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.
Light trails suspended in motion by a bus on a busy street in Madrid, Spain.

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

A swallow flies through the air chasing an insect.

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. © Markus Varesvuo

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

An owl preparing to land on a branch, with wings outstretched.

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

A ballet dancer changing positions, with their arms blurred around them.

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. © Canon Ambassador Wanda Martin

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

A person in a blue kayak riding a wave.

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 EOS R6 at 1/2700 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Canon Ambassador Samo Vidic

A horse galloping around a yard with a rider on its back, kicking up dirt as it goes.

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!

A small dog suspended in mid-air as it runs towards the camera.

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.

Five children playing on a sofa with rainbow confetti falling around them.

Here the motion of falling confetti has been frozen by a shutter speed of 1/200 sec and with the flash of a Speedlite 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 18-55mm 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.

How to capture motion blur

A bustling high street, with people walking in all directions, blurred.

Slower shutter speeds will result in movement being captured as a blur. Taken on a Canon EOS M100 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS M200) with a Canon EF-M 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/6 sec, f/22 and ISO100.

Slow shutter speeds and long exposures enable you to create motion blur in your photos. Again, the speed of the moving object will determine how slow the shutter speed needs to be.

A shutter speed of 1/30 sec works well for bicycles, whereas shutter speeds between 1/60 sec and 1/125 sec work well for cars and motorcycles. If you want to blur a waterfall, a relatively long exposure of 3-5 seconds is best. This also works well for 'blurring' people out of shots when they're walking around, effectively removing them from architectural shots of street scenes or busy landmarks.

In bright daylight, it can be difficult to achieve a shutter speed long enough to create motion blur, even if you're using a narrow aperture. To overcome this you can place an ND (Neutral Density) filter in front of the lens to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, allowing you to extend the exposure. In some instances, your exposure might go beyond 30 seconds. In which case select the camera's manual mode and use the Bulb setting.

How to capture motion through time-lapse

When you're in control of the speed, you can really get creative with video. Time-lapse photography captures a number of frames at regular intervals to give the effect of speeding up movement or time. You'll need to take a sequence of pictures at regular intervals – find out more in our time-lapse guide.

Cameras such as the Canon EOS 250D and EOS R System have a built-in time-lapse movie mode, to make it even simpler to capture striking videos.

How to create motion using zoom blur

A blurred shot of red leaves.

Creating motion blur is naturally a challenge if your subject isn't actually moving. However, you can create an interesting motion blur effect by using any zoom lens. Taken on a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM at 1/4 sec, f/14 and ISO200.

Select Tv shooting mode with any DLSR or mirrorless camera and aim for a shutter speed of around 1 to 4 seconds. Zoom in and autofocus with a light press on the shutter button. Next, fully press the shutter button to begin the exposure, and about halfway through, start zooming out using the lens' zoom ring. Aim to complete the change in zoom setting at the same time as the exposure finishes. Alternatively, you can start with the lens zoomed out, and zoom in during the exposure.

How to capture light trails

Light trails float above a train track surrounded by frosty trees.

A long exposure has made it possible to capture light trails along a train track. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-240mm f/4-6.3 IS USM lens at 105mm, 32 secs, f/8 and ISO100.

Capturing light trails created by moving vehicles is a great way to convey a sense of movement. In darkness there's little chance of overexposure, so you can use a Bulb exposure and leave the shutter open for a few minutes if necessary, to get lots of light trails into the shot. Just make sure your camera is mounted on a tripod or other solid, vibration-free support.

Another trick is to use a flashgun to illuminate a moving vehicle, so in addition to capturing light trails, the car, motorcycle, train or even bicycle is nicely exposed. You'll need to set your flashgun to rear-curtain flash mode, so the flash is fired at the end of the exposure instead of at the beginning. With regular front-curtain flash, the light trails will appear to extend in front of the moving vehicle rather than behind it.

How to pan with your camera

A dirt bike rider speeding through a field.

Panning your camera to follow moving subjects produces a blurred background, making the action look more dynamic. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 135mm, 1/30 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

When working with slower shutter speeds to create motion blur, camera shake is an ever-present danger, especially with telephoto lenses, resulting in the main subject being blurred as well. Image stabilisation can be a big help. Some Canon IS (Image Stabilizer) lenses have automatic panning detection, which applies correction only in the vertical plane when you're panning horizontally.

Other Canon IS lenses have switchable dual-mode image stabilisers, where mode 1 is for static shots and mode 2 is for panning. A few lenses, such as the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM and EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM, even have a third switchable stabilisation mode, which only applies stabilisation during actual exposures. This can make it easier to track erratically moving objects in the viewfinder.

Canon's EOS R5 and R6 cameras also feature IBIS (in-body Image Stabilisation). This can work in tandem with the image stabilisers of optically stabilised lenses, for even greater steadying performance.

Read our Panning tips for action shots guide for more.

How to add motion with multiple exposures

A multiple exposure shot of a person on a bike doing a flip on a sand ramp.

A multiple exposure image created using Continuous Shooting, which is a useful tool for capturing ongoing action. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) at 1/1600 sec, f/8 and ISO400.

A number of recent EOS cameras including the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and EOS R System cameras feature a Multiple Exposure function. You can use this in conjunction with the Continuous Shooting mode to capture multiple stages of action in a single frame. You'll get the best results if there's a clear difference between the subject and the background, for example with a light subject against a dark background or vice versa. For more information, check out our Multiple exposure shooting guide (available in selected languages).

Another option is to use a flashgun. The Canon Speedlite EL-100 has a programmable strobe flash mode. Firing a series of flashes during a long exposure can capture a moving object at several points along its path, against a stationary background.

Moving your camera to add interest to videos

A dancer wearing a flowing cream dress and ballet shoes poses en pointe amid the ruins of a Sicilian temple.

Movies can look much more dynamic if you move around with the camera while shooting, instead of having it locked in place on a tripod. Many of Canon's DSLRs and mirrorless EOS M and EOS R cameras feature Movie Digital IS. This is a form of electronic image stabilisation, just for movie capture, which can offset camera shake and give you much steadier results. It can also work in conjunction with optical Image Stabilisation in lenses, and the in-body IS in Canon's EOS R5 and R6 cameras.

Written by Matthew Richards

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