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Create an Abstract Image Using Intentional Blur – Photo Challenge

All too often I see new photographers get hung up on taking the perfect image. Making sure it's 100% sharp, perfectly exposed, technically – perfect. But what sometimes suffers is the creative aspect of photography. This month's challenge is to push you outside that technical realm into the creative one and do something different.


New photography challenge – create an abstract image using intentional blur

There are a few ways you can create an abstract image using intentional blur including:

Do a long exposure on a busy street

You may need a Neutral Density filter to cut the light if you try this in the daytime – setup on a tripod and use a low ISO like 100 or 200. Set your shutter speed to be fairly slow (try between 1/8th – 2 seconds). You may find if you go too long all the people and cars disappear completely. Try different shutter speed times to experiment.

Photo by Wendy

Zoom your lens during a long exposure

See Three Special Effects for Night Photography (scroll to the bottom) to see how to do this one. Basically, setup on a tripod again and set your shutter speed to at least one second or longer. Your aperture will likely have to be small like f/22 and your ISO low, like 100 or 200. Zoom in and focus on your subject (neon lights and light up signs at night work great for this technique) then turn off autofocus. Press your shutter button (or remote if you have one) and using your fingers gently zoom your lens out. It may take some practice to get it smooth and how fast you zoom, how long you pause at the beginning versus the end, and the timing will all give you very different results. Try it!

ISO 200, f/5.6 for 1.6 seconds zoom of the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC
ISO 100, f/22 for 3.2 seconds zoom of Planet Hollywood sign in Las Vegas
Hand held zoom (notice it gets a little bumpy this way) ISO 800, f/14 for 1 second from viewing deck of the Empire State Building in NYC

Swivel your camera or tripod during the exposure

This is the same concept as zooming, but instead you just move your camera or tripod during a long exposure (move it up and down, side to side, or even rotate). Use the appropriate movement for your subject. For example, as in the image of the poplar trees below, it is a tall vertical subject – so moving the camera the same direction will make the trees look elongated like so:

ISO 250, f/9 for 1/2 second hand held
For this image the tripod head was rotated during the exposure.
For this image the tripod head was rotated during the exposure. ISO 320, f/13, 4 seconds
Subject before movement added – ISO 100, f/11, 3.2 seconds
Side to side movement added during the exposure – same settings as last shot.

Move the camera around randomly during a long exposure

This one is purely about having fun and experimenting. Hand hold your camera, set a long exposure, press the button and just start moving it around. You can do this during the day but make sure you set your ISO low and set it on Shutter Priority or you may end up with a blank white image if you make the exposure too long. If it comes out white try again with a slower one, or add a polarizer or neutral density filter to cut down on the light entering the lens.

Same subject as above, done with random movement – all shot at: ISO 100, f/11 for 2.5 seconds



Shoot car light trails

See: Guide to Photographing Light Trails at Night for an in-depth tutorial on how to shoot car light trails. Same concept as most of the others. Use a long exposure to capture the car lights.

ISO 500, f/10 for one second
ISO 200 f/9 for 1.6 seconds – this is a combination of a few images stacked together to get more light trails in the image.

This technique also works on anything moving that has lights, like this merry-go-round we found in Seattle.

ISO 800, f/14 for 1/4 second (I used the higher ISO to get a shorter exposure time so as not to get as much blur)
ISO 800, f/14 for 1/4 second (I used the higher ISO to get a shorter exposure time so as not to get as much blur and it was very dark inside this place)
ISO 400, f/20 for 1 second – to get more blur and a more abstract image as a result
Using my Rokinon 8m fisheye lens I was about 1/2 inch from the brass posts on either side of the shot. ISO 400 1/2 second (not sure aperture, the Rokinon doesn't register on my Fuji – probably around f/16)

You can also combine a long exposure for light trails AND zooming for even more fun! Look how the lights seems to jump out at you and appear to be coming towards you. Almost reminds me of a music staff (lines musicians write the notes on) – can you hear the carnival music now?

