Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Blur or Bleah?

I am, and always have been, very keen on sharpness in photographs. Over the years I have gone to great lengths and considerable expense in the pursuit of sharpness and detail. However, sometimes there is a case for using blur to enhance your pictures. The two that come to mind at the moment are the blurred background, sometimes called bokeh, which lifts the main subject out of the picture and makes it look even sharper than it really is. Also motion blur is a great way to show movement and get a little bit more excitement into the picture.

Motion Blur

Panning the Camera

The picture above is a nice example of the technique called panning. This is basically just following the movement of the subject with the camera. In order to get the streaks in the background you need to have a relatively slow shutter speed, in this case 1/90th of a second, which I got by setting the camera to Av or aperture priority and setting the aperture to f22, the smallest aperture on that particular lens. The exact shutter speed you need for the best effect depends on how fast the subject is traveling, how far you are away and how blurred you want the background, a slower speed would have made the streaks longer. If you're going for really slow speeds you need to put the camera on a tripod.

Sharp focal point

The technique works best on subjects with wheels as they move more smoothly. The reason why the rider and the bike are sharp is that, by moving the camera along with the rider, the rider is stationary in the picture area. In order for this to work the movement of the camera and the subject needs to be smooth and only in one direction. Runners will have a great deal more up and down movement which makes it difficult to render any part of the picture sharp.

I have always thought that there should be at least some part of the picture which is sharp, preferably the main subject, to make a more pleasing picture and also to show that what you did was deliberate and not a mistake.

Sharp background

Motion Blur

The opposite of the sharp subject and blurred background is, obviously, a sharp background with blurred moving subjects. This doesn't usually work too well with a single subject but it does look good when you have a crowd of people scurrying about as in this picture taken at a train station. To get this shot you really must use a tripod as the exposure needed can be quite long. If you can't get the shutter speed slow enough even after stopping the lens down to the smallest aperture and setting the ISO speed to the minimum setting, you can add a neutral density filter to the front of the lens to cut the amount of light entering the lens and extend the exposure time. If you don't have a neutral density filter, you can use a polarizing filter, you will probably need to turn the polarizer to get the maximum benefit, the darkest picture. Providing your camera is set to Av (aperture priority) your metering system will automatically compensate for the lower light and increase the time that the shutter is open.

Once again we have the contrast between the sharp background and the blurred people, leaving the viewer in no doubt that you produced the effect on purpose.

No sharp focal point

Motion Blur - Runners Motion Blur, more runners

Recently though, I am beginning to change my mind a bit. Sometimes a blurred picture can really show the mood of the occasion. The runners in this picture are more or less all blurred but somehow it does convey a sense of motion and excitement that I find rather appealing.

I think you have to judge each of these pictures on an individual basis, some will be utter rubbish, others will just appeal to you. It's quite difficult to make 'rules' about what may work and what won't.

If I had to stick my neck out and offer some kind of explanation as to why a totally out of focus picture might work, I would say that it needs some kind of focal point. In the second picture of the two runners, which I'm rather fond of, the red Santa hats draw the eye simply because of the strong color making them a sort of focal point. Also the addition of the text gives us a sharp focal point in contrast to the blurred background.

I'm not saying that these last two shots will appeal to everybody, one person's 'quite interesting' is another person's 'complete mess'. All I'm saying is, if you like the result don't worry if it doesn't conform to the rules. The 'rules' are there to help you, not to restrict you.

Personally, I think blur definitely has its uses. I will always try to get the best sharp pictures I can as a first priority but when there is time to experiment, I like to try a few 'motion blur' shots. A word of warning though, expect a high failure rate, be ruthless in the editing, throw away all but the best shots.

It's your choice - Blur or Bleah.

Other tutorials in this section


An introduction to composition, explaining the 'rule of thirds' and the use of diagonals.

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Composition - Check the Background

Watch out for those ugly dustbins!

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Rule of Thirds

The most important rule of composition.

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How to fill your frame with your subject.

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Another important aspect of composition.

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Depth of Field

What it is and how to use it creatively.

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Blur or Bleah?

How to use Motion Blur, and a discussion on when it's appropriate.

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