Occasionally I see shots that have motion blur around the subject ... yet the subject is in focus. They are usually shot at very slow speeds, sometimes they even have a 1 second exposure, yet the subject is in focus. Is this done mostly in post, or is there some sort of camera trick that can make this happen?

Here is a shot I took today attempting this, it is however a very poor example. How do I improve this?


(f/2.8 1/20s ISO 100 - 24mm)

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, I think the motion blur here adds significantly to the image. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Jan 10, 2011 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why "poor" example? Looks great to me. \$\endgroup\$
    – ysap
    Jan 25, 2011 at 19:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ysap, thanks, the first sample was a lot worse, I removed it, I am still not that happy with the contrast and colors on this one. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26, 2011 at 2:35

3 Answers 3


This is a technique called "panning". You track the motion of the subject with the camera and follow the subject while pressing the shutter. Its the equivalent of "follow through with your swing" in sports analogy.

Digital Photography School has an excellent resource at:

  • Select a slightly slower shutter speed than you normally would; 1/30 second is a good start.
  • Position yourself with an unobstructed view of the path of the subject. As the subject approaches track it smoothly with your camera. Being parallel to the path of the object is best.
  • If your camera has automatic focus tracking, half press the shutter button; otherwise, pre-focus on the spot where you'll release the shutter.
  • Once you've released the shutter, continue to pan with the subject even after the shot is complete.

(Older digital cameras may have "shutter lag" that complicates this process)

I've not seen it require anywhere around 1 second shutter, but typically 1/30th or so will produce a plenty noticeable motion blur in the background.

Anything too much below 1/20th or perhaps even 1/30th and you're going to start to see some camera shake on many focal lengths. Doing this on a tripod is much easier for sports and such (its a common shot in Nascar and racing).

For young kids, while certainly not impossible, I've personally found it exceedingly difficult to get good panning shots because of the erratic nature of their movements.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Generally the panning technique that rfusca describes is one of those techniques in photography where you find yourself trying it 10 times (or more!) and hope that a couple turn out nicely. It can make for a wonderful sense of motion in a picture, but it is faaar from an exact science to capture a good one... \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2011 at 7:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ It all depends on how much blur you're willing to accept on your subject. Often in a panning shot, blur on the subject is unavoidable, especially around the arms and legs. If you capture the emotion of the scene, and the subject is "sharp enough", it's not always necessary to get it perfect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Jan 9, 2011 at 8:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jay ... yeah I just improved my sample a bit ... had to throw away about 40-50 shots just to fall on one OK one ... tracking babies is a nightmare. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2011 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ A useful feature for this of some manufacturer's image stabilisation (Canon at least, not sure of others), is a panning mode stabilisation (Canon call it Mode 2; some lenses auto-detect panning, some have a switch). It basically only tries to stabilise in one direction, which can help to reduce vertical blurring while panning horizontally. This is useful for something moving past you at a constant height (e.g. car/cyclist/runner) but isn't necessarily always helpful (e.g. won't help in the shot in the question of a child running toward the camera) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 7, 2014 at 7:17

To add to what rfusca stated in his answer, you should look into using second-curtain flash. Flash is also a powerful action-stopping tool, but is often overlooked. When using flash, the pulse is only a tiny fraction of a second long, and usually occurs when the front curtain of the shutter opens.

To capture motion blur, but also freeze the subject's motion, second curtain flash sync can be used. Rather than firing the flash pulse when the shutter initially opens, using second-curtain sync will fire the flash pulse a moment before the shutter closes. When combined with "slower" shutter speeds, such as 1/30th of a second (or slower...depends on how much motion blur you want), the flash will freeze your subject clearly at the end of the exposure time.

Second certain flash sync is used to great effect in areas like sports. Most of us have seen those fantastic shots of a baseball player running for base, with a beautiful trail of motion blur behind them. Or of a basketball player flying in for the dunk, motion blur showing their trajectory. An excellent example of this is this cyclist racing around a corner (found via Bing...no reference site):

Second Curtain Motion Freeze

I would give second curtain flash sync a try. If you are close to your subjects, you will probably want to dial down the flash power (flash exposure compensation). You don't really want the primary lighting to be from the flash...you just want to use it to freeze your subject.

Here are some resources that might help you out:

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    \$\begingroup\$ A curtain flash sync sounds like a fantastic way of improving my results! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2011 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer - I've usually heard it called rear-curtain sync (and I need more practice with it :) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2011 at 1:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Rear curtain sync is another term for it. I've heard both terms used, although I hear second-curtain sync more often from sports photographers. Either way, its a great technique. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Jan 10, 2011 at 1:59

@jrista pointed it out pretty good already.

Here is another example I shot: BMX motion blur example photo

1/80s 33mm Crop

As you can see, only very small parts of the image are actually sharp.

This photo is one successful shot among 125 barely usable ones. You can probably get a better ratio with more experience and maybe a mono- or tripod, but it will always require many many attempts to get this effect right.

You can of course only achieve this effect for clear movements in one direction. If the subject is coming closer, you could theoretically get a similar effect using the zoom - I think, however, that it's the easiest just to pan.


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