ISO 400, f/20 for 1 second - zoomed during the exposure
ISO 400, f/20 for 1 second – zoomed during the exposure

Shoot completely out of focus – on purpose

Now I'm just talking crazy right?

But why not try give this a try?

Abstract art is about color, shapes, light and dark. Turn your lens way out of focus and see how the world looks. Want bokeh? Use a large aperture (f/1.8 on your nifty 50 if you have one) and focus as close as the lens will go.

In focus – meh!
Completely out of focus – hmm! Interesting colors and abstract shape. Almost like a heat map.
Bokeh of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens

Winner of the last challenge

Selected randomly from everyone who completed the last challenge – Street Corner Exercise, as well as shared your images and what you learned – the winner is:

Crystal Bloom: who watched fisherman on a pier for over two hours and learned,  “If I would have not stopped to watch for over 2 hours and just took photos like I always do, I would have missed this moment.”

Congratulations Crystal you've won a set of our Lightroom Presets. We'll be in touch by email to get those to you.

Tips for this challenge

  1. Don't over think it
  2. Try one of the techniques above
  3. Try them all
  4. Play
  5. Experiment
  6. Have fun!

This Month’s Challenge, Contest and Prize:

So you can't do this challenge wrong. All you have to do is actually do it. Try something you haven't done before and see what you can come up with. Find some other ways to do abstract blurs I haven't mentioned here – show me something new!

This time of year you may find lots of cool things that will work as a great subject: Christmas tree lights, decorations, lights out on the street, etc.

Here are the requirements to be eligible for the prize:

  1. Take a photo with intentional blur to make an abstract photo.
  2. Upload your photo in the comments section below.
  3. Please tell us how you created it (technique used) and the exposure info (ISO, shutter speed and aperture).

Deadline for entry is: January 13, 2016, 10pm MST (-6 UTC) that gives you six weeks.
Contest is now closed and a winner has been chosen. See the next photography challenge for details.

Banner: 4 weeks to better photography bThe Prize:

This month’s winner (selected randomly from all eligible entries) will receive our 4 Weeks to Better Photography course (retail value: $49 USD).


You are here: Photography Challenges » Create an Abstract Image Using Intentional Blur – Photo Challenge

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  • Ricardo Carrasco

    Long exposure with flash in rear mode, at corner in Santiago Chile

    • Ricardo Carrasco

      Nikon D7000, f/6.3, 2 seg, ISO 100, 12 mm

    • Cool, you mean “rear curtain sync”? or second curtain?

      • Alvaro Eloy

        Darlene, could you tell us wich is the diference from the two terms? I always tought the both has the same meaning.

        • Yes they mean the same thing. Most people refer to it as rear curtain, at least in my circles anyway. Not sure where the names came from – see what your camera manual calls it.

  • Ricardo Carrasco

    Sheer in Zooming, Santiago Chile

    • Ricardo Carrasco

      Nikon D5100, f/11,2,5seg/ISO100

    • good one! por qué no indeed!

  • Ricardo Carrasco

    Ligths at Christmas Tree

    • Ricardo Carrasco

      Nikon D7000, f/5.3, ISO 320, 0.62 seg, 80 mm.

  • Linda Brooks

    Captured by complete mistake as someone slightly bumped my arm as I was taking the shot…. slight movement and I really like the effect! Native American Concert. ISO 200, f/22,

  • Ricardo Carrasco

    Another Lights in Christmas tree

    • Ricardo Carrasco

      Nikon D7000, f/3.5, 1/2s, ISO 320, 18 mm, flash

    • Zosh Miller

      Love the almost monochromatic orange and flow.

