Blurred Motion: Gimmick or Creative Tool?

Cassowary in rain forest, Australia

At one time, the gold standard of wildlife photography was a perfectly focused image, sharp and crisp, capturing a fleeting moment of nature in exquisite detail. Over the 30 years I have been photographing animals, it has become much easier to capture that kind of image with the increasing accuracy and speed of auto-focus and the quality of available lenses. So how do you explain the abundance of intentionally blurry wildlife pictures?

You know what I'm talking about. They appear regularly in major magazine stories and always seem to be winning photo competitions where "blurry" seems to have become synonymous with "creative."  It began with blurry cheetahs, whose streaking form implied the great speed these animals are famous for. And who hasn't seen, or taken, the slow-motion blurred shots of waterfowl flocks at iconic locations like Bosque del Apache or the Sacramento Valley?

The truth is, this is a technique I often employ in my own work as a way to vary the "look" of the pictures and enlarge my visual repertoire. This blur-pan Cassowary, for example, was one of a series I shot one day when I was in an experimental mood. I wanted to show how these giant birds crash through the dense rain forest understory with a speed far beyond my ability to follow.  (I always ended up tangled up in razor-sharp vines, while they could plow on through without stopping!)

My goal was to capture the bird crashing through the vegetation. I decided to use fill-flash to freeze the motion in his face, giving a sense of personality. My exposure : 1/25 second at f11, with the ambient light set at -2 stops. (This took some experimenting to get right).

So my question is this: does this shot tell a story that a sharp picture would not?  But are we over-using this technique: has blurry become a gimmick?  I welcome your thoughts on the subject.

Scarlet Macaw, (Ara macao), SE Peru

In this image, I used the same technique as above, but with a very dark background. The flash stopped the motion of the bird, but left the background a field a streaking color - created by bits of natural light poking through the rainforest canopy.  (Tech note: this is also done by intentionally darkening the ambient light by setting the camera's exposure compensation at -2.3)   Does this picture work for you?

Bats emerging from cave at dusk, Calakmul, Mexico

And finally, look at this one, where I did not use a fill flash  but shot at a relatively slow 1/50 second, letting the bats go wildly blurry in their spiraling flight out of the cave.  To be honest, I can't decide about this one. Frankly, it just looks blurry to me, with nothing sharp to "hang your eyes on."  But it is the kind of edgy, "artistic" image that suggests an artistic approach. Is that valid?

I encourage you to weigh in on this subject. Are blurry pictures a passing fashion, or another creative tool in the wildlife photographers kit?  (It's not just wildlife, either. How many landscape photographers are intentionally blurring waterfalls or windblown flowers?!)  Have we exhausted the technique or are there uses for blur that we haven't seen yet?    Let me hear what you think.

6 Comments

    I’ve seen photos in some art shows that look to me like the mistakes I delete from my memory card. Sometimes it makes me feel like it just don’t “get it” (this blur craze). Having said that, I do feel that blur can be a great creative tool when used with good judgment. I think your scarlet macaw works very well, at least for me. I definitely get the sense of motion, but there is enough that’s sharp to draw my eye to the subject.

    Some photos look good while blurry (like your Macaw, I really do like it) while others (like the bats) are not. I am for trying new things but most of the time when I see a blurry image I generally don’t like it. Photographers are taking the thrill and fun of this technique away; its just too much.

    Ashana, Thanks for your comments. Like most creative techniques, blur-motion can be overused. It works well for the flying macaw, I think, because the bird remains sharp, while the background streaks create the sense of motion. When nothing is sharp, as Ann says, it tends to look like a mistake!

    I like the blurred or rather panned shot of the Macaw. I think that you hit the nail on the head, a certain element of focus needs to be kept for the image to have an impact. I may be the conrast needed between blurred background and the image in focus. I’d just like o know how many times you had to try and get the Macaw shot with the bird in focus. Really great detail.

    Hilton, I was shooting film in those days, and I think I burned through 3 rolls of 36, out of which there were five or six images where the bird was sharp, and in a nice position (I have a lot of shots of the bird’s tail, or with the wings in front of the face.) Yes, you have to be prepared to burn through exposures when working with a fluid situation like this – and the great gift of digital is that you can get immediate feedback. I didn’t know what I’d gotten of the macaw until nearly a month later! Thanks for commenting.

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