To Blur or Not To Blur: Shooting Outdoor Adventures

Sometimes images do well in the market if they convey a sense of motion and action. As photographers we are storytellers and our images need to convey that story. If you are into photographing action subjects like skiing, mountain biking, running, water sports, or any moving subject, you can enhance an image and story by emphasizing that movement. There are essentially two ways to show motion: you move the camera with the subject or you move the subject while the camera is still.You might think that freezing a moving subject in place tells a better story and it will in some cases like a skier in the air or any subject better displayed as ‘frozen’ in place.

This image works better as a frozen subject: You could not really get a more effective image by showing blur when he is riding towards the camera, so a fast shutter speed freezes him in place.

In this image the drama of the bicyclist riding through water is even more powerful using a fast shutter speed as it freezes him and the water.

If you use the fast shutter speed and your angle is from the side like this image I shot on assignment for Camelbak, you have a frozen biker that appears as if he is not moving. This is a perfectly fine image, it just does not show action and the drama that goes along with that.

An action image like this would not be nearly as powerful if it was blurry.

This approach shows a more dramatic image when you strive to show the motion of the subject by panning with it and using a slower shutter speed.

How to shoot blurry action

The number one consideration for photographing your action subjects to create effective blur is what shutter speed to use. An Indy Race car will require a much faster shutter speed than a porcupine crossing the road.

To establish a proper shutter speed it is easiest to shoot a couple test shots for your intended subject to help establish the shutter speed that creates the motion you desire and then set your camera to shutter priority at the speed you determined creates the effect you desire.

Next, set your AF point on one part of the subject and concentrate on that. Don’t look across your frame while shooting; rather stare at that AF point in an effort to keep in on the same spot on your subject. This insures you have a sharp subject and a blurring background. Also be sure and turn off your image stabilizer as it can get confused with the moving background.

This image shows the result of keeping that auto focus point on her head insuring that she is sharp while the rest of the scene shows that blur action.

In this example the camera is stationary while the subject blurs and I don’t think this is very effective, mostly due to the lighting.

With better lighting the subject conveys some good action as the camera is again stationary allowing the subject to blur at 1/30th of a second.

Here the blur does show action but it is not that interesting.

Instead using a flash allows the subject to be frozen by the flash while everything in ambient light blurs, like the water blasting them in the face, has a nice blur to it.

This image has flash placing a good edge on the subject while he blurs. The camera was set to f22 at 1/15th of a second.

Creating blur action does not work on every subject but can certainly add some motion that increases the sense of action. Depending on your lighting you may want to use flash to place an edge on the subject providing a sense of sharpness.


  • Choose a shutter speed appropriate for the speed of the subject
  • When panning with the subject, keep the AF point on the same spot on the subject and keep it there to maintain sharpness of the subject.
  • Use flash to add an edge to a subject as this allows them to pop out of the picture while surrounded with blur

Enjoy shooting action sports!

For more about the business of nature photography, check out my blog,


2 Responses to “To Blur or Not To Blur: Shooting Outdoor Adventures”

  1. Russ Bishop says:

    Some great images and tips on action shooting here Charlie. Thanks to Jerry for sharing this.

  2. Hey, thanks Russ!


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