Motion-blur and High-Key Photography


Most wildlife photographers are under the impression that we can take technically correct photos only during the golden hours just after sunrise and just before sunset. Although those may be the best times to take sweet-light pictures, we should not feel limited by those one or two hours. In fact, we can practise quality photography throughout the day, whatever the lighting conditions.


The two types of techniques I find most suitable in less than ideal lighting conditions are motion-blur images and high-key images.


For these techniques, understanding the basics of photography – aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, ISO – is essential. This will make you realise that you can play with light, using the camera as a tool to capture light in a controlled way whatever the lighting conditions.


In contrast to realistic photography, for these techniques a busy (cluttered) background and digital noise (grain) can work in your favour to paint, as it were, a canvas that captures the imagination of the viewer.

Motion blur image of running wild dog
Black and White motion blur image of running warthog

Motion-blur images


Any motion-blur image has two aspects – its technical correctness and its artistic quality. These two are not mutually exclusive, but are integrated. Not every motion-blur image requires panning, where your camera tracks the speed of the subject. However, panning is the ideal approach to motion-blur images. Blurring derives from the moving parts of the subject that move at a higher speed than your shutter. Blurring without panning is when you have a stationary focus on a subject with moving parts, like the wings of a hovering kingfisher.


Motion blur image of two running Wildebeest
Motion blur image of running sprinbucks

High-Key images


For the artistic eye these images appear to be the most pleasing, but this technique’s washed effect may not appeal to everyone. When unfavourable lighting conditions yield very high contrast, this is a very handy technique to apply and can yield a beautiful canvas prints. In a high-key image, unlike an overexposed image, the lighting on the subject is still acceptable.

High key image of two Southern Carmine bee-eaters sitting on branch

I apply these techniques because it gives me joy to create an artistic image even though my success rate may be low. To create art when conditions are less than optimal, gives me the freedom to use any hour of the day.


Having said this, we will of course always still seek out the golden hours of the day where these techniques can indeed both be applied with great effect.


There are many surprises out there when you use these techniques and you do not have to be in the Kgalagadi with its sublime light to do so, but you can apply them wherever you happen to be.

In my bag


In my bag you will find two camera bodies, a 7D and a 1D Mark IV, my most used lens is the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS, but I also alternate this with a Canon 500mm f/4 L IS USM, depending on the distance from the subject of course.


I tend to like the “noisy” effect of the 7D when I shoot motion-blur photographs as it creates an appealing textured look.