FROM MOTION TO EMOTION by Dirk De Paepe

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FROM MOTION TO EMOTION
by Dirk De Paepe

Prologue

I could simply have titled this article “Shooting motion”, because in all pictures I used motion as a trope.

Motion can be shot in so many different ways. In this article, I’d like to show three shooting styles. I’ll tell you about the shooting technique I applied – sometimes simple, sometimes a bit more complicated – and how I evaluate those styles for what I want to do in photography.

I like it a lot to perform motion shots. Sometimes one has to act swiftly, enjoying the out of hand shooting to the fullest, on other times it’s a matter of careful preparation and a tripod. On the one hand, the motion in the picture can be absolutely obvious and spectacular, on the other hand it can also be very subdued – but still deliver an elementary contribution to the picture.

Sometimes, I just go out for a dedicated “motion pictures” shoot – well… “still motion” pictures, that is. 🙂 Beside that, the idea to apply motion blur can just pop up anytime as well.

I’ve shot motion from time to time since many years. But not too long ago, because I regard human behavior as the most important subject in photography and because I got more time to shoot just for myself, I started examining the extent to which motion can help to better picture human behavior and human emotion. So in this article, I try to make a kind of journey from “regular motion shooting” to involving emotion in different ways and on different levels. I guess this explains the title for my article.

In this context, some shooting styles seem to be more suitable than others to me, because I find that they can really add to the intensity of the picture, when describing people’s emotion and thus I will value them more. Although I’m sure that it’s possible to bring human emotion with all styles, up till now some seem to work better for me than others. But there will always be room for further evolution. I have a number of ideas to explore this domain further in the future. It’s a never ending story, I guess. But isn’t that the beauty of it?…

Like always, I’m curious about your thoughts – on the pictures, yes, but even more on what you think about those different “styles” and their possibilities, and the most about the last chapter, “Inner Motion”, because that’s the one I personally value the highest (at this moment).

But before taking off, I’d like to thank Steve and Brandon once more. They do absolutely the best job in running this unique website! We all cannot be grateful enough. This platform is just amazing. So guys, let’s help them out from time to time, so we can keep on enjoying this one of a kind medium.

Basically…

The basical principle for shooting motion is of course plain simple. I’m sure I will tell you nothing new in this paragraph. But for the sake of completeness, I want to mention it anyway: choose a shutter speed, long enough so that a moving item within the frame will not be frozen, but kind of “smears out”. One needs to choose the right shutter speed of course, to obtain the wanted amount of smearing. Shutter speed varies with speed and distance of the moving item. A tripod or solid base is required, to avoid that the whole picture is getting blurry, unless the item is moving pretty fast or close and you can keep the shutter speed on a normal level for handheld shooting, or unless you specifically wànt the whole picture to be blurry, like in the first shooting style, that I’d like to bring up.

Style 1: Following the motion

When your subject is moving, it can be a good idea to shoot handheld and follow the subject with your camera. This swaying camera movement creates a motion effect on all objects that in reality are fixed. So the whole picture becomes blurry, with the exception of the moving subject, that will stay pretty clear (mainly the point at which you aim) – all the more as you manage to precisely follow the subject. To better accomplish this, it’s a good idea to aim one of the reference points in your viewfinder to thàt specific point of your subject, that you want to be the clearest in the picture. This will surely help to increase precision.
I do the focusing by zone. One really doesn’t need shallow DOF here, because everything next to the subject will be blurred because of the motion smearing. I will even want a larger DOF, because during the longer exposure, the distance to the subject will most likely change. So no AF for me, the more because I need absolutely immediate response when I push the button.
I find this kind of shooting to be really a lot of fun, since it represents the pinnacle of handheld shooting to me.

OK, let’s give you some pictures. You’ll also find them (with a few more motion blur pictures) in a dedicated album on my flickr pages:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/albums/72157645519418954

PICTURE 1 – “Ape Hangers”

01.Ape hangers

“Ape Hangers” shows a chopper bike. I aimed at the handlebars (the most typical part of the bike), which are pretty clear in the picture, even when looking at full size. The more away from the aiming point, the more blur will be provoked, even within the subject. This is because of the changing angle of the different points of your subject, having different and changing distances between one another within the exposure time and therefore different speeds in relationship to your camera. (I find this to sound more complicated than it really is. But I hope you understand what I mean. Sorry for not being native English speaking. )

Picture 2: “SPLASH”

02.Splash

 

When using this technique with objects close to you, this effect becomes a lot stronger, which can result in pretty dramatic images. “Splash” is a good example hereof. Aiming at the center of the truck, it gives a kind of explosion-effect.

Although nice images, I find them to be not really meaningful, at least, not in the way that I’m looking for. All the same, I believe this technique càn show more human emotion, when shooting human action at sports events and the like. This is something I surely want to explore further.

