As a full-time landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thank-you-very-much).
But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and change shape overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.
Photographing motion is frustrating because a single image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.
While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of activity with one “look,” recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can document an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.
When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (insert obligatory, “It’s not the stars that are moving” comment here). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed to maximize the amount of light captured, while concluding before discernable streaks form. My goal is to hold the stars in one spot long enough to reveal many too faint for the eye to register. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes.
Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can.
Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”
Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best (shade or overcast) light, I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.
Which brings me to the image at the top of the frame, of the waves and rocks at Big Sur’s of Soberanes Point, and a (nearly) full moon dropping through the twilight on the distant horizon. I could have increased my aperture and ISO until my shutter speed stopped the motion of the waves, and timing the exposure just right, might have recorded an explosive collision of wave and rock—dramatic, but understating turbulence of the ocean/land interface. Instead, I opted for an exposure long enough to convey the action and extent of the agitated surf, but fast enough to hold the setting moon in place.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.
Nice post. I noticed, my friend, that you are recently using a sony camera. Do you want to comment on that?
As usual, great pix.
Mark S Collins
1853 Booksin Ave. San Jose, Ca.95125
Thanks, Mark. You’ll find my thoughts here: https://garyhartblog.com/2014/11/25/new-trick-old-dog/. Enjoy!
Great post Gary!
Hi Gary…I have to say first off, that i love your title for this image “Moon on the Rocks.” Brings great sensations to mind (not to speak of song titles). Your narrative/post really does a great job of clarifying the impact of motion in images as well as the significance of visual balance. The image from Big Sur is just captivating..I absolutely love it. I have to be honest and tell you that, years ago, I belonged to that club that felt “blurred water” was nit natural. Boy, was I wrong..I absolutely loved your explanation of that factor. Thank you so much for all the lessons you provide…Your images and words …and your sincerity which exudes in every photo. Cheers my friend 🙂
Thank you, Denny. That anti motion blur club is far from exclusive. 🙂
I’m not one of those people who throws a neutral density filter on every time I get near flowing water (I haven’t used my ND filter in ages), but there are times when the choice isn’t between whether or not to blur it, it’s only how much to blur it. And blurred water is a great way to convey motion in a static image. Of course so is freezing water mid-air, so in those situations where either is possible, it becomes a creative choice. (Freezing water usually requires direct sunlight, so you won’t see too many of those image in my portfolio.)