The Art of the Speed Blur in Surf Photography

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          In the past few years I have grown very fond of the technique known as the speed blur. It was something that brought new life into photography for me as I have been shooting waves for about 10 years and it was starting to get stale. It also gave me the ability to shoot in low light conditions before sunrise or after sunset when there is usually a bit more color in the sky. It also isn’t an easy technique to master which had made it even more fulfilling and has kept me trying over and over to prefect them.

What is a Speed Blur?

Shot from the beach with a 100-400 IS no tripod.

Shot from the beach with a 100-400 IS no tripod.

          A Speed blur is a technique of using a slow shutter speed to match the speed of a moving object so the background is blurred and the subject is still sharp. I primarily use this technique for waves or surfers. The idea is to create a photo that conveys motion even though it is a still picture. While I use this mostly for ocean photography, it can work with anything. You can go outside right now and take a shot of traffic passing by and if you use the correct shutter speed and time your shot correctly you will have a tack sharp car with a blurred background creating the a motion like effect. It is important to understand the goal of this technique because in the process you will likely walk away with a ton of shots that are a blurry mess.

Lens Selection and Why it Matters

Everything is better during golden hour and speed blurs are no different.  Drop the ISO and max the aperture to get the slowest shutter you can while the sun is still up.  Shot with 135MM with no IS.  1/20 ISO 100 F/18

Everything is better during golden hour and speed blurs are no different. Drop the ISO and max the aperture to get the slowest shutter you can while the sun is still up. Shot with 135MM with no IS. 1/20 ISO 100 F/18

          One thing I have noticed with speed blurs is the different lenses you have will make a huge difference in how speed blurs come out. One of the most important things for speed blurs is Image Stabilization or IS. Image Stabilization is a feature that many lenses have that tries to compensate for shaky hands. In telephoto lenses it is even more important because they are generally heavier and the further you are zoomed in the more a slight shake of your hands will affect the image. If you are shooting from the beach and do not have a telephoto lens with IS you can compensate for it by using a tripod or monopod to keep it on a level plane. You can get decent speed blurs without IS and a tripod/monopod it is just much more difficult and you will have to work on keep your hands as steady as possible. If you are shooting in the water IS will help a ton especially if you have no sandbar or structure to stand on. This also can be done with a lens without IS but it is much more difficult especially when swimming. I use a 135mm prime lens in the water that does not have IS and if there is no sandbar to stand on my success rate is very low.

Settings

Still plenty of light left after sunset for speed blurs. Shot 1/20 ISO 400 F/18 at 135MM

Still plenty of light left after sunset for speed blurs. Shot 1/20 ISO 400 F/18 at 135MM

         The main factor that will affect your settings for speed blurs will be the lighting. Without a Neutral density filter you cannot shoot speed blurs in the middle of a bright and sunny day as it is just too bright. The ideal time for speed blurs is before and after sunset/sunrise or on very overcast days. Your ideal shutter speed for speed blurs is going to be between 1/5 to 1/50 depending on lighting and distance from subject. My go to settings are usually to set my camera to shutter priority mode at 1/20 and my ISO to L for low. This lets the camera keep a 1/20 shutter speed and adjusts the aperture to compensate for the changing light. Keep your aperture in mind as your start to run out of light as the wider your aperture the less depth of field you will have in your shots. Once my aperture is down to 2.8 I will usually call it quits as the depth of field will be very narrow. I will usually use these setting when its brighter like after sunrise or before the sun sets. Once it gets dark I will usually boost my ISO up to 400 and use shutter priority mode and keep it between 1/10 to 1/20. The closer you are to your subject the faster shutter speed you can use. If you are shooting in the barrel shots you might want a shutter speed of 1/30 or 1/40 since the wave is much closer and there for moving by you that much quicker. If you are shooting way down the beach with a telephoto you can use a slower shutter speed of maybe 1/10. Keep in mind the slower your shutter speed the easier it is to shake the camera in the wrong direction and turn your shot into 2 year old’s crayon drawing.

Surfers vs Waves

Pat Schmidt Standing tall on a bomb.  Got really lucky with this one as it was the only frame that came out pretty clean and there was not enough light to shoot anything else but blurs.

Pat Schmidt Standing tall on a bomb. Got really lucky with this one as it was the only frame that came out pretty clean and there was not enough light to shoot anything else but blurs.

          When I am going to shoot speed blurs I am usually going for empty waves. The one main reason for this is that it is much harder to get a clean blur with a surfer in it. When shooting empty waves you just need to match the speed of the wave, but when you add a surfer into you need to match the speed of both. I have found it much more difficult to get very clean results because often the surfer is moving his arms or body against the direction the wave is moving. You can still make this work but I have often found (especially when shooting from the water) that part of the surfer is going to be blurred out. The only time I usually try to take speed blurs of surfers is when I am completely out of light and it is the only option to get a shot. You can still get some cool results especially when shooting from the beach but I have found that over the years I have had much more success getting clean empty waves than I have surfers.

Subjective Blurs

Even small waves can make for interesting lines and patterns.  This wave is only about 6 inches tall.

Even small waves can make for interesting lines and patterns. This wave is only about 6 inches tall.

          When shooting speed blurs there are really no rules for what makes a good or a bad image. To some people they may look like a blurry mess no matter what. They tend to be more subjective in that some images will look good to some and not others. I was originally not a fan of speed blurs but over time they really grew on me and now I look forward to any chance I get to shoot them. My goal for speed blurs is generally to try to create lines and shapes that flow and are pleasing to the eye rather than trying to capture an accurate representation of what I am seeing. To me the trial and error of creating something new is the best part and reminds me of when I first started taking pictures and I just wanted to shoot anything and everything.

Photographers that inspire me with their Speed Blurs

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 All Photos Copyright of Dave NIlsen Photography 

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