Digital Focus: Action Photos, Part 3

Paint Your Pictures With Motion

From the top of Seattle's Space Needle, you can see for miles. On a clear day, the view is simply breathtaking.

Last month, I found myself on the top of Seattle's famous landmark not just on a clear day, but on a day that the Blue Angels air demonstration team was performing. As the aircraft made wide turns right in front of the Needle, I took dozens of pictures.

But afterwards, I was dissatisfied with the photos. The problem was that by using a high shutter speed, I'd lost any sense of motion. I'd stopped the action so thoroughly that even the propeller blades hung frozen in the air. As a result, the pictures lacked soul.

So this week, let's finish up our three-week-long look at capturing motion with a lesson in how to put some motion into pictures that are perhaps just a little too static for their own good. (You can find the two earlier columns, "Action Photos, Part 1" and "Action Photos, Part 2," online.)

Adding a Layer

Save one of my airplane pictures to your hard drive and then load it into your favorite image editing program; I'll demonstrate using Jasc Paint Shop Pro.

We'll be using the Motion Blur effect to paint in some motion. But before we get to that, we need to start by adding another layer to the picture. Choose Layers, Duplicate from the menu. You should now have two layers in the Layer Palette called "Background" and "Copy of Background." If you don't have the Layer Palette on screen, you can toggle it on by choosing View, Palettes, Layers. Make sure that the top layer--Copy of Background--is selected by clicking on it in the Layer Palette. When it's selected, anything we do to the picture will happen to the top layer, and the bottom layer will remain exactly as it was when we started this project.

Paint in the Motion

Adding some motion blur is as easy as choosing Adjust, Blur, Motion Blur from the menu. In the Motion Blur dialog box, you can set two important options: the angle of the blur and strength of the effect. Set the strength to be around 50 percent. Then adjust the angle of the blur: As you click the up adjustment arrow and the degree value increases, you'll see the hand on the dial to the left sweep clockwise until it's roughly in line with the plane's fuselage and pointing toward the rear of the plane.

Fine-Tune the Blur

We've added blur--but unfortunately, it just looks, well, blurry. It's as if someone bumped into me right as I took the picture. Let's use the Eraser to fine tune the blur.

Click the Erase Tool, which lives in the eleventh cubby from the top (seventh from the bottom) of the Tool Palette on the left side of the screen. It shares this space with the Background Eraser, so make sure you select the right tool. The Erase Tool does just what it sounds like: It removes pixels from the picture. But since we have the original image in the layer underneath, what the Erase Tool will do is let us combine blurry and non-blurry sections of the picture by revealing pixels from underneath.

There are two important Erase Tool options we need to set: the Size and the Opacity, both available in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. (You can toggle the Tool Options palette on by choosing View, Palettes, Tool Options.) Let's start painting with a brush size of 25 pixels and set the opacity to 100.

Use the Erase Tool to sharpen the leading edges of the plane--the nose, the wings, and the tail section--and sharpen the inner sections of the body as well, leaving just the trailing edges blurred. Be sure not to sharpen the propellers, though, which we'll want to leave blurred. Your image should look something like mine.

There are very rough transitions between the sharp and blurry parts of the picture; we need to smooth those transitions a bit. Set your brush's opacity to about 40 and paint a little more in the midsection, gently transitioning the plane from front to back wherever you see an abrupt change in sharpness. If you make a mistake, remember that you can always choose Undo from the edit menu to fix the most recent brush stroke. This is where this technique becomes an art form; you can spend a lot of time shaping the blur with varying levels of opacity. I completed my final image in just a few minutes with two opacity levels.

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