lesson: the art of visual storytelling using movement | by Jen Sebring

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If you read my previous blog post, you know that telling the story is my main goal when taking a photo and there is no better way to capture a story than capturing movement.  In this lesson I am going to discuss how I direct and capture action with my kids.  I have broken my process down into 5 parts, cause who doesn’t like a list?


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Some people are visionaries.  They get an idea in their head and make it happen. They get props and put outfits together! Me? I’m not this.  At all. Not even a little. It takes grand efforts on my part to dress like a human adult. I am an observer. A stalker. I like to sit back and watch my kids just doing what they do.  This is where 99% of my inspiration comes from.  I see them doing something or I see them in specific light and I want to freeze it.  Most of my photos on Instagram started with “HANG ON DON’T MOVE!!!!!” And I run for my camera. When I see them in action and want to preserve that in a photo, I make a mental note of all the nuances that tell my brain they are moving. This is such an important step because to photograph movement you need to understand what movement looks like.  Photographs are still, so capturing the essence of movement is paramount.  I look for:

  • hair flowing
  • body movements and positions
  • clothing waving in the wind
  • facial expressions
  • the elements around them reacting to their movement. 

These are what cue me to click the shutter.

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While she was playing, I noticed the splash and her hair moving.  Catching her above the water was a plus!


Once my kids have done something Instagram worthy and I have promptly returned with my camera, I then direct.  I  find a clever way to move them into a better position for lighting and composition without them knowing, because if your kids are like mine, no idea is worse than one that isn’t theirs.

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For this photo, I already had my camera in hand and had captured her whacking the mulberries with a stick.  ALL her idea.  The street was behind her, though, and the photo was a mess.  I saw that the fence would make a beautiful backdrop with the sun setting behind it.  I said, “OMG!  Look at these mulberries over here!  Do you think you could knock THOSE down with your stick?  You’ll probably have to stand right here when you jump”.

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My niece and daughter were already playing on the swing, so I just prompted…“Leah, give Harper a BIG PUSH!”  Their body positions alone show they are in motion.


If you aren’t shooting in manual mode I HIGHLY recommend it.  To stop motion and freeze your subject where they are, use a HIGH shutter speed (minimum 1/200) and a higher/narrower aperture (Above 3.5f.  I will use lower, but it typically yields in more out of focus shots)  The aperture will ensure that MORE is in focus so you have wiggle room for getting them in the focal plane. The high shutter speed will ensure that it is a fast enough shot to really stop the moving subject.  You can lower these settings if you want to capture some motion blur, which I think gives a nice effect for movement.  

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I wanted to freeze her in the sky so I used a higher aperture.

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 I wanted to capture the motion blur so I used a shutter speed below 1/200.

Some people like to use Al Servo focusing.  This is where the camera continually refocuses once it is locked on it’s subject, but I haven’t found this to be as accurate as focusing manually.  And on the topic of focusing, make sure you refocus often.  When kids are moving, they are often coming in and out of the focal plane.  It’s been a real bummer when I’ve been back button focusing and missed focus on some great shots because my subject moved too much.


Once you’re settings are set and your direction is given, sit back and wait for moments.

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For this photo I just told my niece to kick the water.  As soon as she got excited I started clicking.

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My daughter and father in law were walking towards the lake.  I saw her start to skip and started shooting!  I positioned them so you could still see the horses and sunset behind them.



My last tip is to overshoot!  You never know when that shot is going to be THE shot especially when they are moving so quickly!  Another thing I do is refocus often.  I use back button focus, but when they are moving they can come in and out of the focus plane.

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Good Luck! And I can't wait to see what you create!

xoxo, Jen

Megan Boggs4 Comments