Picture 3: Not a silver ghost

03.Not a Silver Ghost

 

“Not a Silver Ghost” is exploring that path a tiny bit. Although I wanted the Silver Ghost nameplate to be very readable, therefore needing to aim to it, whereby the people became a bit blurry, still the facial expression of the chauffeur shows his concentration while driving this ancient marvel.

Like I said, absolutely great fun to perform those shots.
Style 2. Subdued motion

This is probably the most modest way to apply motion, while it needs very careful dosing and balancing.

For these shots I think it’s important not to overdo the effect. The right dosing is important, to avoid that the moving item is drawing away too much attention from the main subject. The motion is kind of an accessory to the subject. The right dosing assures the balance between content (expression) and motion. I believe it’s mandatory to wonder about whether or not and why you want to apply the motion blur in the first place. The most obvious reason is of course to better illustrate the (different kinds of) activity at the spot. In general, a more modest effect will reveal more information of the moving item, while a stronger effect will more underline the swiftness of its movement. With modern digital camera’s, the LCD allows us to check and readjust the shutter speed for the right amount of motion. Without this screen, it’s a matter of guessing, or extensive experimenting… or an awful lot of experience.

Picture 4: Church of Herentals

04.Church of Herentals

“Church of Herentals” pictures the entrance of, indeed, the church in Herentals, a town in the Antwerp Kempen (Flanders, Belgium) – close to where I live. The picture is one out of a series to document this church. So the entrance is the main subject, of which I tried to catch the mood. I thought it would be better to add people in the picture, entering the church, since a church is all about attracting people, isn’t it. And I wanted the people to be in motion, since it better pictures the careful, reverent way in which they enter the church.

BTW, when picturing a building or a city scene, I prefer to have people within the frame, because without people, there wouldn’t be any cities or buildings in the first place. The people are the only purpose of the city and its buildings. That’s why I prefer (in most cases) not to picture those without people.

Picture 5: Townsquare of Geel

05.Townsquare of Geel

 

“Townsquare of Geel” combines two different motion types. (Geel is the town east of Herentals). To make this pictures, timing was essential: the setting of the shutter speed and certainty also the timing to catch the right moment. I didn’t want too many cars moving through the picture. Instead, when catching only one car, filling the frame from left to right, preferably with it’s turn signal on, it would make the most beautiful image, I reckoned. Furthermore I wanted a group of people to be at the right spot walking along the bars and restaurants towards their place-to-be, since that is thé typical action in this spot. A tripod is mandatory of course, and a shutter speed that combines the exact time to correctly dose the people’s motion and the motion of the car all over the frame. I spend quite some time at that spot to get it all in one picture.

 

Picture 6: Game of lights

06.Game of lights

“Game of lights” was shot in Gierle, a small village in our neighborhood, where I noticed this spot that makes me dream of the old Kempen. The old houses and cobblestones provide a beautiful light ballet when it rains. Still I wanted some extra light on the facades. Therefore I needed a car to approach. But it had to be moving – not for the line of car lights (I preferred those to be not too much in the picture) – but because those lights could only lighten up the facades part of the exposure time, to get the right balance between all the lights in the frame, the reflections on the cobble stones playing a major role. Again, some experimenting was mandatory. The LCD screen of the digital camera is a very helpful tool herein, I realise when thinking of the old film days. It saves so much time and allows to balance everything right away, on the spot. Thought there was quite some post processing done to this picture, it didn’t involve the balance between the different light sources, which needed to be correct from the start. This must be about the most subdued way to apply motion, because I only needed it for the light on the facades, that we even don’t perceive as motion. Still, like I said, it was essential for the light balance.

 

Style 3: Inner motion

When people hold still, in an environment where everybody moves (or most people move), their holding still is being emphasized by all the motion that surrounds them and becomes a lot more prominent. The contrast and dynamic between motion and standstill amplifies the expression of the pictured person(s). So in those shots, it’s mainly the still people that are the subject, the motion being a way to emphasize the standstill. And when there’s different gradations of motion, this can also more strongly suggest what the different people do, even what they think and feel.

More than a specific shooting style, this is more a specific shooting approach, a matter of subject selection, preparation and timing. It combines careful preparation with fast shooting (catching the right moment).

I find this style very rewarding, since it includes powerful storytelling. But it’s not the kind of picture that you will take in a blink – I mean: walking through the streets, noticing a scene, quickly composing and shooting. No, these shots need preparation, yet also require fast deciding to actually push the button. Since careful preparation and fast shooting seem to be contradictory, I’ll explain how I work.

