Whether it’s the thrills and spills of motor sport, your kids racing around the park on their bike or the dog jumping for sticks, action photography is both challenging and exciting. It’s also one of the trickiest photographic disciplines that will test you and your equipment to the limit, but if you stick with it and master the basic skills required, great images will result. timing is the key to success. Often opportunities only last for a fraction of a second before the moment is lost, but in that time you have to make numerous decisions-about focusing, exposure and composition, as well as predicting the movement of your subject and the prime time to shoot and capture the action at its peak. Sounds almost impossible when you look at it like that, but then when you see the amazing shots good action photographers manage to take, you realise that it’s not impossible at all it just takes practice and a little help from our indispensable guide.
Can you pat your head with one hand while rubbing your tummy with the other? This may seem like a dumb question.but it’s relevant because shooting sport and action is a bit like that. You’re trying to do several jobs all at once, all of which require skill and concentration, and if you drop your guard for a second it’s game over!
It’s the photographic equivalent of spinning plates-you either succeed or fail and the grey area in between is almost non-existent! Fortunately, all it takes is practice, patience and perseverence.
The key with good action photography is being able to predict and capture the split-second when the action reaches it peak.
You need a thorough understanding of your camera gear so you can use it quickly and instinctively, a mastery of basic techniques such as focusing, exposure and shutter speed choice, and an understanding of the event or subject you’re photographing so you can plan ahead and recognise when a great opportunity is likely to arise.
Capturing action at its peak is easier with some sports than others. In many cases, there’s an optimum moment when everything comes together and time seems to slow down. Think of a pole vaulter clearing the beam — as he reaches the required height and arches his back, there comes a point when he seems frozen in midair. Or when a tennis player is about to serve, it’s easiest to photograph when the ball is airborne and his racket is swung backwards. These crucial moments are easier to capture because they are easier to predict you know exactly what’s going to happen when it’s going to happen, so you can plan and prepare for it.
EQUIPMENT FOR ACTION
Modern equipment makes a huge difference. The latest DSLRs boast super fast and sophisticated autofocus, high shooting rates and amazingly accurate metering systems, so the technical side of taking perfect action shots is now easier than ever before. You no longer need top-end pro SLRs- even modestly-priced entry-level models can keep up with the action — so don’t ever try to blame your camera for taking poor action shots.
In terms of lenses, a general range of focal lengths will cover your needs. Most sport and action shots are taken with telephoto or tele zoom lenses so the subject is magnified and depth-of-field reduced to blur the background. But you don’t need to remortgage the house to equip yourself with suitable glass — a modest 70-300mm f/4-5.6 tele zoom will be fine. Okay, it’s not as’fast’ as a £5,000 300mm f/2.8, but so what? If you’re struggling to get a fast enough shutter speed at f/5.6, increase the ISO to 200,400 or 800 — the latest DSLRs produce amazing image quality up to ISO 800 so use it and save yourself thousands of pounds! You may also think that300mm isn’t long enough, but on a DSLR with an APS-C sensor it’ll be the equivalent to 450mm or thereabouts, which will cope fine with most sport and action subjects.
Don’t automatically assume that you need long lenses either. Many action subjects and some sports can be photographed from close range, so a standard zoom in the 18-55mm range will be fine and even a wide zoom in the 10-20mm range has its uses.
The benefit of a wider lens is that it forces you to get closer to the action and the images that result tend to have more impact than if you’re miles away with a long zoom. Compositionally, they have a totally different feel. Depth-of-field appears greater so more of the subject is recorded in focus, and you get distortion from the angle-of-view of the lens which gives images a dramatic look.
Wide-angle lenses are also easier to use. They’re lighter, so camera shake is less likely and the increased depth-of-field gives you more room for slight focusing error. Telephoto shots are crowded and flatter in comparison and the lenses are bigger and heavier to handle — plus you have to get focus spot-on as depth-of-field is limited.
Ideally, use a lens hood at all times to shade the front of the lens and reduce the risk of flare — especially when using a wide lens in sunny weather. You’re unlikely to use filters much for sport and action, other than maybe a Neutral Density (ND) to slow down the shutter speed, so you can dispense with your filter holder and pop a lens hood on instead — the hoods supplied with your lenses are ideal for the job.
If you’re shooting with a long lens it may be worth using a monopod to provide support.You still get lots of freedom of movement, which is handy when you’re tracking your subject or panning, but the leg of the monopod will take the weight of the camera and lens off your arms and reduce the risk of shake. It will also provide a pivot point which helps to pan smoothly.
Tripods are too cumbersome for general sport and action photography. But if you’re using a really slow shutter speed to record motion in a scene — commuters flooding off a train, people walking around a crowded square — then you’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod otherwise you’ll blur the whole shot with shake. Remember, action photography covers anything that moves — and once you start to open your mind to that you’ll realise it takes in all kinds of subjects, not just sports.
