Home Art and Technique Mastering Zoom Burst Photography

Mastering Zoom Burst Photography

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Zoom Burst Photography

The zoom burst, or zoom blur, effect is a simple and fun photographic effect that I’ve been asked about many times.  This tutorial will walk you through the technique and, with a little practice, even beginners can nail it.

The Concept

…is straightforward:  manually adjust the focal length of the lens as you take the photo, which will lend an abstract quality and exaggerated sense of motion and depth to the subject and surroundings (there’s just a tiny bit more too it than that, as I will explain.)

Zoom Burst Photography

Courtesy of Joe King

What You’ll Need

  • Tripod or an image stabilized camera or lens and very steady hands
  • A camera that allows manual adjustment of shutter speed and aperture
  • A lens that can be manually zoomed

A DSLR camera and lens are best for this technique, but some point and shoot cameras offer manual settings and zoom adjustments as the photo is taken.  Please consult your manual.

Camera Settings

Before you take a zoom burst photo, you’ll need to adjust your shutter speed and aperture.  First, select a speed that is slow enough to give you time to adjust the focal length of your lens during the shot. Because you are using a slow shutter speed, more light will reach your sensor so, to prevent overexposure, select a higher aperture number. Shutter speeds and aperture settings will differ from photo to photo but, as a starting point, try a shutter speed of 1 second and an aperture that is one number higher than what your camera’s light meter suggests. You can adjust from there to get the results you want.

Zoom Burst Photography

Courtesy of BIll Dickinson

Taking the Shot

There are several approaches to zoom burst photography, all of which begin the same way:  Zoom in fully on your subject and lock focus (depress the shutter half way).  If your camera offers exposure lock, set that, too.  From there, you can:

  • Squeeze the shutter fully to take the picture while manually zooming out.
  • Zoom out as widely as you want to capture and squeeze the shutter while zooming in.
  • Zoom out partially, squeeze the shutter and zoom in or out.
  • Squeeze the shutter and rotate your camera while you zoom in or out.

You get the idea.  The variations are endless.  Experiment with each method until you find one that gives you the most desirable effect.  Just remember to zoom as smoothly as possible, maintaining a consistent speed through the end of the exposure.

What if I Can’t Adjust the Focal Length During the Shot?

Some cameras don’t allow manual adjustment of focal lengths during a shot. If this is your situation, you are not out of luck; you can still get the shot with a little extra effort and some patience. Here’s how:  Keeping your hands extra steady, move your camera forward or back during the shot. Keep trying until you get a great zoom burst shot.

Zoom Burst Photography

Courtesy of Tao Zero


Here are a few more tips to help you get the best zoom burst shot, no matter what camera equipment you have.

  • If you are having difficulty getting the right aperture settings, experiment in low light to reduce the chances of overexposure.
  • Keep the speed at which you adjust the focal length steady throughout the shot. Don’t start out slow and then move fast, for example, which could ruin the shot.
  • If using flash, set it off at the beginning or end (called second curtain, or slow sync, flash) of the shot to add an interesting lighting effect.
  • Try briefly pausing halfway through the zoom to create an effect that looks as though time stopped for a brief moment.

The beauty of digital cameras is that you can practice effects like zoom burst without worrying about wasting film and you can see the results almost instantly. Try different shutter speed and aperture settings, as well as different shooting locations and subjects to master this technique. In no time you will be a zoom burst master, ready to move on to another exciting special photography effect. Happy shooting!

Jerroid Marks is founder of Band of Light, photographer and world traveler.


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