I see people savoring those pictures with streaming car headlights, and thinking that those photographs are something they could never take. That's such a shame as you don't need to be an advanced photographer to be able to get that effect - neither do you have to be in Rome with a view of the Colosseum. The technique used in the photograph to the right is the same technique used to create that lovely "candy floss" effect in water, or other effects using motion blur, such as with the Blacksmith below. The photograph of the Colosseum in Rome (above right) can be achieved easily - in fact it was achieved in conjunction with the handicap of wine, and a film camera where results couldn't be viewed for a couple of weeks after the event. If you have a camera on which you can control the shutter speed (which these days includes many compact cameras) you could take a shot like this right now.
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If you have a compact camera you'll have to check your manual to see if you can control the shutter speed of the camera, but if you have DSLR I'm sure you'll be fine on that count. You're pretty much good to go. I'll run you through it right here below.
Wine is optional... I recommend a good Merlot... Enjoy the ride...
How Can I Take These Kind Of Photographs?
For you to show "motion blur" you need an object or person to travel from one place to another in the frame while your camera's shutter remains open. That way the camera will gather the "light" from that object all the way from it's start position to it's end position - creating "the blur". This isn't as complicated as it sounds. It just means telling your camera to leave the shutter open a little longer than usual. That's all.
The easiest way to achieve this is to put the camera in "S" - shutter speed priority mode (if you're a Nikon user), or "Tv" Time Value mode (if you are a cannon user). This can usually be done by rotating a circular dial on the top of your camera to the correct position ("S", or "Tv"). When your camera is in this mode your camera will automatically adjust the camera's aperture to your desired shutter speed so you'll get the right exposure for any shutter speed you choose. To change the actual shutter speed (as opposed to the mode the camera is in) for Nikon you rotate the dial which sticks out of the back of the camera just below the top LCD screen. If you are in any doubt have a look in your instruction manual. Where there is plenty of light available, you may need to adjust the sensitivity of your sensor (ISO), or use a specific filter on your lens - but for now just concentrate on shooting at different shutter speeds.
If taking the picture above right for example, after placing the camera into "S" mode I would rotate the dial until it showed 1/8 second on my top LCD screen. Then I would shoot. In fact that is exactly how that shot was taken. Set the camera with the right shutter speed, line up the shot, and shoot. Job done.
It's Really That Easy?
It can be that easy - and it was with my photo of the blacksmith, but I confess I got lucky with that shot above - I have a very steady hand.
You need to be aware when you are shooting at slow shutter speeds that you have an enemy. You're getting the type of blur that you want (motion blur) but there's another type of blur that can creep into your shot - "the shake" - camera shake (your enemy). Camera shake occurs when there is a tiny (or big) movement of the camera body while the shutter remains open. As the camera moves, stationary objects will act as if they are moving (albeit it is the camera which is moving). The shot to the left exhibits camera shake and motion blur. There is the desired motion blur in the rod that the man is holding, but the whole of the shot is also blurred to some degree, because the camera did not remain steady for the duration the shutter was open. Where the tools in the background of the blacksmith shot are pin sharp, on the shot above left they are blurred. Camera shake can ruin a shot as it did this one - but is easy to eliminate.
If I had tried to hand hold the above shot of the Colosseum (top) I would have had a massive amount of camera shake - the whole picture would have been a blur. You want an effect where you're moving objects are blurred and all stationary objects are pin sharp. The trick to these kind of shots is that the camera must remain absolutely still the whole time the shutter is open. Only if the camera is still will your stationary objects remain sharp. When you take a shot like the one of the Colosseum, with a shutter speed of a second or above, I have yet to meet a human being who could hold the camera so still that there would be no camera shake. Even without wine I wouldn't have been able to do that.
How Do I Eliminate Camera Shake?
This is where I hear people groan - is this where I have to carry around a massive tripod? Well, not necessarily. I didn't have a massive tripod with me in Rome when I took that picture of the Colosseum - yet I was able to keep the camera steady for over a second. There are alternatives to using a full sized tripod. Keep in mind though that the full sized tripod is specifically designed to do exactly the right job without the need for improvisation. It also offers you total control and flexibility over where you want to shoot from, and at what angle.
With imagination, ingenuity, and a dose of determination it is possible to take these images without investing in a hefty tripod (by the way, with modern technology a full sized tripod doesn't even have to be that heavy or hefty). This is because, here, the only function of the tripod is to keep the camera still. There are other ways that you can keep the camera still which you can try before resorting to a tripod. In Rome I looked around me to see if there were any objects I could rest my camera on. I used the box full of electronics which controlled the traffic lights. Fair enough, I also used a 3 inch tripod on top of this, so I could obtain the angle I wanted for the shot, but that could easily have been done just as effectively by resting the camera on a coat, or bean bag.
There is quite a bit of kit you can invest in to stabilise your camera for a long exposure. Which piece or pieces of kit are right for you - only you can decide - my job here is just to make sure you make an informed decision so that you can get what is right for your needs. Tripods vary. Some can be large but fold up quite small and can be made of very light materials. Some tripods can be so small they can fit in your pocket - like the one I had with me in Rome, or the one pictured above. It was certainly worth a partially full pocket to get that short of the Colosseum I think?
Enjoy your shooting, and please let me know how you get on in the comments section below!