Strobe & Blur: How to Harness Motion Blur in Your Photographs

Using motion blur, slow shutter speeds and a bit of stobe can create magic in your photographs. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Using motion blur, slow shutter speeds and a bit of strobe can create magic in your photographs. 2 seconds @f16, ISO 400. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

One of my favorite times of day to shoot is right after dusk, as the light fades. It’s a great time to play with long shutter speeds and a bit of strobe, just to freeze and focus something within your frame. But how do you control these effects? That’s the subject of this post!

As it’s starting to get dark….and then as it actually gets dark—is a great time to do some cool work with your on- or off-camera strobe gear. I like to use mine off-camera most of the time since it gives me more interesting lighting, not coming directly from the camera axis point. So as you start to shoot that outdoor evening parade event, or band, or whatever, slow your camera shutter way down-start at about ¼ second-bump your aperture up to compensate and put some dialed-down strobe into your recipe. Shoot a couple of test shots and take a look to see if you’re even close to what you wanted. Not enough blur? Too much? How’s the overall effect?

This can produce some startling and beautiful results. But one thing you’ll need to do is decide whether to use front or rear curtain sync on your flash.

Front curtain sync is the default setting for a camera/strobe setup: you press the shutter button and the strobe fires. The important point here is that the strobe is firing at the beginning of the exposure. With a long exposure, the exposure begins, the strobe immediately fires, then the rest of the exposure takes place. This can be fine, beautiful even, but will depend upon the movement that you’re shooting. It can also lead to some strange and unwanted blur effects.

Regular front curtain sync can give you some weird and unnatural results. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Regular front curtain sync can give you some weird and unnatural results. 1 second @f4, ISO 400. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

For instance, in this example here, my tiki torch subject is moving from right to left in the frame. Using the default setting, my strobe fires at the beginning of the exposure, then the exposure records the continued movement of the torch through the frame. Good exposure, but weird result: how can the flame precede the subject like that? Or is he walking backwards? This is due to the fact that the strobe fired at the beginning of the exposure.

Switching to rear curtain sync solves the problem, creating the blur in the correct place to imply the motion you're trying to show. 2 seconds @ f16, ISO 400. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Switching to rear curtain sync solves the problem, creating the blur in the correct place to imply the motion you're trying to show. 2 seconds @ f16, ISO 400. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Switching to rear curtain sync will solve this problem for you. As its name implies, now your strobe will fire at the end of the exposure, right before the shutter closes (or more accurately these days, before the electronic signal to the CCD stops.)  So now we press the shutter, the exposure begins, records flame blur, than –pop!-records our tiki torch subject. The result is a believable photograph with beautiful motion, located where it should be.

So this is a great technique to learn! Each image will be unique, depending upon your exposure settings, the movement of your subject, and upon your own movement during the exposure. I usually do this type of photo in completely manual mode since I find this easier to make the tweaks necessary in the exposure combination.

On my Canon 580EX strobe, the front and rear curtain sync is located on the strobe itself. With some of the Nikon cameras that I’m familiar with, you control the sync from the camera. You’ll need to check your strobe literature to see how to utilize this feature on your camera equipment.

Good luck and happy shooting!

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

front-rear-sync-lead-pic

Posted in: Lighting

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

6 Comments on "Strobe & Blur: How to Harness Motion Blur in Your Photographs"

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  1. those are some sweet affects. nice pics and some good instructions.

    i’m going to give this a try

  2. Cool, glad you liked this…it’s something you can experiment and play with forever without completely mastering it….I love how unpredictable it can be at times!

  3. JP Claitor says:

    these are some awesome affects… I have a canon rebel EOS, is it possible for me to use these settings? If not, what should I do?

  4. Yes, you definitely can. You just need to get out and experiment. I don’t know if the Rebel will let you set the strobe to fire at the END of the exposure; if it can, try setting it for that.

  5. Colin says:

    I suggest you take a trip to Burning Man in California to take photos of all the fire-breathing people there. You could get some awesome shots with a great desert background.
    Me, I just settle for my little ole 35 mm and basic still frame shots.

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