Painting with Motion

Shooting sports usually calls for a super fast shutter speed to freeze peak action or capture reaction/emotion. Sometimes however, it’s good to do just the opposite – something I like to call painting with motion – using a very slow shutter speed and following the movement. This is more commonly called panning, or dragging your shutter.

I wanted to challenge myself this past weekend at a local bicycle race, using this technique. And to make it even more of a challenge, I chose to stick with a super slow shutter of 1/2 of a second.

What I like about painting with motion is that you never know what you’ll get. The motion of the camera following the motion of the racers creates unusual results that you can’t predict and that’s what I love about this technique. Trying to follow the racers as they speed by at 30-35mph can be quite a challenge, especially with a 1/2 of a second shutter. You just do the best you can, and sometimes your mistakes can actually work in your favor, producing an interesting effect that you couldn’t predict.

To get proper exposure with a shutter speed of 1/2 of a second in bright daylight, a neutral density filter is needed. I used a B+W 3.0 – 1000X ND filter which allowed me to shoot at 1/2 second at F5-5.6 at ISO 200-320 in bright daylight. This filter gives you 10 stops of light reduction. Shooting through such a filter with a DSLR however offers a challenge – it’s so dark that you cannot see your image! Hard to follow movement when looking through a black viewfinder! Easy fix however if you have live view capability on your DSLR.

50mm, .5 second, f5.6, ISO 250

50mm, .5 second, f5.0, ISO 320

35mm, .5 second, f5.0, ISO 200

A few more tips for a more successful shoot :

1. Shoot in RAW mode as you will have some color shift with the filter.

2. Use the center focusing square to target your subject and try to keep it on your subject as you make your long exposure.

3. Auto focus will not work if you are using the 1,000X ND filter so you need to manually focus before attaching the filter or use the live view mode.

4. It also helps to lock on to your subject way before you shoot, moving your body from the waist up with elbows tucked to your sides as you trip the shutter. Trying to time your movement to the action is the challenge.

5. Change your background for different effects. Sometimes a cluttered, contrasty background works better.

6. Shoot a lot and try different shutter speeds for different effects. For this outing I kept it at .5 second just for the challenge.

I will be leading a sports photography workshop in May. See the post in our Upcoming Events column located at the top right of this page and for more info, contact me at