Embracing the Blur in Photography
When asked why I enjoy photography, my reply is always “It’s the perfect blend of technology and art.”
For those who want to geek out about focal lengths, f-stops, and the other technical aspects, photography has plenty of space for that. However, if you want to explore more creative ways to use your camera, then there are lots of ways to do that.
My favourite one is embracing the blur in photography. Adding some softness to your image with intentional blur can change the mood and the feel of it in interesting ways.
For those who want to focus on tack sharp, hyperfocal distances, etc, go ahead.
Me? Well, I’m over here with my Lensbaby, or playing with ICM, or experimenting with layering multiple exposures in new and interesting ways.
ICM Port Hills, Christchurch NZ – – Photographer Stacey Hill
The best thing about photography is that there is scope for you to create in whatever way makes you happy. Adding in tools like Photoshop means you can be really experimental with your final images. There are no rules, you can play to your heart’s content.
Whatever you do, you should be aiming for one outcome – creating images that make you happy. They might be moody black and whites, soft pastel flowers, hard gritty street scenes, self-portraits, atmospheric forests, pets, families, dramatic landscapes, and so on.
Should you want to enter your images into club or organised competitions, there may be some requirements that need to be adhered to. But beyond that, don’t be afraid to push your boundaries and experiment.
How Can I Embrace The Blur in Photography?
Viburnum shot with Lensbaby Velvet 56 – Photographer Stacey Hill
Bokeh requires some specific things to happen:
- The subject must be closer to the camera than it is to the background
- Your lens is capable of shooting at a wide-open aperture; f2.8 is a pretty common option
- The quality of your lens – some give a nicer blur than others
The benefits of bokeh are that it is relatively easy to achieve. Also, you don’t need any extra special gear once you have a fast lens capable of good-quality bokeh blur. It’s a technique that does a good job of changing a messy, distracting background and making it smooth, soft, and neutral.
Bokeh is commonly used for portraits, especially outside environmental ones, weddings, and for bird photographers. There is a particular fashion for getting a shot of a bird perched on a branch and a very soft blurred background.
#2 Specialty Lenses
Lensbaby is a company that produces specialized art lenses. Known for its range of creative lenses that do all sorts of interesting things, including controlled lines of focus, swirly bokeh, soft bokeh, and other effects.
Some Lensbaby lenses are available as standalone lenses, and some are part of the ‘Composer’ product line, where you buy a holder that acts as a mount for the particular Lensbaby optic that you are using. A key element with the Composer is that it is moveable, so you can change the point of focus.
Winter Silver Birches shot with Lensbaby Sol 45 — Photographer Stacey Hill
Vintage lenses such as the Helios and Vivitar were made around WWII and they often had defects within the glass, which gave them interesting results. These lenses may give the background bokeh a noticeable swirl around the edges of the frame.
They are now sought after, as they were originally very cheap and even with the mount required to put them onto modern cameras they are still affordable.
Swirling Bokeh taken with a Helios lens — Photographer Stacey Hill
Both of these options (Lensbaby and vintage lenses) are manual-focus lenses (in general), so they up the difficulty level a bit for you, but they also make using them more fun. Plus, it gives you more control and flexibility in how you use them.
#3. Intentional Camera Movement (ICM)
This is the technique that offers the most fun, flexibility, and failure rate.
For every 500 ICM shots, you may only keep two or three initially. The challenging part is that you never quite know what you will get.
For ICM to work best, you need a neutral density filter (around ND4 seems to be the preferred option), but I use a screw-on Variable ND filter.
My variable ND filter ranges between ND2 and ND4 and allows me to block light even on a bright sunny day.
The point of ICM is to use a slow shutter speed, and physically move the camera while you are taking the shot.
Still in Auto Mode? Check out Manual Mode: 8 Compelling Reasons to Move Away from Auto Mode
Does it make a difference what direction you use?
Some things seem to prefer a certain movement to make them look the best; for example, you will often see forests done with a vertical up-down movement. If you try to do side-to-side, it just looks odd.
Bigger landscape photography scenes have a bit more flexibility.
Seascapes are often shot with either a flat, horizontal sweep for a very painterly finish or swoopy, curly movements following the flow of waves into shore.
ICM Seagull in flight (one frame) — Photographer Stacey Hill
The trick is to EXPERIMENT and see what works.
It’s digital after all, and you can take as many frames as your card (and computer hard drive) can hold. You will need to test to establish the ideal shutter speed. It can depend on the light, how much you are moving the camera, what you are taking photos of, and how much movement you want to introduce.
These are all creative choices that necessitate you trying different settings and seeing what you get.
In my experience, ICM works best if you are prepared to do a bit of editing to bring the best of the image out in post-production. Be prepared for some work in Photoshop or Lightroom to potentially finish your image off. Layering several different shots on top of each other and either blending or masking can give your image more movement or impact.
Circular ICM of a dahlia (one frame) – – Photographer Stacey Hill
My best Tips
Here are some ICM tips from my personal experience:
- A smoother amount of blur happens if you start the camera moving BEFORE you press the shutter release button.
- Wear tall gumboots so you can wade out into the surf and get up close with nice textured shots of the waves.
- Some subjects suit lots of movement, whereas some are better suited to only a little blur.
- Moving your whole camera rather than just tilting the lens gives you different results. The whole camera gives a smoother line.
- You will have loads of failures, so go into it as an experiment. Delight in the successes and learn from the experience.
- Around 1/3 to 1/5 of a second work best for me, but experiment with your own camera and ND filter to find your ideal time and movement combinations
- Slower shutter speeds allow you to do a lot of movement at the beginning and then hold the camera still to get more of the subject in focus (eg: seagull above).
#4 Selective Focus
In my experience, selective focus tends to work best with a macro lens, but any good-quality lens capable of shooting at f2.8 could be used.
Selective focus is where you choose to use a very narrow depth of field to highlight one part of a subject and have only that part in focus.
NZ $2 coin selective focus with 100mm f2.8 IS L Canon Macro — Photographer Stacey Hill
It takes a steady hand on the camera, as it can be a physically thin slice of focus you are working with, measured in millimeters even.
My recommendation would be to work with a tripod for these kinds of shots as one breath can be enough to throw the shot out of focus.
Shooting with Live View on, and a wireless remote will help
A lot of photography is very intent on it being ‘tack sharp’ as the phrase goes. I’m here to tell you there are other options.
Softness and blur give an image much more emotional impact. It’s a perfectly valid creative choice to allow some softness into your image.
Another overlooked facet of this kind of image is that it is FUN!
Especially ICM where you have no idea what you will get at the end of a shoot.
Adults do not allow themselves to relax or play enough. I give you permission to try something different.
I give you permission to fail, and in doing so, to learn. Keep trying, because that means you will keep learning.
Embrace a different approach, allow some softness into your work. Learn to see the world in a different way.