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Capturing Motion/Creating Motion

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The medium may be called "still" photography, but it can depict motion in any number of ways.

Sometimes, as in the ground-breaking work of the late Harold "Doc" Edgerton of MIT, motion is captured in a barest split of a second. Probably everyone has seen his astounding photographs of a drop of milk creating a many-pointed crown as it drops into a bowl. Or his photo of a bullet frozen in mid-air the instant after it has split a playing card in two, or bored through an apple. [Edgerton's magic, in both high speed motion picture as well as still photography, relied largely on stroboscopic light to freeze motion better than any mechanical camera shutter ever could.]

Conversely, motion can be suggested in an artful blur. The accompanying photo of a waitress maneuvering several pizzas through a crowded bar recently was the result of my panning with my Leica M6 at about a quarter of a second as she passed by me on her way to her customers. Note how the background is a total blur, heightening the impression of speed and motion. But you also can make out four individual pizzas in her arms-the result of my moving my camera in sync with her own movement. A picture like this does not have to have a tack sharp element-only enough sharpness for your eye to anchor on and thus make sense of the picture as a whole.

"Dragging" one's on-camera flash, i.e.: combining flash with a long exposure, is another way to capture motion-and it can be used a number of ways.

In the photo of the elderly couple dancing at a wedding reception I wanted to portray the frenzy around them while also freezing their motion in a kind of ironic counterpoint. The photo was made with my digital camera, a Canon PowerShot G1. This camera affords a number of creative options-including full manual control-but here, I opted for aperture priority with flash. Digital cameras obviously do not contain film, but their resolving power often is determined in terms of film speed. I tend to keep my G1 set at the resolving power most resembling that of a low-to-medium speed ISO 100 film, to render the digital version of fairly tight grain. Thus, during a dark wedding reception, any camera set at ISO 100, even with a wide-open maximum lens aperture [in this case f. 2.5], would likely result in a fairly long exposure [in this case a full second], which is just what I wanted to blur the motion.

Making sure the flash also went off meant that the instantaneous light from the strobe would freeze my closest subjects–the old folks-and thus render them sharp even during the one-second exposure. This second-long exposure, besides rendering the surrounding dancers as a blur since they are farther away from the flash and thus not affected by it, also gathers up enough available light so that the dark ballroom actually is rendered much lighter-another advantage.

[This same "drag-flash" technique can be combined with panning (as in the pizza pic) to render the subject even more sharply while still retaining the blurred background.]

Additionally, cameras equipped with rear-curtain flash synch [flash that triggers at the end of an exposure, rather than at the beginning] can create really spectacular motion studies by rendering forward motion accurately. It takes a little practice, especially with single-lens reflex cameras, the viewfinders of which go black during a long exposure, but it's worth it. [Note: this technique also requires fairly dark conditions, to create a dark enough background for the effect to register.]

With rear-curtain synch, a long exposure (say 1/2 or 1/4 second), and a stationary camera, a subject moving across the film plane (say from left to right) will be rendered as a blur during the first part of the exposure, then will be frozen when the flash fires at the end of the exposure. Thus the blur will fall behind your moving subject, not before, as happens in cameras without rear-curtain sync. The effect is much more realistic and pleasing.

But sometimes, realism can be a drag. For example, last December, just before Christmas, Judy and I were hired to photograph a gig at the Hard Rock Café in downtown Washington. There, a number of local bands were playing at a release party for that year's "Santa Cause" album-a fundraising vehicle for local charities at the holidays. Judy and I didn't even mind (too much) that we probably were the oldest people at the party: the entire evening was one loud, happy hoot. We were hired by DC composer and musician Greg Smith to make pictures of his band-aptly named The Greg Smith Band-for use in future promotion and on albums. That meant making a nice formal shot of the group seated at a table as they waited to go on, and then later, getting as creative as we wanted during the band's set and photographing in black and white and color however we pleased.

Both Judy and I made a number of individual and group pictures, from the front, from the back and from the balcony (where I had a hard time pulling myself away from the cool rock and roll memorabilia on the walls.)

We used several cameras and several films, but relied mostly on Kodacolor Gold 200 and Kodak's T400CN and a smattering of Ilford Delta 3200 for black and white. Though the bulk of my stuff was made with my money lens, a wonderful AF Nikkor f. 3.5-4.5 28mm-105mm zoom, I also played with a Pentax zoom fisheye that went from 17mm to 28mm.

The picture I'm most pleased with was one I made on a whim, to try to capture the frenzy and noise of Greg and company's performance. Here the motion depicted in the image is created by my 28-105 lens zooming all the way in or all the way out during a long exposure. The important thing here is to try to keep the camera as still and level as possible, to create some reasonably sharp point of interest, while your lens does all the work.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Slow shutter speed while panning provides dynamic pic of server delivering four gorgeous pizzas.

© Frank Van Riper
Slow shutter with flash (while camera is held steady) isolates older couple in foreground while frenzied dancers in background go blurry.

© Frank Van Riper
Third technique lets zoom lens do the work. Motion is created by the lens being zoomed in or out.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

Frank Van Riper booksigning.

Camera Works photography columnist Frank Van Riper will discuss and sign his new book, Talking Photography, at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Bethesda, next Thursday, March 7, at 7pm. Frank will discuss his career as a professional photographer and writer, as well as field questions about cameras (analog and digital), films and technique.

Barnes & Noble Bookslellers, 4801 Bethesda Ave, Bethesda, Md.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Dancing with Seniors – Shooting Cheek to Cheek

Paranoid, or Just Careful?

Strength (and Skill) in Numbers

Night Moves/ Light Moves

A Lost Legacy