Photo Tip: Blurry Trees

Much of my photography is of the greater landscape and I'm often trying to present sweeping vistas with sharp detail. However, I also like to photograph more intimate scenes and abstracts. One of my favorite abstract techniques is motion blur. This can be achieved a few different ways and is a particularly good technique for emphasizing leading lines in a photo while smoothing out distracting elements. The final result can often look more like a painting than a photograph.

I really like to use motion blur with trees that have staight trunks. The technique is more an art than a science, so a lot of experimentation and throw away images are required to get something that I like. I start by setting a relatively slow shutter speed and making a vertical pan (movement) with my camera. I have found that shutter speeds between 1/4 of a second and 1/20 of a second work best. I move the camera up or down, in as straight a line as possible and depress the shutter release as the camera is moving. At slower shutter speeds I pan slower and at faster shutter speeds I pan faster. It is hard to know exactly what will be in the frame so I repeat the process over and over so that I will have many images to select from. Panning the camera while it is on a tripod can help keep the motion steady and smooth, but also limits flexibility.

Physically panning the camera is often all I need to do to achieve the abstract look I'm going for. Other times I selectively add more blur by using the Motion Blur filter in Photoshop (Filter>Blur>Motion Blur). To do this I'll create a duplicate layer of the background image and blur the duplicate. Then I'll add a layer mask to the blurred layer and paint with a black brush on the mask to bring through any detail from the original image that I want to keep. This digital blurring technique can also be applied to images that were taken in focus without panning the camera. Digital blurring often takes just as much trial and error as panning the camera.

Several of my favorite photographers have used these techniques to create some wonderful abstract images, including Jesse Spear, Eddie Soloway and William Niel.

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  • Michael and Leanne Hicks

    We love your motion blur images of trees... they are great images and well executed. Good stuff