      • Ricardo Carrasco

        Thanks a lot

  • Linda Brooks

    Sea Oats at the Beach in South Carolina……on a breezy day…….Nikon D7100, ISO 100, F/2.8, 1/2 sec

  • Linda Brooks

    Sparks from a campfire….. Nikon D90, ISO 2.50, F/5.6. exposure time 30 seconds….. slight movement

  • Ricardo Carrasco

    Lady Dragon in long exposure in corner at Santiago Chile
    Nikon D7000, f/11,6seg,ISO 100, 20 mm, flash

  • Ian Cross

    Taken with a borrowed Fujifilm Finepix HS30 EXR, 1/17th second at F4, focal length 13mm.
    Leaning out of a safari vehicle in Kruger National Park, South Africa, at dusk as a troop of African wild dogs trotted past, on a mission.

  • crystal bloom

    I was practicing ghosting, however I captured this wonderful effect. I didn’t move the camera and had it on self timer with slow shutter speed. This is my granddaughter twirling Christmas lights, the first one looks a little too blurry but the second one I really like

    • great job – try it with the room being darker and the sparkly lights will show up more!

    • also just emailed you about how to get your prize!

      • crystal bloom

        Thank you so much Darlene, this is a great honor for me. I will down load the presets tomorrow after work! Can’t wait to try them out!!

  • Ricardo Carrasco

    Christmas Building in zooming
    Nikon D7000, f/22, 2 seg, ISO 100, 18 mm

    • Looks like a flower! cool. FYI each person only gets one entry for the prize but feel free to share as many images as you want. Love them!

    • lee kivi

      Nice job

      • Ricardo Carrasco

        Thanks a lot

  • Gary Holden

    Shot in the Laerdal Tunnel in Norway (world’s longest) on a monopod with a Sony A77V 0.6sec, F/6.3, ISO 100, 52mm

  • Alvaro Eloy

    Zooming plus mixing lighting technique. In another words: street lights, tail car plus flash. Handhel with a Canon 60D 18-135mm lens at f/7.1 for 1/6s – ISO 160…Greetings from Brasil

  • Alvaro Eloy

    The same as below, with exception of aperture and speed, that was f/8 for 1/8s.

  • Rob Stewart

    The St Albert Christmas Train passing by.
    Nikon D810, 25 sec.,F8,24mm,ISO125

  • Rob Stewart

    CN Rail Christmas Train @ St Alberta, Alberta. D810, 24mm, 25.0 sec. @ F8, ISO 125. And this is what you get for changing the size of the file to fit this program, a blurry image. In the original the sign and the environment are tack sharp. Next time I guess!

    • Great image! How did you do the resize? Photoshop? Lightroom? Did you sharpen after sizing? How can I help?

      • Rob Stewart

        HI Darlene. On export from Lightroom I resized the photo so this program would accept it. The photo was also cropped slightly to remove footprints and a person just on the right edge of the photo. The rest is largely right out of camera. I used Lightroom to process the photo. I do not sharpen as it’s not required with my D810 Nikon. Cheers Rob

        • When you size from LR on export you can have it apply sharpening. You also need to check the details panel and apply some there. If it’s coming from a raw original file it hasn’t had any applied yet. Hope that helps.

    • Annie G

      Very beautiful!

    • lee kivi

      I like it! Since it is an abstract I don’t see the blurred sign as a problem,. If it was my shot I may have even cropped out the sign and gone with just that great light trail.

      • Rob Stewart

        Thank you Lee. If the program hand’t blurred the sign, I wouldn’t have had an issue either. But, the sign has relevance to the train station seen on the other side of the tracks from the sign through the lights of the train. Everything is tack sharp with my exported file from Lightroom.
        Cheers, Rob

    • Which crossing is that?

  • C Robert

    Christmas ornament on the tree while zooming.

    • Love it! Love the little stars on the streaks

      • C Robert

        Thank you, Darlene! Cheers!

  • Tania Jacobs

    Canon EOS 600D, f/5.6; 3,2 sec; ISO 200. I was trying to capture an image I saw on Pinterest, with the dad and baby’s faces close, but these two just could hold a pose, and this is what I ended up with. And I loved it from the moment I saw it.

