes or more in very low light.
It’s also useful to set your camera to a two or ten second delay with the self-timer, so that you don’t add unwanted camera shake blur to your image when you press the shutter. Get your exposure and white balance right with some test shots first. If you are used to shooting in auto or program mode, it’s worth learning how to shoot manually for long exposures. This is because you’ll need to set your camera to ‘bulb’ mode for exposures over 30 seconds long.
Natural movement created by the wind can require an exposure of a minute or more to register as a smooth blur. You can also experiment with shooting at night to capture the light trails of passing vehicles, or the ‘ghosts’ of people walking through the streets.
If you are shooting during the day, there’s often too much light around to successfully expose at a slow shutter speed, even if you have your aperture at f/32. It can be handy to attach a neutral density (ND) filter to your lens for this reason. This darkens the exposure by up to several stops, depending on how strong your ND filter is, and can help stop too much light getting to your camera sensor. Depending on how bright it is you may need to stack several of them together to cut out enough light to successfully do a long exposure.
A really dense, light cutting filter such as Hoya’s ND X400 or Lee Filter’s Big Stopper may be necessary on a bright, sunny day. These filters can cut up to ten stops of light, which will lengthen your exposure time considerably.
You must manually focus on your subject before you put the filters over the lens, or your autofocus will try and fail to find focus when the filters are on, because it will be too dark for your camera to see your subject.
Panning to Create Movement Blur
Panning can introduce a creative blur with a moving subject, and is great for conveying movement through a scene. You need to select a shutter speed that is slower than you would use to freeze the subject. A speed of 1/60th of a second is a good starting point, but you may have to experiment to find the ideal speed depending on the light conditions. The aim is to move the camera at the same speed as the subject going past you, so that they are sharp while the background is blurred. It takes practice, but you can get some amazing images.
Using Depth of Field
Although this isn’t strictly creating blur, you can make some interesting shots by playing around with a shallow depth of field. Try setting your aperture to the lowest number it will go, such as f/1.4, and shoot a subject. Only a small area of your image will be sharp, and will gradually fall off into a smooth blur.
Instead of focusing on the nearest thing to you, try focusing mid way into a scene instead. This works well with repeating patterns or objects too.
As with all images, your creatively blurred ones will benefit from a bit of editing and tidying up. You can really bring colors and contrast out, and fix any issues such as exposure. You can also add selective blur to your images in some image editors, but this requires a light touch as it can look very strange if it’s overdone.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with creative blur. The only way you learn is through making mistakes, so don’t be put off by it. After all, there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to create images – only the way that is right for you and your creative vision. Have fun!