As I said, I need a tripod or another solid base, due to the necessary longer shutter time. But at the same time, because of the nature of the subject, I only have a very short time frame to make my shot, and maybe only a single moment to get a good balance. So how can I combine this? Well, I first think of a favorable place where many people pass, and where there is a great chance that “special things” will happen. In this case, special things means people that hold still because of a sudden compelling thought or feeling, or people that, while holding still, have great expression. While most people in the frame are just moving, with (seemingly) very few things happening in their minds, those who are holding still often show that there’s a lot going on on the inside – hence “inner motion”. So I will look out for scene’s in which people stimulate me to wonder about what’s going on in their mind.

When I have found a good place, it’s of course important to choose a strategically interesting viewpoint, where I have potential of many interesting frames. The angle to the stream of people is important, as well as the possibilities that all fixed objects offer for composition.

Sometimes, especially on a more open place with people all over, you will need a larger field of view to include many people, because you never know “where the action will be” and you simply won’t have the time to aim, frame and stabilize your camera for the necessary longer exposure. This is where cropping is inevitable. Sometimes you can include more people as subject in the final picture, sometimes only one. Regarding composition, the more you crop, the more it’s the position and stance of the people that will be determining the balance. The lesser you crop, the more the surroundings will play a role. Anyway, regardless of how much you’ll need to crop, I think it’s important to picture the small(er) frame around your subject(s), within the frame of your viewfinder, before you shoot. Only when pushing the button on the right time, all moving items within the cropped frame that you have in mind will provide a nice balance with everything that’s standing still. Shooting at random will not do the job, I fear…

BTW, a high-res sensor is to be preferred for this kind of work, to provide great cropping power.

 

Picture 7: Each at his own pace

07.Each at his own pace

When shooting a larger scene, like “Each at his own pace”, it can be interesting to see how different people behave at a given moment. Their body language and amount of movement stimulate my imagination. I meticulously composed this picture, in regard to the building as well as the waves of people. Since people tend to gather in stereotypic waves to look at the time table (in the Antwerp Central Station), it was a matter of time until they made an interesting shape and further of timing my shot on a moment when there was a nice and typical variety of human activity going on.

 

Picture 8: A private moment

08.A private moment

“A private moment” has a few things in common with the last picture. Both are in a departure/arrival hall (here it’s the Amsterdam airport Schiphol) and they both have many people in the frame. But while in the first the subject is the variety of human activity, in this one it’s about the one lady in the center. Here it was not a question of waiting until everything falls into place, but noticing her and shooting the best possible composition within the short time frame. She showed a posture that reminds me more of a private environment than a public place, and so I thought how this scene represented the way people are often very unabashed, when traveling by airplane.

Picture 9: Prohibited seatings

09.Prohibited seatings

 

“Prohibited seatings” is again a good example in which the timing was crucial. The picture had to show the busy pedestrian traffic, and of course it had to give a good view on the two youngsters ànd the prohibition sign. Timing was the only way to get those elements in balance.

Picture 10: Confident

10.Confident

In “Confident” the girl just waits for the traffic light to cross the street. The motion clearly amplifies the contrast between her being unprotected between the traffic, the car in front and the bicycle behind her. Yet she’s absolutely confident, standing very relaxed with her weight on one leg and her gaze aside, in the distance.

 

Picture 11: Terrible news

11.Terrible news

 

The last picture, “Terrible news”, is one of my favorites. I was just struck when I saw this lady finishing her phone call, holding still, and bringing her phone to her heart and her right hand to her forehead. Of course I don’t know where it was about, but the image stayed with me for quite some time. I find it a good example of how the dynamic between motion and still can amplify expression and stimulate the imagination.

Epilogue

Like I said, I find shooting motion to be an incredibly enthralling discipline, an endless source of inspiration. Of course, I could only lift a tip of the veil in this article. Personally I’m most interested in combining motion and typical‡ human behavior. I find the “Inner motion” style to be very rewarding in this regard, and therefore it’s my favorite. But there are for sure other ways to express human emotion through motion. As a matter of fact, I am actually working on a new project in this context. Maybe something for a later article…

I hope you enjoyed this post as I love to see your contributions.

Dirk De Paepe

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20 Comments

  1. Thank you Dirk!

    I liked your pictures very much!
    Would it be possible to provide us with some more information concerning the pictures (shutter speed, aperture..) ?

    Regards,
    Mark

    • Of course, Mark. In fact, I already did, by mentioning my album on flickr, where you find “the originals”. The EXIF data will answer all your questions. You can click on the link right above picture 1.
      BTW, thank you so much for your appreciation. 😉

      • Dirk, I just forgot about the flickr link! Thanks, you’ve got a new follower.

  2. Interesting. “motion as a trope”? Allright.

    On a side note, this blog is unfortunately increasinglyinfested with spam. I hope something can be done about that.

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