Movement by Kate Lapin

Hi! My name is Kate, and I am not a light chaser. (Although I really, really wish I was.) I’ve been a mom for almost seventeen years now and, like a lot of us, my photography habit started when I wanted to document my kids and their childhood. My twelve-year-old is still in that sweet spot where he’ll help me with an idea for a picture sometimes, but my sixteen-year-old doesn’t really have the patience for it anymore. So photographing movement is what I do because that’s where my kids are happiest. Both my boys are athletes and play a lot of sports. And when they are playing, they don’t notice me!! That’s like an entire hour to photograph my sons doing what they love best! Anyone with me?

Me and my crew, just a few weeks ago on Mother’s Day.

Turn That Dial to Manual!

The fun of motion photography and achieving different looks is playing with your camera settings and the light you have to work with. This stuff is a little boring but it’s so important to understand because you need to manipulate your shutter speed to balance the exposure triangle with your focus systems. That’s a mouthful, but we’ll get to it!

One caveat: Camera settings are relative to your unique situation! I’m going to share my settings for each example picture so you can use them as a jumping off point, but practicing and understanding your camera and your light is the real key here. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You get a bunch of bad pictures? Well…it’s going to happen. So what do you do? Troubleshoot, fix, and try again!

Settings: ISO 1250, SS 1/800, f/2.8

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 100 mm

Extra notes: Sometimes sports photography is just being in the right place at the right time, but if you prepare your composition and have your settings correct, you’ll be ready! I was actually using a monopod here, so my shutter speed is a little slower.

Exposure Triangle

For this entire article, let’s assume we want a properly exposed image. To do this, we have to control our light by balancing ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. To produce the specific effect we want, though, we have to know a little about what each of those things is best at. ISO manages your ambient light. If you are outside photographing a soccer game at noon, you’ll probably be at ISO 100. Shutter speed is how fast your shutter opens and closes and how quick a look your sensor gets at your subject. Aperture controls how much light will reach your sensor while the shutter is open. If we go back to that noon-time soccer game—let’s say it’s a high school game--and assume you want to freeze motion, you might be shooting around f/8-10 with a shutter speed of 1/1000-2000. Yes…I said 1/2000.

Action Tips

I’m going to quickly mention a few other camera settings here that can help you get sharp images when things are going super fast: back-button focus, focus modes, and burst shooting.

Back-button focus separates your shutter and the auto-focus. It actually takes a lot of time for your shutter button to do all the work. So if you reassign the little AE-L/AF-L button, your shutter can be quicker because it only has one job to do. When I’m shooting sports, my thumb holds down that little BBF button while I’m shooting with my pointer finger so that my camera is constantly refocusing, no matter what my player does. Yes it eats up a lot of the battery life, but that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make. Focus modes change the way your camera tracks your subject. Each camera system has different terminology, so check out your manual and look for the one that tracks your moving subject. In the Nikon world, it is called AF-C. Burst shooting is probably the best thing you can do to help you capture the peak of sports action. My Nikon D750 has three speeds: single, continuous low, and continuous high. I bet you can guess what I use!

Settings: ISO 3200, SS 1250, f/3.2

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 70 mm

Extra notes: I shoot a lot of hockey—our rinks have terrible overhead lighting and no natural light. I do think a full-frame sensor really helps in this environment, but I just wanted to note how high my ISO and shutter speed had to be to produce a sharp image. Yet, it is still well exposed with minimal grain.

One More Thing: Composition

You have watched a lot of your kid’s games, right? So you pretty much know where most of the action is going to happen. Scout out your compositions ahead of time. If you are shooting an outside game, also look at how the light is hitting your players and stand where it is pleasing. Taking all this into consideration, there might be only one place you can shoot from. And that’s okay!

So the groundwork is set and now we are ready when we see potential for good action during a game! Our camera settings and composition have been decided. We hold down the BBF button and shutter, and we shoot through the moment. That’s how you prepare yourself to capture those awesome action moments. It’s never an accident.

Settings: ISO 1600, SS 1/1250, f/2.8

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 200 mm

Extra notes: These guys are younger—so, slower skaters. I don’t have to push my shutter speed and ISO here as much as I do for the high school players. I probably could have used a slower shutter and lower ISO, but it’s sharp, so I’m fine with it.

Freeze Motion

Without a doubt, freezing motion is the first skill of photography! Your frame should be completely sharp. When I’m culling, I even look at fingers and toes—any motion blur there and I will toss it. While depth of field is great—it can actually help your subject look sharper--combating unintentional blur is your goal. And that means you have to troubleshoot. I usually take an image and check my LCD and histogram to make sure my settings are right—I’m not blowing highlights or clipping blacks, it’s sharp enough, it’s not too bright or too dark. Then I tweak where I need to so I am ready when the big moment happens. I’ll also adjust my composition at this point.

Settings: ISO 1600, SS 1/1250, f/2.8

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 82 mm

Extra notes: Over time, I’ve figured out my default shutter speed for hockey, so I set that first then manage my ISO and aperture. I try to keep my aperture at f/2.8 because it lets in the most light and I need it in those rinks! The depth of field isn’t too shallow because of the distance I am from my player, and the distance he is from the boards. I’m also using a 70-200 and not an 85 or 135 prime. My shutter might be a little fast, especially for the younger players, but I’d rather shoot too fast than have an image with unintentional motion blur.

Tripods and Monopods

We have to talk about them!! The official answer is yes. If you use a tripod or a monopod, you will significantly reduce blur of things in your frame that aren’t moving. But…they are just so cumbersome. And you have to remember them. And some places won’t allow you to use them. And you can’t adjust on the fly. And…blah.

Don’t worry! I got you!!