    • Fun! If you do want to get it sharp for the look you were going for – use an area with more light, or crank up your ISO way up! As you can see people can’t hold still for much more than 1/8th, babies and kids even less than that. Ideally you want 1/60th or faster.

    • CONGRATULATIONS Tania Jacobs, for winning this months photography challenge. I’ll be in touch shortly by email with information about your prize.

  • Wayne Hoover

    This was shot on the streets of Istanbul using a Tamron 28-300mm zoomed all the way in to 300mm. Using shutter priority I set the time for 2.5 secs as that is how long it takes for me to zoom the lens back to 28mm. Tripod of course, ISO was 200. I find this type of photography the most fun at night and often teach this technique when on photo expeditions.

    • Cool I loved your city!

      • Wayne? Hoover? Sound Turkish? lol. See his avatar photo? He totally looks like he’s from Kentucky.

  • Aha! Well it’s a great city either way

  • Darlene Perkin

    The red, pink and white poinsettias at Brandon City Hall took on a new look when I gave them a twirl by rotating my camera slightly through the 0.6 sec exposure. Aperture was set at f16 and ISO was 100. Nikon D5300 with Sigma 18-250 lens.

  • Jim Ruse

    Having fun with the Christmas Tree. Great challenge, Darlene. Lot of fun.

  • motion blur the digital way:
    move fast – wait a second – move fast – wait a second ….. 😉

    Camera on a tripod
    exposure time 15 seconds,
    aperture f/11
    Iso 100

    I used a manual speedlight reflected from the ceiling to get a little bit of light on the housing.
    To make the stainless steel look a bit more “nighttime” I used a blue gel in front of the speedlight.

    • Funky image for sure – where is the blur, what am I missing? If you use a speedlight it will freeze anything moving in the image.

      • You’re right, the second hand moves too fast, there is no motion blur, only the “afterglow” during exercise breaks.

        But perhaps this corresponds better of the task – a pretty toy, which I had a lot of fun with buzzing around for a while in my flat.

        • There you go! So that’s a good lesson to take away from it though – some things if there is too much motion, or the exposure is too long – they literally just disappear. That is why you can do painting with light and get into the scene yourself, but not appear in the image.

  • Mike

    Was hoping to get closer to the cars on this one but it is a freeway. Shot on a canon 70d at 18mm, f/8, iso 800 15 sec.

  • This is my first time trying out intentional blur. I used Christmas lights on my tree, in a dark room. Needed to play with my settings quite a bit to figure out how to get the look I wanted. This was handheld, aperture 4.0 shutter speed 1 second, ISO 80 using the Canon Powershot G16. I bumped up the temperature and saturation in Lightroom. I like the movement in this one, reminds me a little of fire. Thanks for the challenge! I’m hoping to try more of the ideas in this lesson. Great opportunity to push my limits and learn something new 🙂

  • Melissa Medina

    Ghosting – Subject stands with flashlight on him for a few seconds, turn off the flashlight then move him and shine it again for a few seconds. Taken with a Nikon D7000 – ISO 100 / f8 / 30 sec

    • Love it, great idea. As a side note, if you had him leave the flashlight on the whole time even as he moved, you’d get a streak of him in the middle too. Just another idea.

      • Melissa Medina

        Great idea! I’ll try that next time I’m playing with it! I love that there are so many creative ways to take pictures!

  • Wayne Hoover

    I captured this Nativity scene at a Christmas display at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY the other night. I have titled this image: “The true meaning of Christmas – coming at you.”

  • Wayne Hoover

    This was shot on a Canon 6D at f36, TV at 2.5 sec, zoomed in at 300mm and zoomed back to 28mm while the shutter was open.

