Photographing Objects in Motion

Objects in motion stay in motion. Not for photographers, though. We can stop them in time; hold them still with one click of the shutter. Yet we’re often trying to do it while capturing the sense of movement. For us, objects in motion are memorialized in motion—and can be darn challenging to capture.

object in motion photography

Though it’s not the only thing that matters, shutter speed is the most important setting to master when shooting moving objects. There isn’t one correct shutter speed for all moving objects. That’s because other variables, such as lighting and speed of the object, come into play when choosing shutter speed. If you’re photographing a whitewater rafting crew under bright sunlight, you’re going to use a different shutter speed than if you’re photographing them under cloudy skies. There are some general guidelines, of course, but you’ve got to tweak and experiment to see what works for you.

But wait! Who has time to tweak and experiment when you’re trying to shoot a moving object? That basketball player’s won’t hang mid-air while you fiddle around with your settings. The deer leaping across the field isn’t going to turn back and ask, “Need me to do that again?” That’s why practice is critical here. Practice in different lighting situations. Photograph lots of different subject—athletes, cars, children playing, water pouring, even just a marble rolling across a table. Practice close-ups and wide angles. And if you don’t have a great memory, take notes. Learn what settings generally work right for what situations and subjects. That way you won’t be taking wild swings when the rubber meets the road.

About those general guidelines, though: Try a relatively slow shutter speed to give a dreamy sense of movement, and by that I mean some blur. By low, I mean 1/8, 1/4, 1/12. Try a higher speed if you want to freeze a moving object in time. By higher, I mean 1/160 to 1/200. Try an even higher speed if you’re photographing moving people. Try a lower speed than you’d normally use and pan your camera steadily with your subject if you want to get the subject ultra-focused with the background ultra-blurred.

Some cameras add an extra layer of challenge because of shutter lag. If you’re photographing an object that keeps a relatively constant/consistent motion within the frame—think rolling river, or a child twirling in circles—you don’t have to worry as much about shutter lag. But if you’re trying to capture an object that has some sort of fleeting motion—think a splash, or a runner going over a hurdle—shutter lag is a pain. To compensate for the lag time, you must get intimately familiar with how long the lag is and then learn to anticipate the moment to take the shot. Again, practice, practice, practice.

Remember that there’s more than one way to skin the horse when you’re trying to capture movement. Sometimes you want good blur to give a greater suggestion of movement than what the naked eye sees. Sometimes you want ultra-sharpness to capture what a rapidly moving object actually looks like mid-action. The primary goal is to find the right relationship between your shutter’s speed and your subject’s speed. However you do it, we’re always happy when you share your photographs with us. And always happy to hear your own tips, too!

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