Special Effects With Your Zoom Lens

I'm a restless guy. Even when I'm on vacation, I get nervous if I lie around on a couch for too long--I've got to be moving. This characteristic even affects the photos I take.

Long ago, I noticed that I'm much happier when I'm capturing action than taking still-life photos. In fact, sometimes I even look for ways to inject artificial motion into a photo. This week, let's look at how you can use your camera lens or image editing program to energize otherwise static photos.

Test Your Camera

The technique I've got up my sleeve today is something called "zoom-blur"--it's an effect that you can achieve by changing your camera's zoom setting as you take the picture, during the actual exposure.

Unfortunately, that means that some cameras can't play along. To perform this trick, your zoom must be mechanical, not electronic. Here's the test: If you can change the zoom setting during a long exposure, you're in business. Typically, that means the zoom is activated by pushing, pulling, or twisting a ring on the lens itself.

If your zoom is controlled by some sort of electronic switch on the camera body, then this technique probably won't work. But fear not--skip down to the section called "Zoom on the PC" for a different approach.

Apply the Technique

Zoom-blur is a simple technique, in theory. Getting it to work well is equal parts art and science, and it takes practice to get good results.

Since the goal is to zoom the lens during the exposure, you need to shoot with a shutter speed that's long enough to enable it to work. I suggest that you set your camera to its shutter priority exposure mode and dial in a shutter speed of 1/30 second or slightly slower. I like 1/15 second with a wide- or normal-angle lens, because it gives me plenty of time to zoom during the exposure, but it's fast enough that the overall scene doesn't look blurry. If you try shooting with a 1-second shutter speed, for example, you'll have to mount the camera on a tripod to keep it steady enough to get a good photo.

To take your photo, focus on something interesting and then, just before you press the shutter release, slowly start to zoom the lens. Continue the zoom effect through the exposure and stop only after the exposure is complete. Be smooth and steady through the entire exposure--think of the "follow through" advice you've heard about swinging a baseball bat or golf club.

To get a more interesting photo, think about your subject. Don't focus somewhere in the middle of the frame, but rather try focusing explicitly on the star of the scene. Remember that this point--the very center of the exposure--is going to have the least blur, and thus will be the sharpest point in the photo.

Zoom on the PC

You can apply the concept of zoom-blur to your photos after the fact as well. This is especially handy if your camera can't zoom during exposure.

To try the technique on a photo you're already taken, load it into your favorite image editor (I'll use Corel's Paint Shop Pro for this example).

Choose Adjust, Blur, Radial Blur from the menu. You'll see a dialog like this.

The first order of business is to set the Blur type to Zoom. Then position the crosshair in the image on the left on the focal point of the photo. Set the Strength to about 50 percent and then set the Protect Center value to about 50 percent as well. Preview your image and see if it suits your artistic vision. By varying these two values, you can get a lot of unique zoom blur effects in your photos.

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