The Hunt for… Blur?

This weekend’s, and my very first blog post on my very own website starts out like I’m certain many of them will in the near future – assignments. I am a student of photography, so it’s only natural that the majority of my assignments are of a photographic nature. I think it’s only fair that I share some of what I’m being taught along the way. Note, I don’t say “what I’m learning” since I’ve actually been doing many of these things for years. So much that a few of them come as second nature, which is the case with today’s topic. Creative blur.

Long exposure and motion photography are by far my favorite types, so I always love the opportunity to explore them more, and in different ways. My digital photography assignment for this weekend allowed such an opportunity, although my execution may have been a bit restrained due to my film photography assignment, which focused on people. Portraits are easily my least favorite type of photography, but that blog will come another day, probably as I attempt to play catch-up with earlier work of mine on this site.

So, let’s dig into the good stuff.

There are essentially two types of blur in photography; that created by motion, and that created by adjusting the focal plane. I’ll start with the latter, since I find the former much more interesting, and you should eat your veggies first, kids.

Focal Blur

More than likely, if you’ve done much photography at all, the first thing that’s come to your mind is “Bokeh”. That’s good, because that’s precisely what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t done much photography, then you’re probably wondering what the hell bokeh is. If you’re a nerd, you may be thinking that I’m insulting you. I promise, I’m not.
The word bokeh comes from Japanese, and most literally means “unsharpness” when written “暈け”. Meanwhile, when written “惚け”, yes, I’d be calling you an idiot. We’re not talking insults. Not today, anyway. The word “bokeh”, used in the photography context, refers to the quality of the out of focus areas of a photography. Most commonly seen in portraiture, bokeh can have many different forms and be utilized in many different ways.

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This is most likely the first thing that comes to mind when I talk about this kind of blur. Those little circles of light. Well… They’re not really circles here, because I was holding the lens against the camera at an angle (again, topic for another day). If you pay careful attention to these types of blurred light sources in a variety of photographs, you may notice that the shape changes, like how in the photo above, they aren’t exactly circular. That’s because light bokeh like this takes on the shape of the aperture of your lens, or the smallest point in the lights passage to the sensor/film in the camera. Yup, you can do some really cool stuff with that. Unfortunately, I haven’t played with shaped bokeh at all yet.

All you need to start making images with shaped bokeh are a prime lens (If you don’t have any, go for a “nifty-fifty” 50mm lens), and some black construction paper, maybe tape. I’ll do another blog on that, too.

So those lights are blurred like that because they’re behind what’s in focus, which means… You guessed it, you can do it with things in front of your subject, too. Two shots that I took just yesterday, one with the subject in the foreground, and the other being the stuff behind it in the background.

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This is achieved simply by selecting a large aperture (smaller f/ number), and selectively focusing. Open aperture = Narrow Depth, Closed Aperture = Wide Depth. It’s that simple.

Of course, you need to be able to adjust for the change in light coming into the camera when you make aperture adjustments. You can just set the camera to aperture priority mode, or you can go manual and figure out how to compensate with exposure time or ISO (if you must, remember, more ISO means more grain, too).

Next thing to remember is that the distance to your subject and your focal length (zoom) affects your depth of field, too. The further your focus point, the wider your depth of field, so get close! Or you can zoom in on something further away and that will also create a narrow depth. This will work even if you’re using a cell phone camera or a point and shoot, and even if you can’t change settings manually.

Focal plane can also be changed in a variety of other ways, such as “free-lensing” (holding the lens at an angle to the camera, as I’d mentioned earlier), or by using a (very expensive) tilt-shift lens. There are film alternatives, but I’m not going there, this is already pretty wordy.

Motion Blur

Here’s the dessert, kids. My favorite effect to achieve in photography.

The basics of capturing motion blur are pretty simple. Pick a slower shutter speed, take photo. Of course, nothing’s that simple.

Much like focal blur, there are a variety of methods for capturing motion blur. Boiled way down, but not as much as “pick a slower shutter speed, take photo”, there’s two.

The first is panning; the act of following your subject with your camera as it moves by you. For this method, I’d pick a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, and practice. It helps if you are able to rapidly fire the shutter, as well, though you may only like one or two out of every 10-20 at first. Shoot slower, and the subject will be blurred, too; shoot faster, and there won’t be enough blur, unless you’re photographing a drag car. I shoot a lot of drift events, so I’ll use an example from an event last May. (Don’t mind the sensor spots… I’ve cleaned it since.)

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Notice how the car’s in focus, but the wheels are blurred, and the road and background are blurred. That was shot at 1/60th of a second.

The other way to achieve motion blur is exactly the opposite. Keep the camera still, and let stuff move. You’ll want a tripod, or some kind of mounting rig (if you’re shooting, say, a moving vehicle. This is how you achieve that famous cloud blur, or light trails in photos like this one, that I took last fall for another digital assignment.

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That was shot at 8 seconds. On a tripod, or else nothing in the image would have been sharp, like this next one that I took handheld in a moving car because why not?

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Anyway, that’s blur in a nutshell, a rather large and text-heavy nutshell.

Summary time:

Two main types of blur, and the methods for making them happen:

Focal Blur:
1. Open Aperture
2. Focus Close or Zoom In
3. Throw Money at stuff (Tilt-shift) or don’t (free-lens).
4. Any combination of the above.

Motion Blur:
1. Slow Shutter Speed
2. Move the camera with the subject.
3. Keep the camera still and let stuff move.

If you want to do the opposite, then… well, do the opposite. For less focal blur, use a closed aperture, focus on things from a further distance, and/or use a faster shutter speed.

If you’ve got any questions, feel free to drop them to me via email at contact@williamfahrnbach.com, on my Facebook Page or in the comments here!

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