Motion Emphasizing Stillness in Photography

Breaking a pattern can work to bring attention to that pattern. You may not notice how quiet it is until some subtle noise disrupts that silence, reminding you of the context it is punctuating.

Depicting motion in a still photograph is similar to depicting scale, in that it requires the motion to be relative to something stationary, just as something large only exists relative to something small.

Photography can make a speeding bullet appear as still as the stationary target it is about to hit. The eye can’t even process a bullet in motion, but a camera can produce results that are detached from that reality, while not feeling “unreal”.

“The wind drops but the petals keep falling,
The bird calls and the mountain becomes more mysterious.
Little sounds emphasizing silence,
Little motions emphasizing stillness.”
A Chinese poem

While we experience motion blur naturally, like the glowing trail we perceive as being left by a light source in the dark, it doesn’t come close to what a camera can capture. A slow shutter speed can leave the ocean looking entirely unfamiliar, flat, and untextured, not something the eye can naturally perceive. Without a stationary aspect, like an anchored ship, or beach in the foreground, we may not know what we are looking at, if all we are shown is blurry, formless substance.

Recognizing that motion is relative to stillness means being able to really emphasize speed, or to bend visual reality in some interesting ways. Either I need to be fairly still, to produce a stationary world for something to move inside, or I need to move with my subject to produce a world of motion, in which my subject is “stationary”, but obviously in motion in context.

Combining this with other techniques, like a flash to freeze motion while dragging the shutter is fun, and can offer areas of clarity within chaos, which can be a striking effect.

Unintentional blur from unsteady hands or shutter speed compromises in low light is often seen as undesirable, but working despite adverse conditions can be especially rewarding. In the winter, the cold makes stability tricky, and with constant overcast conditions, there isn’t a lot of available light to work with. Methods that incorporate intentional camera movement, or which channel movement to synchronize photographer and subject, can be learned quickly and applied in all kinds of scenarios.

I prefer motion blur to communication motion as opposed to context clues. A sports photographer freezing a somersaulting gymnast at 1/2000ths makes a great sports image, but they are translating speed into something almost mundane in my opinion. For many of my images, I’d rather have a sense of speed from something I can’t make out, existing on the edge of surrealism, than something clinical. A mess of imperfection, but perfectly communicating what I want that image to say in a way that “technical perfection” would not achieve.

In my recent collaborative publication Flames Cast No Shadows, I use images with motion blur a few times to convey relative speed and stillness in order to offer that association to the broader theme of the work, which is about the movement of “prayer” across the waters of the Ganges. Movement is a central theme, but not the only theme, it wouldn’t make sense to have something moving in every image, but the feeling of progress between two shores is essential.

In this spread, for example, on the left I use an image that is totally blurred, but in which you can still make out a man in a moment of prayer, while on the opposite page a boat glows in motion against the stillness of the shore which you can see on the other side. The result makes the familiar a little unfamiliar.

A double-spread image in this book shows a still life of petals stretched out against a black expanse, no motion blur but still with a sense of progress and movement within the context of the book.

In another book, Dream Grieving, I wanted to impart a sense of what I was feeling while working on the book, and part of this involved concepts emerging from a fog, almost like a magic eye puzzle. The best image I had to represent this was an image of sand on the beach, made with a very grainy, heavily expired film, which is not in motion at all, but which seems to shift when you really look at it, almost an optical illusion of movement.

I used that image for inner and rear cover spreads, to bring the reader into the idea of patterns and perspective, and I think it works nicely to tie thematically to an image of a piece of chalk caught in seaweed, also on the beach, which I use to represent an icon of death.

I was recently inspired by the body of work “Moksha” by Faizal Sheikh ( which is actually available to read for free online ( His work uses perfectly still images blended together with foggy and blurry images of motion and context, which work towards an especially dreamy and ethereal atmosphere — very unique among publications I have read. The opening pages especially lead you along a path, winding alleys, and through doorways until you meet people who flow by just as the environment did.

Once you start to incorporate motion in the form of multiple stills (like a video, or even a flip book), or sequenced frames like a photo book you can build out from there into something more complicated, use it to convey more than just an overarching concept but lead a reader through a specific path. I hope to explore this more in my upcoming projects. That relationship between stillness and motion which ends up emphasizing both has so much potential I hope to incorporate.

P.S. Pre-order for my winter release, consisting of Dream Grieving, Fames Cast No Shadows, and an 8×10 darkroom print totaling £20 (including shipping for UK customers) is now live at this link.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King