Last week on the blog I took you through the merits of 'poor' weather in wildlife photography.  Hopefully I convinced you to don the waterproofs and get out there in the rain, sleet and snow!  This week I'll be looking at how to use motion blur effectively in your images.  The rules of wildlife photography, particularly birds in flight, would tell the photographer to use as high a shutter speed as possible in order to freeze movement and avoid blur.  High shutter speeds (around 1/1000 of a second and above) can help to ensure a sharp image is achieved when photographing fast moving subjects.  Slow shutter speeds however can give a much more creative feel to your image, although they are a lot harder to achieve with a much lower success rate, when you get one right they can stand out above the rest.

There are a few ways in which slow shutter speeds can be used.  When taken whilst keeping the camera static (on a tripod), the camera will pick up any movement caused by a moving subject, whilst keeping the static parts of the frame in tact.  This is used very effectively when photographing wildlife whilst asleep or resting with a moving backdrop.  I have seen some great images where a gannet colony is photographed with a slow shutter speed and the camera left static on a tripod.  The gannets remain sharp and in tact as they are not moving whilst the crashing waves and rolling seas behind are blurred and give a real sense of movement.  The other technique is slow shutter panning - this is where you pick a moving subject, such as an animal running or flying, and pan at the same rate as that subject with a slow shutter speed.  In theory, this will keep your subject relatively sharp whilst blurring the background and any other movements.  This technique is extremely hard to achieve but is fantastic when you get it right:

"The Glider"

The above image was taken off the coast of Mainland Orkney at the RSPB reserve Marwick Head.  This is a fantastic place to witness the grandeur of rugged coastal cliffs with a 25,000 strong mix of atlantic puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and northern fulmars to name but a few.  This photograph is of a northern fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis) gliding over the rough seas below whilst slow shutter panning.  I never tire of seeing these fantastic seabirds, they look graceful as they effortlessly glide in the strong winds as I fight to keep my balance on the edge of the cliffs!  These fantastic seabirds are closely related to the albatrosses, clumsy on land but masters of the air.  It is this trait that makes them such a strong candidate for slow shutter speed panning. 

As I already mentioned, for normal in flight bird photography you would want shutter speeds in excess of around 1/1000 of a second, certainly 1/500 at the very least.  The image above was taken using a 1/40 of a second shutter speed.  First things first, to achieve the desired shutter speed you need to adjust your other camera settings to allow less light onto the sensor.  This means decreasing the ISO (sensitivity to light of the camera sensor) to 100 and also changing from a wide open aperture you would usually use such as f/4 or f/5.6 to somewhere around f/22.   These settings are now letting such little light in, that to correctly expose the scene, the camera needs to choose a slower shutter speed to make it balance.  

To get the desired effect, you need to pan at the same speed as your subject as the camera shutter will be open for longer it will pick up more movement.  Fulmars are the perfect wildlife subject as due to their gliding, they stay in relatively the same body position.  If you were to choose a bird such as the atlantic puffin to try this with, it's high wing beat frequency would render the wings blurred as the movement is no longer frozen.  During this 1/40 of a second exposure, I panned my camera at the same speed as the gliding fulmar, keeping it in the same position in my viewfinder.  This kept the subject sharp, but picked up the movement of panning against the background giving the sea behind that lovely streaked perspective.  

This type of image differs from the standard as it gives the scene a sense of movement, it tells more of a story and places the bird in context.  The blurred background really gives an indication to the gliding behaviour of this fulmar and also leads to a more abstract and arty perspective than a high shutter speed would allow.  It's extremely difficult to achieve an appealing result and I certainly had a lot of throwaways before reaching a frame I was happy with, but it's an extremely fun technique to try out and you never really know what the photograph is going to look like until you check the back of your screen, you may be pleasantly surprised when you do!

This will be my last post for the RSPB Nature's Home blog as I move to the North of Scotland at the end of the month to work in the wildlife photography industry.  I'm very excited about the move as I love the amazing wildlife and dramatic scenery in this part of the country.  If you'd like to keep up to date with my new adventures and see my future images, be sure to like my facebook page at and keep checking my website at:

Thanks for now,

James Shooter