  • Melissa Medina

    Electric! Bunch of lights on a stick spinning in different directions. Taken with a Nikon D7000 – ISO 100 / f9 at 22mm / 30 sec.

    • how fun was that?

      • Melissa Medina

        Playing with lights is always fun once you learn how to do it! 🙂

  • Melissa Medina

    Fairy Godmother. Used sparklers, taken with a Nikon D7000 – ISO 100 / f3.5 at 18 mm / 30 sec

  • Melissa Medina

    In an L.A neighborhood. Car passing by. Taken with a Nikon D7000 – ISO 100 / f5.6 at 55mm / 6 sec.

  • Richard Timm

    I took this photo in Southern California using a neutral density filter with a 15 second exposure at F16 and ISO 100.

    • Okay great. So the clouds are the blurry part? Clouds are hard sometimes, you either need a really long exposure (like 2 minutes) or clouds that are really moving fast.

  • Toni

    Bellingrath Gardens (Alabama). Gorilla tripod attached to stakes that held the rope protecting flowers. I gently pushed the camera down towards the end of the shot. Olympus E-PL5 14-42mm at f/18 for 25sec – ISO 200

  • Vic Prior

    Panning with 0.5sec exposure at f11 ISO 100 Sony RX100

  • Zosh Miller

    Ladysmith BC, a quick rotate of the Olympus EM 10 of some of the Christmas lights.
    1/13 sec. f 1.7, 20mm, ISO 200

    • Good job!

      • Zosh Miller

        Thanks Darlene. What I love about intentional blur is it’s unpredictability.

  • Jenny Kinnear

    Garden Gate
    Moving zoom, Nikon D5100, f/22, ISO-100, exposure time 3 sec.

  • Jenny Kinnear

    Girl Running
    Panning camera left to right, Nikon D5100, f/22, ISO-400, exposure time 1/10 sec.

    • Ewenique

      Looks like an impressionist painting

      • The technique I used is actually called ‘Impressionist Photography’, Ewenique. 🙂

        • Your comment here sent me off to do some research today and I learned many new and wonderful things about this form of photography. Thank you!

    • very cool

  • Jenny Kinnear

    Morning Stroll
    Panning camera left to right, Nikon D5100, f/22, ISO-200, exposure time 1/10 sec.

    • Cool blur. If you want the walking figure sharper, try and match his speed a bit closer, but neither is right or wrong.

  • Jenny Kinnear

    The Lights of Alice Springs
    Panning camera in waves, left to right, Nikon D5100, f/25, ISO-400, exposure time 2 sec.

  • Jenny Kinnear

    Brisbane Night Markets
    Time exposure on tripod, Nikon D5100, f/16, ISO-100, exposure time 3 sec.

  • Jenny Kinnear

    Brisbane Flyover by Night
    Time exposure on tripod, Nikon D5100, f18, ISO-100, exposure time 6 sec.

  • Sunrise at Hastings Point, Australia
    Panning camera left to right, Nikon D5100, f/22, ISO-200, exposure time 1/10 sec.

    • Ewenique


  • I tried capturing some light trails tonight while photographing the view across the lake near my house. f/4.0 for 60s, ISO 80 on a tripod with my Canon Powershot G16. Fun to do, but my fingers eventually got so frozen that I couldn’t work my camera controls!

  • Wendy

    Taken from a moving boat in Botswana, in the evening, focused on building but moving left to right as we travelled around corner. Nikon D90. aperture Priority – 1/5 sec, f8, ISO 1000 –

  • Rick Halbert

    Abstract water front, hand held, ISO 200, motion blur vertical movement, Shutter 15 sec, aperture f10

  • Mike Baker

    Using a slow shutter speed – Canon 70D 18-250mm Sigma @ ISO 100, f6.3, 1/10, 250mm

  • Norm Stoysich

    The Light Dancer. Olympus EM-1 f/4.1, iso 100, 3.2 sec, 16 mm.
    Lights on the end of ropes swinging in circular motion.

