How to convey movement in a still photograph

Action photography is all about capturing drama, movement and a sense of speed. However the dilemma photographers are faced with is how to get across that movement in a still photo.

A fast shutter speed is essential to freeze the action and achieve sharp images. However shooting, for instance, a car travelling at 200mph with a very fast shutter speed will result in a picture of the car that could actually be stationary. It’s hard for the viewer to get any sense of movement from that image.

You can read this article about panning, a technique to slow your shutter speed down and track your subject whilst you shoot. This is a great way to convey movement but it’s only suitable for certain situations. It is also takes quite a bit of practice to achieve good results consistently.

Shot with EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, with shutter speed 1/800s, at f/5.6 aperture and ISO200. Focal length 300mm

In this above example, look at the close-up of the wheels on the kart. Dropping the shutter speed to a still very fast 1/800s captured movement in the rotation of the wheels. Although subtle, this effect has a big impact on the final image, especially when printing your images large.

Using the principles of panning you can use shutter speed to convey movement without committing to a full pan, try slowing your shutter speed from 1/1000s to 1/640s, even this slight reduction in shutter speed can add a hint of blur to the faster moving aspects of your subject such as the wheels rotating on a car or the wing tips of a bird. Also get into the habit of tracking the subject through the viewfinder as you shoot, even at faster shutter speeds you may get a hint of movement from this technique and of course when you slow your shutter speed it is essential.

As well as varying shutter speed there are other techniques you can use to convey movement. Look for the key action of the event. In our example it is great to shoot a single kart on the track but shooting two karts vying for position supports the idea that there is fast movement and action taking place.

ISO400, 1/1250s, f/5.6 shot at 200mm
ISO400, 1/1600s, f/5.6

Look at these two examples taken a few laps apart. See how the body language of the drivers differs in the second image from the first, you get the sense that they are racing, despite the speeds of the karts and camera settings being similar.

As well as competitive actions look for features of the event that occur because of the speed and movement, tyre smoke, the wake in watersports, dust or mud kicked up at horse racing are all examples of ways to capture the idea of movement.

ISO200, 1/1600s, f/5.6 shot at 200mm, as shot on the lens EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM

In this image above the tyre smoke from heavy braking has been captured to convey movement. Your brain knows slow or stationary objects wouldn’t produce this so it tells you that there is fast action in this shot. This image has been converted to black and white, read this section to find out why.

You can also add a sense of movement to your image depending on how you frame your shot, let’s look at some examples:

ISO100, 1/30s, f/8 shot at 24mm

This image was shot at 1/30s with some panning to produce some blur in the image to give a good suggestion of movement. Next we are going to see how framing can add a further layer of movement. In the first image the subjects are tightly framed and the camera is horizontal to the horizon. In the second example we have added a bit more space for the drivers to race into, this further enforces the message that they are racing and action is taking pace. In the final image we added tilt to the image creating a diagonal composition; we associate diagonals with movement so it creates an even greater sense of action.

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Coming next: Seeing the world without a viewfinder.

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