Recently I took part in a photographic scavenger hunt challenge which specified NO EDITING AT ALL.  Despite most of my photographs usually undergoing some Photoshop tweaks as a matter of course, I nevertheless took on this challenge with gusto. I was determined  to create some effects in camera that I might usually resort to using editing software for. I made the goal of this picture  to figure out how to create in-camera motion blur speed lines trailing behind me. 

My end result is a story of running,  but I originally had hoped to create this entry on my swing.  However, after trying a few swing motion blur tests I realised that the conditions were not conducive to the effect I was looking for. Creating discernible motion blur in the camera  as I envisioned it requires a great deal of physical darkness in the background for contrast. The size limitations of my physical darkened space  did not encompass the full arc of my swing. I can move a lot of things around in my studio, but the swing is in a fairly fixed position. It's also a challenge to pinpoint the moment of capture on constantly moving target. I needed something easier and more controllable for starters. (Maybe there is a swing shot in my future.) For the record, here are some of my initial swing tests:


Once I had pivoted to a running theme and changed into my sports shirt, I started thinking about classic Nike Ads which often feature a singular, dramatically lit sports personality  on a very dark background.  This fed my inspiration.   

In order to see an in-camera motion blur effect, a dark  background is ideal. My studio space is brightly lit with glass breeze blocks, banks of windows and unreachable 20+ feet high skylights that do not have coverings. It quickly became apparent me that in order to achieve the image I was imagining,  I would need to shrink my studio footprint down an area where I could better control and limit the light. This led me to the area  under my mezzanine which I could block off the light from. 


Even though no editing was allowed, one thing I wanted to strive for throughout this entire round of the Scavenger hunt, was making good and intentional color choices. I didn't want my shots to look like straight out of the camera color-wise. For this shot I determined my blacks would be an inky green-blue with a pink contrast.


I achieved the greeny/blue  background by taping a gel of that color directly over the camera lens. Usually I gel my lights, and indeed I did gel my lights for this shot, but the background for this technique is mostly being lit by the very small amount of non-strobe light reaching the camera sensor, so it was that ambient light that I was looking to influence with the over-the-lens placement of the green gel. 

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There is nothing glamorous about  Behind the Scenes. I tied a huge black drop cloth to the mezzanine and filled in the corner gaps with V-flats in order to darken the area under the mexzzanine as much as I could. 

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My tenting skills sufficed. I soon had a dark enough area in which to test out my speed trail idea and start snapping some shots.

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Patiently and diligently I started my attempt to create the look I was hoping to achieve - a runner with a speed trail behind them.  As usual with my self portraits I take a shot (or series of shots) and then check them back on my ipad. I use Camranger software and hardware which enables me to control many features of my Canon 5D Mark III directly from my tablet. 

Here is an animated gif of all the shots I captures on Day One of this attempt. Before I show you how the motion blur trail effect is achieved  a little further down the page, can you guess what the trick to it is?

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At the end of the day, I thought I was fairly happy with the results. I thought I had it in the bag. But the next morning in the harsh light of day, I realised my shots were  too underexposed and dark. It wasn't going to be bright enough for people to see and appreciate the effect. Note to self – things viewed on an electronic screen in the dark may appear brighter than they are in daylight

Day One Camera Settings and Tech Specs:

Shutter Speed 6 seconds


ISO 100

1 x  Strobe at Maximum Power.

Length of time experimenting (without a break, without remembering to drink any liquid, oops): 5.5 hours

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The next day I decided to reshoot. Knowing I wanted my result to be brighter and more obvious to the viewer, I introduced a second strobe  – they are both on full power – and this time I had the smart idea of keeping the modeling light on, a detail which I'd overlooked the previous day. 

Note:  the strobes are pointed away from the background. This not only provides dramatic, epic lighting to the subject, it also prevents light spill onto the background which, remember, we want to remain as dark as possible in order to provide contrast for our motion blur.

I used pink gels on my strobes to emphasize the green/blue and pink color scheme I was striving for in camera (since post editing would not be permitted).

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How it all works: 

• Subject stands quite still, like a statue, in running pose. 

• Trigger camera shutter for a long exposure (3 seconds in this example). I triggered remotely via the Camranger with an initial delay that allowed me to strike my pose.

• For a split second at the start of the long exposure very very bright strobes are triggered to fully capture the running pose in all its full glory against the dark background. 

• Immediately after flash has completed firing, the subject slowly moves backwards. The shutter is still open  for the remainder of the 3 seconds and the small amount of ambient light and output from the modeling lights exposes a ghost-like trail of the subject behind where the subject was originally standing.

See the video below to see this process in action. 

Side Notes:

– I wanted the pose to feel positive and aspirational as if the subject was running toward epic glory and achievement.

– The pose was over-exaggerated for dramatic impact, it's not intended to be an accurate rendition of running in motion – just something that viewers might believe could be that.


On the second day of shooting everything proceeded much more quickly and I was done in less than 90 minutes start to finish. Once I had it all set up to capture the right exposure, I was already well practiced in the poses and movement I needed to create my vision. 

You'll see from the animated gif that I started my set up lighting tests in my regular clothes and once I had nailed it changed into my 'costume' for the shot. In a small tweak from the prior day I decided to go one step further with the Nike influence by wearing a Nike skort with a pink stripe instead of plain black shorts.

I also made sure my skin was very well moisturized and splashed with water to give my face a subtly sweaty countenance that helped sell the story that I was exercising (even though in reality it was just a rather sedate backwards stroll!). 

Day Two Camera Settings and Tech Specs:

• Shutter Speed 3 seconds

• f/5.6

• ISO 400

• 2 x Strobes at Maximum Power.

• Length of time: 90 minutes

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Working in a tight space and with a very clear idea of what I wanted my main pose to look like, it would have been practically  impossible to control my run to land exactly at the time of the sync in precisely that position with the desired composition. Yes, it would have given me a trail effect behind me, but the result would have been more random and less intentional than the visual goal I had set for myself.


I was satisfied with this result for the in-camera motion blur category for Round 29 of the Scavenger Hunt.  Check out all the other motion blur entries at this link.  Would I change anything by editing? Yes - I'd just add a bit more saturation and intensity to the blue/green color in the blacks. That's it. Minimal tweaking in Lightroom, no Photoshop needed.   



Minor Edit


Thank you for reading this blog post.

Did you guess how it was done?

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments below!

  • Maayan Windmuller

    on October 23, 2020

    Great write-up Sam! I used a similar approach for several of my images, but used a continuous light source instead of a flash.

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