How to Take Stunning Zoom Burst Photos

Add motion and an abstract feel to your photos using the zoom blur technique. Learn what it is and how to achieve it.

A zoom burst, or zoom blur, is a fantastic photographic effect which is simple, fun and easy to achieve. It involves zooming in or out while you take a photo, causing the shot to blur from the centre outwards, as if the scene is “bursting” towards you.

You can use a zoom burst to add movement and action to your photos, and to give them an abstract quality.

Zoom blur photo of autumn leaves

The zoom effect produces an interesting, abstract feel. Image by Stuart Richards.

How to take a zoom blur photo

You don’t need any fancy equipment to get started with zoom bursts - just a DSLR with a zoom lens and an optional tripod.

Start by mounting your camera on your tripod. We’ll be using a long shutter speed so this will help keep the blurry lines straight. If you don’t have a tripod you can stand your camera on a wall or lean against a tree. You can even hand-hold your camera if you don’t mind a slightly wobbly feel to your photo - this can actually look really good, so give it a go.

Zoom burst of wall art

Use a tripod or steady yourself to keep the blurred lines straight. Image by Michael Himbeault.

Select shutter priority mode and choose a shutter speed of around 1 to 4 seconds. Zoom fully in and focus on your subject. If your camera allows it, lock the focus and exposure at this point, so you know they’ll be correct when the subject is filling the frame.

Now zoom right out to the widest angle you want to capture. Press the shutter button and zoom in until the subject fills the frame again. Try to zoom as smoothly as possible, maintaining a constant speed throughout and finishing just before the end of your exposure.

Zoom effect of toys

As with all types of photography, remember to frame your subject nicely. Image by Will Clayton.

If your shot is overexposed, try using a narrower aperture, fitting an ND filter or reducing the shutter speed. You can get a good effect down to about 1/8th of a second, although you’ll have to zoom much faster to compensate.

Snapping a zoom blur photo is all about timing, and it can be tricky to get right, so you’ll need to be patient. Constantly review your shots on your camera’s LCD screen and make any necessary adjustments as you go along.

Choosing a subject

Virtually any subject can produce a striking zoom effect, but generally ones with plenty of colour and pattern work best. Try photographing things like stained glass windows or city lights as these produce some beautiful, colourful streaks.

Getting creative with zoom bursts

There are many ways to make your zoom blurs even more interesting:

Rotate the camera

Instead of turning your lens’s zoom ring, hold it perfectly still and rotate the camera instead. This adds an eye-catching spiral effect to the zoom burst.

Spiral zoom burst

Rotate the camera to produce a spiral zoom burst effect. Image by Robert S. Donovan.

Zoom out instead of in

In the above tutorial you started with the camera zoomed out, and then moved in on the subject. Switch things around and start with your lens fully zoomed in, and then pull out from the scene. This produces a subtly different effect.

Use flash

Using slow sync flash you can fire a burst of flash at the start or end of your exposure. This freezes the subject in sharp focus, but keeps the blurred effect for added creative impact. It’s best to time the flash to fire when the subject is filling the frame - use the “front-curtain” or “rear-curtain” setting depending on whether you’re zooming in or out.

Shoot at night

The zoom burst effect is perfectly suited to night time photography because of the long exposure times involved. The bright lights of a city also create stunning light trails in your shot.

Zoom effect on a city skyline at night

Night time lights are perfect for zoom bursts. Image by sagriffin305.

Use partial zoom

You don’t have to use your lens’s full range of focal lengths. Experiment with smaller zoom ranges to see how the effect varies.

Pause while zooming

Rather than continuously moving the lens for the entire shot, try pausing for a moment at the start or end of the exposure, or even in the middle. You can do this once or multiple times to bring the scene into focus at different points.

Taking zoom blur photos is all about creativity, so experiment and see if you can put your own unique twist on things.

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