Motion photography, how to capture movement in your images

Discover how to make the most of the technology built into your Canon camera to create striking motion shots.

From children and pets playing in the garden, through to flowing waterfalls in landscapes, action sports and beyond, photography gives you the opportunity to capture life in motion, in a single still.
As a photographer, you have two main choices. You can either freeze the action to capture a definitive moment or you can use motion blur to give a sense of movement and speed. Your Canon camera is packed with technology that you can harness for both approaches, as we explain here. 

Understanding shutter speed in motion photography

© Canon Ambassador Markus Varesvuo

The time that your camera shutter is open is measured in seconds or, more often, fractions of a second. If you want to make sure a moving subject is frozen in time, the shutter needs to be open for a very short time. If you want to introduce creative blur, extend the time the shutter is open. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/5300 sec, f/7.1 and ISO2500.

The most crucial factor in how you capture movement in your photos is controlling the camera’s shutter speed. It’s a good idea to test and play around with shutter speed until you have found what works for you. Most DSLRs have a maximum shutter speed of either 1/4000 sec or 1/8000 sec, whereas some mirrorless EOS cameras give you the option of using an electronic shutter for even faster shutter speeds. At the other end of the scale, slow shutter speeds enable moving objects to blur naturally, which can be very effective in creating a sense of movement.

How to set the shutter speed for motion photography

If you’re comfortable with the advanced features of your EOS (Electro-Optical System), try experimenting with Shutter Priority (Tv) mode. Taken on a Cannon EOS 90D with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM  lens at 1/1300 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400

© Canon Ambassador Wanda Martin

Shutter Priority (Tv) mode can either freeze or creatively blur the movement of your subject. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 at 2 secs, f/10 and ISO100.

The Tv (Time Value) shooting mode in Canon’s DSLR and mirrorless EOS cameras is often referred to as Shutter Priority mode. It’s great for motion photography, as you can simply select the shutter speed you want to use, and the camera’s metering system will automatically adjust the aperture for correct exposure. 

In some very bright or dark lighting conditions though, the range of shutter speeds available to you might be limited. This may mean when shooting in poor light you can’t use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze your subject, or on bright days you can’t extend the exposure long enough to introduce creative blur. The easiest way to resolve this is to use your camera’s Auto ISO mode in conjunction with Shutter Priority mode. Your camera will then automatically set the sensitivity so you can shoot at these fast or slow shutter speeds.

How to freeze action

© Canon Ambassador Samo Vidic

The more you zoom in on a subject, the more noticeable any camera shake becomes, so you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed to minimise blur. Taken on a Canon ER6 at 1/2700 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

As well as varying your shutter speed, there are other techniques you can use to convey movement. Look for the key action of the event. Shooting one subject is fine but two subjects moving in tandem can support the idea that fast movement and action are taking place, like here with the horse and the mud being kicked up. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/ 4L IS II USM lens at 81mm, 1/8000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400.
A shutter speed of 1/250 sec should be fast enough to freeze people walking around, whereas 1/500 sec is better if your subject is moving a bit quicker. For faster objects such as cars and birds in flight, shutter speeds of 1/2000 sec, 1/4000 sec or quicker are preferred. It’s important to experiment with different shutter speeds until you have found what works – and remember to have fun!

When photographing small animals or children, it’s easier to keep focus if your subject is at least three metres from the camera. If they get too close, it’s much harder to stay locked on. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM at 200mm, 1/1600 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100.
The children pictures’ motion of falling confetti has been frozen by a shutter speed of 1/200 sec and with the flash of a Speedlight EL-100, capturing the excitement of the scene. Taken on a Canon EOS 800D (now succeeded by the  Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO400.

Small children and dogs tend to move quickly and often erratically, so a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec should be sufficient, about the same works for shooting athletes. 

The Kids and Pets shooting mode often featured in Powershot cameras uses multiple focus frames to ensure that autofocus performs well, tracking the subjects. For EOS cameras that don’t have a Kids and Pets mode, switch to Servo AF (continuous autofocus). 

The Sports Scene mode available on most Canon cameras is a good starting point for freezing fast action. It changes the shooting parameters of the camera to favour fast shutter speeds as well as tracking moving subjects with Servo AF and firing bursts of multiple shots with Continuous Drive mode. However, to create motion blur in your sports photos, you’re better off switching to Tv (Shutter Priority) mode and setting the shutter speed you require. 

The Canon EOS R System cameras include Eye AF in tracking mode, enabling the camera to identify and lock focus on your subject’s eyes which is a reliable way of following your subject as they move.

Please visit us next week for more tips on:
. How to add motion with multiple exposures
. Moving your camera to add interest to videos

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