The same applies to tripping the camera’s shutter. Most of the time you’ll do that by pressing the camera’s shutter release button with your finger, but you need to be by the camera. By using a remote infrared trigger you can setup the camera close to the action then fire it from a distance. In some situations this is recommended for safety, but in others it will allow you to take shots from wacky angles, too-such as at ground level by a jump on a horse racing track, motocross track or a hurdle on an athletics track. You can also setup fun shots if you fire the camera remotely — getting your kids to jump over the camera, for example.
Finally, flash can be useful to freeze the fastest movement, or for creative techniques such as slow-sync flash where you combine a burst of flash with a slow shutter speed to capture blurred and sharp images on the same shot. The small built-in unit in your camera may not be powerful enough, but a portable gun slipped onto the hot shoe will — it’s worth experimenting with.
IMPORTANCE OF SHUTTER SPEEDS
An important consideration when freezing action is choosing a shutter speed that’s fast enough for the job. There are three factors that dictate this: how fast your subject is moving, how far away it is from you and the direction that it’s travelling in in relation to the camera. If your subject is coming head-on you can freeze it with a slower shutter speed than if it’s moving across your path. Similarly, a faster shutter speed will be required to freeze a subject that fills the frame than if it only occupies a small part.
A shutter speed of 1/1000 or l/2000sec is fast enough to freeze all but the speediest of subjects. Unfortunately, light levels won’t always allow for such high speeds, so you need to be aware of the typical minimum speed required for your subject(see panel).
If you set your DSLR to shutter-priority exposure mode, you can select the shutter speed you want to use and the camera will automatically set the lens aperture required to achieve correct exposure, if the required aperture is wider than your lens’s maximum aperture, you’ll either have to settle for a slower shutter speed or increase the ISO.
For example, if the fastest shutter speed you can achieve at ISO 200 with your lens at its widest aperture is l/250sec, by increasing to ISO 400 you’ll be able to use l/500sec and at ISO 800 you can use l/1000sec.
Of course, you don’t have to use fast shutter speeds to freeze action subjects -intentionally using a slower shutter speed to introduce blur can produce much more dramatic images because you capture a sense of movement in your subject.
One option is to keep your camera still so your subject blurs as it passes, while the background remains sharp. Examples of where this technique can work include commuters rushing off a train in the morning, or any situation where crowds of people are moving, such as in busy markets. Experiment with shutter speeds from l/2sec to several seconds to vary the amount of blur. You can also use this technique for a single moving subject, such as a car, cyclist or person. Again, try different shutter speeds from maybe l/30-l/2sec, depending on how fast your subject is moving and how much blur you want to record.
Another option is to use a technique called panning, where a slow shutter speed is used, but instead of keeping the camera still, you track your subject with it by swinging your body and tripping the shutter while you’re moving. This produces an image where your subject comes out sharp but the background blurs. The effect can look stunning, whether you’re shooting a motor sport event or your kids at their school sports day.
Here’s how it’s done: first, set the exposure on your camera, paying close attention to the shutter speed you’ll be using. Set your camera to Servo AF and continuous shooting. As your subject approaches, track it towards a point opposite you, making sure you move the camera at the same pace as your subject. Press the shutter release to start firing and keep panning the camera while shooting to take a series of shots. Take your finger off the shutter release to stop shooting while you’re still panning the camera, so you get a smooth, even motion.
This sounds very easy, but it’s quite tricky and takes practice to get it right. The key to success is in the smoothness of your pan. With the camera held up to your eye, lock your elbows in to your sides and swing your upper body from the hips, rather than just moving the camera. If you want your subject to be pin sharp you also need to pan evenly, so that it remains in exactly the same part of the frame throughout the exposure — using the viewfinder AF-points as reference helps achieve this. If your panning is uneven, or your subject’s movements are erratic, you’ll get blur in the subject as well as the background, but this can also produce eye-catching images.
As a starting point, use the panel opposite as a speed guide. Once you gain confidence and your technique improves, start dropping the shutter speed for more dramatic results. The slower you go, the more difficult it is to keep your subject sharp, but the more blurred the background becomes — exaggerating the sense of speed.
Spot-on focusing is a must to ensure sharp results when shooting action.
Focusing is made all the more difficult with action photography because as well as dealing with a subject in motion — moving targets are always harder to hit — you’ll often be using a telephotolens at its widest aperture, which means there will be limited depth-of-field and hardly any room for error. Depending upon the type of subject you’re photographing, there are two commonly used focusing techniques that can be used to put the odds of successful focusing in your favour — prefocusing and follow-focusing.
Prefocusing involves focusing on a point you know your subject will pass, such as a corner on a racetrack, or a running race in school sports day. All you do then is wait until your subject approaches and trip the shutter to take the shot.