The secret to handholding is to become an organic tripod (haha…I just made that up). Remember from elementary school that a triangle is the most stable shape in nature? If you can sit down, bring your knees up so you can rest your elbows on them. Your thighs, belly, and upper arms will make a triangle, and your forearms will be stable enough to hold your lens still. You can even splay your feet and bear down on your knees a little bit to increase your stability. Likewise, if you can sit in a chair, use the chair arm as a platform to balance your elbows. My kids play a lot of ice hockey, however, and sitting down isn’t an option. So, I brace my elbows against my belly—not my sides, but as close to my belly button as I can comfortably manage. My upper arms, forearms, and lens make the triangle. I also stop breathing for a second, lean on the glass, cradle my lens with one hand, and bump up my shutter speed a little more than I usually would to compensate for any motion blur. I can handhold a 70-200 f/2.8 lens like this—it’s good motivation to hit the gym!

Settings: ISO 500, SS 1/400, f/5

Lens: 35 f/1.4

Extra notes: You can kind of see me if you zoom in, but I balanced my elbows on a counter top that’s about chest-high and cradled the bottom of my lens with one hand.

Blur Motion

When you blur movement in photography, something has to be sharp. Maybe your background is sharp and your subject is blurry. Or the other way around. Either is fine—but to showcase that blur, you need something to be sharp.

When you want to blur motion, you slow down your shutter speed. How much? Well…it depends. How fast is your subject going? If you want to pan your toddler at his first soccer game, your shutter will be really slow. Maybe 1/10. But if you are panning an F-1 car during a race, you’ll be maybe 1/160. Of course, don’t neglect your exposure triangle—the exact settings depend on how much light you have to manage. And also, the slower your shutter, the more you need to be mindful of camera shake. So the real answer here is to practice, practice, practice!! Know your exposure triangle and don’t be afraid of mistakes!! Try something, check it out, troubleshoot, change the settings that aren’t working, and try again.

Subject Blur

This is when your background is sharp and your moving subject is blurry. I think it works best when you have an interesting composition or you want to show your environment or you are up high shooting down. Again, because you are slowing down your shutter speed, you need to make sure you have some way to keep your camera still to avoid unintentional blur. Maybe you finally need to break out that tripod.

Settings: ISO 100, SS 1/60, f/10

Lens: 35 f/1.4

Extra notes: I just asked him to run back and forth a couple times and played with my shutter speed until I got the blur I wanted.

Settings: ISO 100, SS 1/30, f/22

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 185 mm

Extra notes: I really loved the curved line of the race track. The spectator hills were packed and I was stuck—I couldn’t move around to different positions. This is when I really started to play with my shutter speed.


This is when the background is blurry and your moving subject is sharp. To pan, follow your subject with your lens. I think of my space as a clock—the 12 is right in front of me, 9 is to my left, and 3 to my right. I will start following my subject when they reach the 9 or the 3; when they reach the 10 or the 2, I will start rapid-fire shooting so I am already shooting at the perfect moment. I tuck my elbows in toward my belly button, plant my feet, and twist just my torso. Your shutter speed, the speed of you moving your lens, and the speed of your subject all have to match up. This can sometimes take a little figuring. (A good way to practice this is to ask your kid to ride their bike back and forth in front of you.) And culling can be stressful—usually all my shots will be messy blurry lines except for The One.

Settings: ISO 160, SS 1/50, f/7.1

Lens: 35 f/1.4

Extra notes: Good composition is so hard when you are panning! I wish the street was lower in the frame, but I was glad he fell on the rule of thirds when focus locked.

Settings: ISO 100, SS 1/200, f/13

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 200 mm

Extra notes: This is the F-1 race in Austin, Texas, from several years ago. October here is still really hot and bright, so my ISO had to be at its lowest and I had to push my aperture so that I could slow my shutter. You can see how blurry the chain-link fence at the bottom is while the car is pretty sharp.

Zoom Panning

I think it’s important to try new things all the time. Here’s something I’ve been working on this year—I don’t have it down perfectly yet, but I have some tips I can share! If you try it out, I’d love to hear what works and doesn’t work for you! As a little reminder, the goal of blurred motion in photography is to make sure that something is sharp. And this is no different, except that it might be only the face. Or an eye.

You are going to need to use that monopod (a tripod would also work). I use spot metering and back button focus. I also use my 70-200 zoom lens, but really, any zoom lens will work--you will just start shooting when your subject is at a different distance from you. You’ll need a slow shutter but also a relatively high aperture (this will help your area of focus); then balance your ISO.

Settings: ISO 125, SS 1/40, f/3.5

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 130 mm

Extra notes: This is the first time I got a sharp image while I was zoom panning. I also love how some skates are blurry and some are sharp, so you can tell this was done in camera and not with a crazy blur filter.

Zoom panning will only work when your subject is coming in a straight line directly toward you. If they veer off that line, the focal plane will turn and you might not be able to catch focus. To start, twist your lens so it is at its widest; as your subject is coming toward you, zoom your lens in at their rate of speed. Hold down your back button focus, make sure the focus dot is over your subject’s eye, and use the fastest frames-per-second your camera has. The results will be similar to regular panning—you’ll throw out a lot of frames. But if you are lucky, you’ll get one with sharp focus surrounded by magic swirly blur. And it’s totally worth it.

Settings: ISO 160, SS 1/40, f/4

Lens: 70-200 f/2.8 at 70 mm

Extra notes: I wish there wasn’t so much space on the right side of the frame, but his face is sharp and his look of concentration is fantastic.

Thanks for following along!! If you have any questions, please tag me in the Facebook forum (Kate Crowley Lapin) or on Instagram (@kate.lapin)!

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