Using movement in documentary photography by Karyn Novakowski
If you came to my home just outside of Boston, MA, you would find me picking up toys, cooking dinner for my family, or climbing a tree to get the best shot of my kids playing in the backyard. We live in an eclectic (read a mix of vintage, new and Ikea), toy and plant filled home. I love to read but struggle to find the time so, I fill that void with podcasts, lots and lots of podcasts. I'm probably listening to one as I type this.
I celebrate the small victories (pancakes, olives, strawberries and cottage cheese is an acceptable dinner, right?). I cry through the lows (why can't my kids sleep through the night?) and question my decisions on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. But the one thing I know for sure is that my kids have ONE childhood. And I'm not going to miss it. I might have a few too many dishes in the sink and baskets overflowing with laundry but that's because I choose to read books, play trains, or dribble a basketball.
I am a documentary photographer who photographs my own family and others in and around the Boston area. My goal is to create wall-worthy images of your real life! I love using motion blur in my images and I'm excited to share this lesson with you. I mainly use a Nikon D750 with a 24mm 1.8 lens. Sometimes I change it up and use a 50mm 1.4, but that happens VERY rarely. I use a 24mm because I like a lot of environment in my frames and I find the combination of a full frame camera with a 24mm to give me just the right amount.
Movement and motion blur are topics I can drone on about for hours. In order to avoid that, I'm breaking this lesson down into 3 categories:
Real Life Moments
Kids at Play
I'm using these categories because these are the moments I tend to use motion in my images. Within each category, I provide examples with a little insight about my thought process. I'll share shutter speed information for each photo, offer tips along the way, and explain WHY I think motion blur works for the image. In the final section I'll share a some images where I froze motion.
Real Life Moments
Example 1: Parents VS Kids
I find real life moments fascinating to photograph because of the juxtaposition of elements usually present in the scene. Kids and adults often want and do opposite things. I like to use this to my advantage.
Below there are three versions of the same scene - dad rests while the kids take a few laps around the dinner table.
I knew I wanted to include the table and dishes in the foreground, the kitchen counter in the background, my husband, and my kids.
To show the difference between my husband and my kids, I dropped my shutter speed to 1/30. Then I waited for the kids to bound into the kitchen and snapped away - all of the photos happened in quick succession.
I chose the middle image as the one to share because it best tells the story of a tired dad with kids who have endless amounts of energy.
Example 2: Dance and Sports
If you've ever been to a dress rehearsal for a dance recital then you're familiar with the parent papparazi (I'm one too, so zero judegment from me). When I'm in these situations I try less to isolate my daughter and more to capture the story of what she's experiencing. Rather than risk an elbow to the eye by being close to the stage, I stepped back to show the full scene. I took a chance and dropped my shutter speed to half a second (I know....that's rrrrreeeeaaallllyyy slow). I assumed the parents would stay relatively still and they did. As the dancers entered the stage, I started clicking. I liked the pink "wave" that they made and chose the third image because the dancer on the far right felt like the perfect addition to this frame. To me, this scene feels like organized chaos which is true to what it was really like.
Example 3: Freezing Motion
My original idea for this photo was to include my daughter climbing up the wall, my husband in the background drinking coffee, and my son running into the kitchen through my daughter's legs. I even tried the elusive wide angle vertical but abandoned that idea because I was more interested in the shape of my daughter's legs than getting her whole body. I kept my shutterspeed at 1/160 which is a little high to show motion but I wanted everything else to be very sharp. After the first image, my son never made another appearance so I was left with two of my three original elements. Even though I wasn't able to execute my original idea, I am happy with the final product and think freezing the motion worked best here.
*Think about what motion blur ADDS to the story in your image.*
Kids at Play
Example 1: Sliding, Spinning, Rolling, Running
You might have noticed that there is a wide range of shutter speeds in the examples above, from 1/200 down to 1/13. When people are running, jumping, spinning, twirling a flag, or doing somersaults you might not need to drop your shutter speed very much. In the examples on the left the shutter speeds were relatively high. I tend to keep my shutter speed around 1/250 so dropping to 1/125 is not a huge jump for me. For scenes like these where you want the majority of elements to freeze, don't go below 1/100. This keeps the motion blur subtle - in the cape on my daughter's dress, on my son's feet, and on the flag.
The frames on the right push the shutter speed much lower, one as low as 1/13. What I love about super low shutter speeds is that the images start to take on an ethereal quality and that quality can add to how an image makes you feel.
My suggestion is to start around 1/30 and keep dropping your speed until your subject becomes almost ghostlike. Just make sure to watch out for is face distortion. Faces can start to get a little creepy when you go below 1/30.
Don't forget to be mindful of your composition and moment. Ask yourself whether you are standing in the right place? Did you capture a moment that tells the best story?
Example 2: Playing in the House
This next example can apply to any indoor activity. Sometimes taking pictures in my apartment is frustrating because the scenes are so cluttered with extraneous information. In this case, my kids had been playing dress up and decided to make a dress shop. My daughter was putting the dresses on display and I wanted to document this moment. I walked around for a bit and finally settled on this angle but I wasn't happy with all the extra elemets in the frame. Below I'm going to critique my own photo. Arrows point to elements I like and dislike.
*Focus in on the motion to emphasize that element in the scene.*
I needed to get higher so that I could cut out the window, A/C unit, the wonky wall, pillows, and plants but still see the action of my daughter laying out the dresses. I was able to stand on a little step stool behind her and use the live view mode on my camera to see the scene.
I think the first image is most successful because it cuts out ALL of the extraneous information. That said, it's also the least sharp of the three and I don't love that I cropped my daughter's right hand. BUT IT'S OK! Let's not let perfect be the enemy of good.
I included this set because I think it's a tough one to photograph. If my kids do this again, I will have the knowledge from the last time to make a better picture. Sometimes I have to return to a scene multiple times to get a great photo.
*Practice, practice, practice. Review your photos, then practice some more.*
Water and Wind
The great thing about wind, water, and even fire is that they do a lot of the work for you. Natural elements are beautiful on their own, our job is to harness that beauty to tell the best story. Experiment with shutter speeds that enhance but don't distort the elements.
*Have fun! Be free! Let the elements guide you.*