Using a fast shutter speed will freeze motion in its tracks, and using a slow shutter speed with moving objects will spread the image over time. This creates a sense of motion. There are many methods to achieve this motion blur, such as panning on a moving object, shooting from a moving platform (train, car etc), using the zoom feature while the shutter is open, moving the camera on a still subject, or keeping the camera fixed while the subject is moving.
Here we will focus on the latter….Keeping the camera still while using a slow shutter speed will generate a blurring of the moving objects giving a sense of speed. Slowing the shutter even further may exaggerate this and tend towards the abstract. Blur is nice, but keep in mind the basics of composition for all the objects that are not in motion, such as buildings, street signs with the Rule of Thirds in mind. Remember, you are trying to convey a story and not just execute a technique. Imagine the lights as a river and compose the flow as if it were a landscape photograph. Look for low angles, and perhaps use a wide-angle lens to exaggerate the motion as the subjects pass through the frame.
I have found that traffic is a great place to start and especially in an Urban environment. Shooting just after sunset provides just the right balance between ambient light and the ability to catch the oncoming or receding lights. When it gets darker, lights become highly saturated and non-moving objects a bit more difficult to expose properly.If you have time, check out the traffic patterns before it gets dark and take a couple of test shots to check your composition. Also, try to get as close to the traffic as possible by looking for traffic islands or other vantage points. This will save some frustration later once you want to execute your shot. Look for some other vantage points as well, so you can quickly relocate if you are not satisfied with your first results.
The Set Up: You will need to have a camera that allows control over Aperture and Shutter speeds, or even better a DSLR that you can set to Manual. A good sturdy tripod will help to avoid any unintentional camera movement when the shutter is open to keep the non-moving objects crisp. You can also weight down the tripod with you camera bag hanging it from the center hook to further stabilize it. Using a remote shutter release helps as you will not even have to touch the camera, but if you donât have one, use a self timer on your camera after you have composed and see the shot emerging.Some DSLRs allow a Live View from the back LCD display. This allows you to have a bigger view, but more importantly, locks up the mirror for less shake when you trigger the shutter. If you have a lens hood, use it to avoid unwanted light intrusion.
The Camera Settings: How slow is too slow? It depends on the light and the speed of the subjects. Try a shutter speed of between 3 and 10 seconds and start with an aperture settings of f8 to f16. If you like the blur but it is too dark, open your aperture and take another shot. If the exposure is right, but not much blur, slow down the shutter and compensate with a smaller aperture. I always shoot in RAW, so I can make some adjustments later with my post processing software. Keep your ISO settings low (100) to avoid noise. Also look at the scene and try to judge the temperature of the light. Is it mostly incandescent, neon, sodium vapor and try a few test shots to adjust your White Balance. Often it can be a mix, so some experimentation might be in order.
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