Blurring motion using slow shutter speeds can give dramatic effects.
Trial and error will show the most appropriate speeds for a particular type of motion or action, but there are some rules to follow in order to maintain image quality.
Blurring motion has become somewhat de rigueur for wildlife photographers in recent years, since it is a great way of illustrating movement. Motion-blur images also have their detractors. For some people such pictures leave them cold, while for others a motion-blur image can be regarded as a real piece of art.
Motion blur has the ability to bring a whole new dimension to bird photography; with this technique pictures can resemble paintings, creating a mood and atmosphere in an image that may be lacking if the bird’s motion had been frozen. Whenever you shoot birds in flight or running, try to assess whether there is potential for motion blur to enhance the picture.
Flamingos make a terrific subject in conjunction with slow shutter speeds because of their colourful plumage. On East Africa’s Rift Valley lakes, lesser flamingos parade in groups up and down the shoreline in a courtship ritual that involves the shaking of heads and fast walking.
The image below was taken on the shores of Lake Nakuru. It was shot with a shutter speed of 1/15 second to enhance the sense of movement. Any slower and the movement may have been too much, making the birds indistinguishable; any faster and too many sharp components may have been visible in the picture, so losing the effect.
This illustrates how unpredictable capturing motion-blur images is—the effect you will get cannot be gauged in advance. To hedge your bets when taking a sequence, take as many images as possible, and if the action is repeating itself regularly, as with the flamingos opposite, you can experiment with shutter speeds. You might find that speeds between 1/8 second and 1/30 second work best, with around 1/15 sec giving the most consistent results.
Image-stabilised lenses are great allies when shooting motion-blur images, since they help eliminate a lot of the camera shake that may be inevitable when using long lenses at such slow shutter speeds. These lenses help restrict the blur to the faster-moving parts of the bird. In many instances, having some sharpness to the bird’s head, or at least its eye region, is desirable; if you have a very blurred head, a lot of the impact and focus of the photograph can be lost. A Wimberley tripod head is also useful, as it allows for a steady, smooth panning action, helping to eliminate shake from the lens.
The Bird Photography Field Guide is David Tipling’s expert reference to teach you everything you need to know about capturing birds in all their beauty. With useful advice on the essential equipment and photographic techniques, as well tips on composition to get you thinking more creatively, you’ll be taking superb photos that show off your subject in the best possible way.