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.