It’s important to shoot just before your subject snaps into focus because your brain takes a fraction of a second to tell your finger to hit the shutter release, then there’s another fractional delay before the shutter opens and the exposure is made. If your subject is already sharp when you hit the release, by the time you do, it may have passed the point you prefocused on. The faster the subject is moving, the longer the lens focal length and the wider the aperture, the more likely this is.
If you’re using autofocus, set single-point AF and single-shot mode, partially depress the shutter release to lock focus on the chosen point, then hold it down until you’re ready to fire. Alternatively, use the AF-On button, if your camera has one, to lock focus so you don’t have to keep the shutter release partially depressed, or manually focus the lens on the predetermined spot. Use continuous frame advance to maximise the chance of capturing the subject in focus.
Follow-focusing involves tracking your subject with the camera and continually adjusting focus to keep it sharp so that when the action reachesitspeakyou’re ready to capture it. This approach is better suited to unpredictable subjects — such as football.
Before the days of autofocus, follow-focusing required skill because you had to adjust focus manually. Now, modern AF systems are so quick and accurate that even novices can achieve perfect follow-focusing. Set Servo AF so the lens adjusts focus continually, and select a focus point that allows you to keep the chosen part of your subject in focus. The latest DSLRs have loads of AF options, with focus-assist points, face recognition and other features that make it easier to achieve perfect focus.
it’s worth practising follow-focusing to find out how quick your camera’s AF system is — you should be able to shoot rapid sequences of images and get each one sharp, it’s also good to get used to changing the AF point with the camera at your eye, so you can adapt your approach quickly and ensure your lens focuses where you need it to while you’re tracking a moving subject.
Shooting action all around you is the best place to start — hone your skills close to home first…
There’s a popular misconception that you need to attend major sporting events and venues to bag decent action shots, but nothing could be further from the truth -there’s action going on all around us all the time, and as well as being far more accessible than most sports, it’s also often photographically more interesting.
If you have kids then you also have instant action subjects on permanent tap — and with the summer holidays here, lots of opportunities to get out with a camera. Shoot them splashing around in a paddling pool or in the sea on your family holiday, using a fast shutter speed to freeze the water or a slow one to blur it. Get them to soak each other with hosepipes and water pistols while you fire away from a safe distance. Football or chasing the dog in the park, frisbee on the beach, playing catch, horse riding, cycling, rollerblading… All these situations and pastimes create great photo opportunities, and by experimenting with techniques such as panning, blurring, slow-sync flash and close-range shooting with a wide lens, you’ll be able to capture some great images.
Kids love being the centre of attention, so don’t be afraid to set-up shots — get them to run towards the camera while you fire away, or jump over a makeshift hurdle while you lay on the ground and capture them against the sky. Trampolines are also great for action shots — as we illustrated in last month’s issue. You can also get them to repeat the same things time and time again until you get the shots you want — providing you promise an ice cream for their efforts, you’ll be fine!
If your interest in sports photography blossoms then you’ll almost certainly set your sights higher and start thinking about attending bigger events and venues. It’s a natural progression from shooting Sunday morning soccer or local athletics; a way to see just how good you are.
Some sports are off limits beyond amateur level — pro football and rugby being two. Without a press pass you’ll never get close enough to the action. Cricket is another tricky one — without a 600mm to 800mm lensyou’ll be shooting distant needles in haystacks!
Motorsport is a good sport to target as you can usually get fairly close to the action from the spectator stands. Check out the venue online and see where the best spots are, then arrive nice and early so you can get a good view. With a zoom that takes you up to 300mm or 400mm you’ll fill the frame without any trouble.
Smaller circuits tend to give the best access, so forget about FI Grands Prix and go initially for club events. Motorbikes as well as cars are worth pursuing and motocross is a cracking sport for photography because you really can get close to the action, and move around the course freely to shoot from different vantage points. Jumps are always a good one asyou’ll get bike after bike in midair.
Speaking of air — don’t underestimate airshows as great events for action. All the big ones take place in the summer and because the action occurs overhead, spectators get as good a view as VIPs. Shooting aircraft in-flight is a real test of your tracking and timing skills, and if you wantto bag frame-filling shotsyou’ll need a long lens — 400mm to 500mm is the name of the game, though a 75-300mm on a DSLR with a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x will do a decent job. You’ll also need a shutter speed of l/500-l/1000sec to stop them dead. Take a few test shots to see how your camera’s metering copes with the sky and workout how much exposure compensation you need to dial in (if any) to give you perfect results. Underexposure is far more likely than over-exposure.so watch out for it. If light levels drop you may also need to increase the ISO to maintain an action-freezing shutter speed — up to ISO 800 is more than acceptable with the latest generation of DSLRs, though if in doubt, don’t stray beyond ISO 400.
Finally, remember that the best displays tend to take place at the end of the day, so don’t burn yourself out or fill all your memory cards before the grand finale!