Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Action photography

When I was a kid, sports were a big attraction for me. Cricket, basketball, football, tennis, squash - I played and enjoyed them all. So it was only natural for me to think of action photography when I first took up the camera. In fact, I guess I only thought of sports photography rather than action photography, as sport is really only a subsection of action.

It didn't take long to find out that action was much harder job as a photographer than as a participant!

My first camera was a Ricoh rangefinder camera, loaded with
35mm Kodachrome slide film. There was no instruction manual, so I was largely self-taught. In fact, I didn't even know about focusing until after I had my first roll of film developed and only one image was in focus. A quick trip to the camera shop to reload the camera with film and ask why my pictures were so terrible revealed that although the lens was fixed to the camera, the glass elements moved backwards and forwards when the focus ring around the lens was twisted. In the viewfinder, a very small triangle in the centre was the focus point, and the focus ring was turned until that triangle was in focus with the remainder of the viewfinder.

You can appreciate that my first attempts at action photography would have been abject failures when you consider that Kodachrome had a speed of 25 ASA (ISO), the camera focus system was slow and too small for quick focus, and the lens was a 35mm focal length unable to be changed!

Fortunately for all of us, these days even the most basic digital camera can handle speeds up to 800 ISO, with relatively quick auto-focus systems and fast shutter speeds.

But apart from equipment, the most important tool you need is a brain, because there are a number of things that you have to consider with any form of action photography. Let's consider a couple of points.

I will list shutter speed first, because to me, how you capture and represent action is principally dependent on this factor. The photographer has to decide whether to freeze action by using a fast shutter speed, or whether to allow some motion blur to occur with the selection of a slower shutter speed.

As an example of what I am talking about, have a look at this picture of the cyclists. I am not sure of their exact speed when I took this photo, but as a recreational cyclist I can say that it would have been in excess of 40 kph. Here I needed to select a shutter speed that was fast enough to show them clearly, but not so fast that the cyclists appear to be stationary.

The speed selected, 1/250 sec did the trick, because the spokes and the wheels of the bikes are blurred, suggesting rapid movement.

Aperture is not quite as important in this form of photography, as it will be dependent on the conditions, the shutter speed selected and the ISO. You do need to ensure, though, that the depth of field (DOF) will be sufficient for your requirements.

You will also need to learn a panning technique, as most action will involve moving subjects. You will have to develop a method of holding the camera firmly, elbows against your sides, and a rotation of the torso as you follow the action. Don't forget, squeeze the shutter; don't press it too firmly. The effect of panning enhances the representation of action, because it provides you with a sharp foreground and a blurred background. If you check the image above, you will see what I mean.

The last point I would ask you to consider is composition. Most action occurs quickly, so I would advise some pre-shoot thinking here to determine a viewpoint that will keep you close enough to the subject and that does not have any distracting elements in the shot, and the background is acceptable. And, as a general rule, when you have a moving subject, it's best to leave space in front of it for it to move into, rather than having the subject jammed against the frame.

EXIF: Nikon D70; Nikkor 70-200mm VR; ISO 200; 1/205; f8.


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