"Spinning Crinoids" shot with a Canon 7D, EF8-15mm @ 10mm, ISO 100, 1/13 sec at f /18, 2 Ikelite DS 160 strobes.
Motion blur images can be an interesting creative technique, but this type of photography is not for everyone. In fact, I think knowing a bit about how to create these shots actually makes people appreciate slow shutter speed images more. Of course, the goal is not just to take a blurry picture but to capture an interesting and creative image. Adding a few well done motion blur images can be a great way to make your portfolio stand out.
This image was taken in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, underneath the pearl farm jetty near Waigeo Island. Like many of the well-known jetties in Raja, most of the pilings are encrusted with soft corals, sponges and a host of other marine invertebrates. The jetty also attracts batfish, lionfish and large schools of bait fish, so chances are you'll be able to find a subject to shoot. Just beware of the many longspined sea urchins that seem to like to congregate under the jetty as well.
Motion Blur Technique
The key to shooting good motion blur images is to have a slow enough shutter speed to capture some blur from the ambient light and be close enough to your subject to freeze part of it with the light from your strobes. For a sharper image, look for a background that is a little lighter than the main subject. This will help freeze the subject and eliminate the ghosting effect you can get from the ambient light.
Motion techniques can work for macro, but it is definitely easier with wide-angle lenses. I suggest shooting with a manual exposure setting. I typically start with a shutter speed around 1/15sec and make adjustments from there. You are going to be letting in a lot of light with the slow shutter, so dial down your ISO to keep from overexposing the entire image. You will most likely need to use a fairly narrow aperture to keep from overexposing the image. The small aperture, with its increased depth of field, will keep more of the image in focus. If possible, pre-focus beforehand, as it is easy to miss focus with all of the movement. I like using manual strobe settings — because we are typically using narrow apertures, it requires the strobes to be set to full or a high power setting.
Traditionally, these types of images are shot with rear curtain sync. The idea is that the subject speeds past a locked off camera on a tripod, creating blur, and the flash goes off right before the curtain closes to freeze the movement at the end. The problem with this when shooting underwater is generally we don't have our cameras on tripods. It's hard to anticipate what direction your underwater subjects are going to come from, and if you're a Canon shooter using electronic synced strobes, you don't get the rear curtain option unless you're using Canon speedlights. Don't worry — for underwater motion blur shots, both first curtain sync and rear curtain can work quite well. Instead of waiting for the subject to move past the camera, simply pan, spin or zoom the camera itself to create the motion. With first curtain sync, it is easy to anticipate where in the frame your subject will be. Try different movements and experiment panning with or in the opposite direction from your subject. You don't want to release the shutter and then try to pan or spin. You need to be panning while you shoot and then continue to follow through with one smooth movment. The area of the subject that is illuminated by your strobes will be sharp and the area only lit by ambient light will show motion.
Remember to tighten down your strobe arms so they don't flop around.
I consider a shot like this more of an art piece. I'm not so concerned about keeping a natural look like I might be with a wildlife image. In Lightroom, I added clarity, which adds some overall sharpening to the mid-tones and makes the motion blur stand out. I added vibrance to give it a saturated look. I increased the saturation in the Blue and Green channels to really make those colors stand out and finally added a small vignette to darken the edges and enhance the whirlpool effect.
Whenever you shoot these type of images expect to have a fair number to throw away. No two are ever alike. The idea is to be creative so experiment and have fun!
Todd Winner is a professional underwater photographer and cinematographer, PADI scuba instructor and owner of Winner Productions, a boutique post production facility catering to Hollywood's most elite cinematographers.Since taking up underwater photography in 1990, Todd Winner has won over 60 international underwater photo competitions. His images have been published in numerous magazines and online publications. His work has been featured in commercial advertising, museums and private galleries. To see more of Todd's work or join one of his underwater workshops, please visit www.toddwinner.com.