  • Norm Stoysich

    Moon Movement – Olympus C770UZ f/3.2, iso 67, 4 sec, 46mm – With a full moon and a slow movement of a hand held camera , light painting with the moon.

  • I’ve wanted to try this for a while and this challenge gave me the push I needed to finally do it 🙂 Tripod secured between the middle seats of my mini van. f/3.5, 60s, ISO 80. Taken with my Canon Powershot G16. This was so fun, I want to try it again!

  • Ewenique

    Newbie here. Fun with Christmas tree lights. Sony a5100, f/2.0, ISO 200, 50 mm, 1/50s, handheld with movement

  • Ewenique

    This was a fun technique to try. On the right is a jar filled with decorative silver and aqua balls and a silver Christmas sprig in a silver jar on the left.
    Sony a5100, f1/18, ISO 200, 50 mm, 1/20s

  • Ewenique

    One more. Bokeh Christmas tree lights Sony a5100, f2.0, ISO 200, 50 mm, 1/50s

  • Tried some slight sideways handheld movement with a rose in low, natural light. f/1.8, shutter speed 0.4, ISO 80. I really enjoyed this, made me think of swirling skirts and dancing, or maybe pink tulle at a ballet. Thanks so much for the challenge this month. I’ve been learning a lot!

  • Rita Heinrichs

    This picture hangs in my backyard year round, and is one of my favorites! I appreciate the website and all the great suggestions you provide. If you have any comments or suggestions on this photo please share. Canon Rebel EOS SL1, ISO 100, 1/2 Second, F22, 26mm – Greetings from Winkler Manitoba!

  • Rita Heinrichs

    One more from today, Canon Rebel EOS SL1, ISO 100, 1/2 second F/29, 52mm – Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

  • Today I tried setting my camera up on a tripod and panning upwards while taking a photo of a small group of aspens covered in snow. I don’t own any external filters, but my electronic ND filter made it possible for me to use a slower shutter speed. It took some experimenting with speed of panning to get an image I was happy with. This was so much fun! I’ve been researching other abstract/impressionist techniques to try. f/4.0, 0.4s, ISO 80

  • Judith Laguerre

    Super close up, out of focus, handheld photo of an acorn shell. Taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-F27, ISO 200, f 2.8, 1/4 sec…Happy Holidays!

  • Judith Laguerre

    I had so much fun, I had to do another photo…super close up, completely out of focus, handheld photo of Christmas tree lights. Taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-F27, ISO 200, f 3.3, 1/5 sec. 🙂

  • Maritess Padaca

    STREET DANCERS. This photo was taken during a town fiesta (feast) in the northern part of the Philippines. No unusual technique was done. I used a Nikon D7000 handheld + Tokina 50-135mm lens. Exposure information: f/ 14.0 for 1/10s- ISO 100.

  • Annie G

    Darlene, These are not for the competition since I’ve already taken your wonderful course but I wanted to share some images. I had to do this same technique for my local camera club and your article got me started, so thanks for that. I was looking for something with intense colors to shoot, these are both pictures of watercolor paintings I did and I love how it made them into abstracts. Hope you like them.
    Street scene picture shot at ISO 100, f/11, 1/4 sec.
    Other one is a botanical scene with a branch and some berries shot at ISO 100, f/10, 1/4 sec.
    I moved the camera in different ways until I got something I liked. It took me about 200 shots!

  • One more 🙂 I’m having so much fun with this! This is our antique violin, made in the 1800s. I shot this handheld in natural light coming in from a window on the right, panning the camera sideways. The colours and lines that resulted really surprised and delighted me. Did this with my Canon Powershot G16 f/2.8, 1s, ISO 80.

  • lee kivi

    Red and Yellow Abstract
    Panned a piece of red wrapping paper with yellow polka-dots and rotated the camera as I was panning. Iso 200,f/14 and a 1 sec. ss

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