Make Better Photos: How to Shoot Action

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Action sports photography isn’t all that difficult, but it does demand a high level of capability from your gear. If you’re serious about shooting action, you’ll need to gird yourself with at least one fast telephoto lens and a capable DSLR. Most people aren’t that serious about it, though, they just want to get a few decent shots of their bros hucking off a booter, and one of my biggest photo philosophies is “be pragmatic,” so today I’m going to tackle a little of both — how to get started if you’re aiming high and how to aim high if you’re just getting started.

It Takes a Real Camera
If you want the best action photos you can shoot, you’re going to need a full featured DSLR. There’s no way around it. Point and shoots, mirrorless compact cameras, and phones simply can’t give you the manual controls and fast response time that you need.

After writing that last sentence, I sat here looking a blinking cursor trying to think of what else to add, but there’s nothing more to say. If you want to take top-quality action shots, you need a real camera, period.

1/500 Second Is Your Best Friend
Everyone’s familiar with shutter speeds, right? You know that the longer the shutter is open, the more light that gets to the camera sensor. It’s also true that the longer the shutter is open, the more of that action (movement) will be recorded — hence the blurry pictures when you’re shooting mountain biking at 1/60 of a second.

The minimum shutter speed threshold for most sports action is 1/500 of a second. This is usually fast enough to freeze your athlete in place without too much blurring. But that’s a minimum. 1/800 or 1/1000 will be better if the light allows.

Another consideration is which direction your model is moving in relation to the camera. If they’re moving directly at you, their speed is at its relative highest and you’ll need a correspondingly high shutter speed. If they’re moving at an angle, or even perpendicular, you can get away with slower. Indeed, you’ve seen tons of panning shots where you move the camera sideway with the model — this is a great tactic when the light gets low, cause you can comfortably shoot 1/125 and still get good shots.

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Manual Everything Is Your Second BFF
Ninety percentage of my photos are shot on full manual settings and manual focus. I won’t tell you that you should do the same, but…you should at least consider it. Manual doesn’t just give you the control you need to fine tune your images, it builds an intuitive understanding of photography, light, gear, and settings that will serve you well when you’re scrambling to capture something unfolding in front of you quickly.

But If You Won’t Shoot Manual…
…set your camera to shutter priority and make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/500, per my comments above.

The Prefocus Trick
Maintaining the correct focus on a moving object isn’t easy. It’s an art that can take years to master. And in some situations, it’s impossible — shooting ski racing, for example. Good luck pulling focus all the way down the course. What sports photographers often do, and you should, too, is to set your focus where you know the model will be when you’re going to trigger the shutter — at the apex of a turn, for example, or just a couple feet past a jump.

You’re Going to Have to Create It
Unless they were taken during an event, 99 percent of the action shots you see in magazines were set up. That is, the photographer and the athlete stopped, took the time, and with the very specific purpose of making the photo, conducted the action. They don’t just happen. What that means, then, is that you should be directive — take the time and create the shot, don’t just passively grab a quick snappy while riding down the trail. If it’s worth the time to shoot, it’s worth the time to give it your best and be fully engaged with the making of the image.

Maybe You Don’t Need a Real Camera, After All
Capturing great action is nearly impossible with smartphone or point and shoot cameras. Why? Almost everything about small cameras conspires against you, but mostly it’s because they take away your ability to have manual control over shutter speed, aperture, focus, and shutting timing. With a small camera, you’re at the mercy of the device. That said, capturing good action is within the realm of reason. Most point and shoots have some manual control, and there are smartphone apps that do the same. I’ve been using iOS 7 for a month or so, and the lag time on the iPhone camera shutter is much much shorter — you can grab shots as quickly as you can push the button.

But you still don’t have the kind of control you need. So, how to get around it? Two ways. The first is shoot your subject a little farther away, as in the iPhone mountain biking shot below. The closer your model, the more challenging for the camera to focus on them, especially when they’re moving fast. Depth of field is greater at distance, too. And the speed the camera perceives isn’t as high. All of these reasons make it more like you’ll get a shot that isn’t too blurry from lack of focus or a shutter that’s open too long.

The second way is to game the system: shoot video, then make a screen grab of the perfect moment. No, it won’t be high res or get you into Natty Geo, but you’ll have a shot that’s certainly worth putting on Instagram.

adventure journal make better photos shooting action

Speaking of Screengrabs…
For every sequence of action — a mountain biker berming, a surfer cutting back, a skier diving into a face shot — there is usually just one perfect splinter of a moment when everything is just right, when composition and the kinetics of a body in motion combine for the perfect aesthetics. Nailing that one fraction of a second takes many years of practice, knowledge of the sport, comfort with your equipment, and a good eye. But here’s a way you can practice without ever leaving your computer: Go to Vimeo or YouTube or anywhere that you can find an action movie. Tee up some sequence you like. Now, take a screengrab at the split second you think it will look best, then analyze what you captured. No, it’s not a perfect simulation, but it will give you a sense of the challenge of timing and anticipation, but plus teach you to distinguish between the almost-perfect and the perfect moment.

Untitled-51Composition Still Matters
Show of hands: Who’s tried to capture action by holding the camera horizontally and putting their buddy smack in the middle of the frame? That’s what I thought — we all have. And the reason is because getting that sucker in the viewfinder isn’t easy when they’re moving fast. Stick ‘em in the middle and you at least have a chance, right? But what do you get? A lame, amateurish picture.

All the rules of great photography still matter with action. Light, framing, composition, position, exposure…none of these get a mulligan because action’s harder to capture.

So, what’s the answer? Visualize the shot before your model’s in it. Take a picture of the scene and look at it on your screen, imaging your model where they’ll be at a particular point in the turn or how a kicker will launch them. Oh, and here’s another secret about professional action photographers: They shoot the same setup over and over and over again until they know they have it. Don’t be afraid to do the same.

“That was a cover! But lets just do one more for insurance!”

It’s All About Anticipation
Great action photos don’t happen by accident. Top sports photographers know exactly what their model’s going to do, how fast they’re going to do it, and where they’re going to do it. That means using visualization is critical, but also means having a solid understanding of what’s going on with a runner’s arms and legs, a kayaker’s paddle, or a bike in the air. And this where your experience as an athlete will inform what you see in the field, making it easier to pick the right moment to trigger the shutter.

But that’s where the second aspect of anticipation comes into play: You have to shoot the merest slice of time before your model gets where you want them. Have you ever shot skeet or played quarterback? If so, you know how you have to lead your target to where it will be in the future, not where it is now. Action photos are the same, but the margin of time is much, much smaller.

How much you need to anticipate will depend on your camera and its shutter lag. Practice.

Be Safe
“Safety first” is such a cliche that it’s become a joke (and an excuse for huddled “safety meetings”), but with action photography it’s the real deal. People have been hurt, sometimes severely and permanently, and some have even died during shoots. It’s for real. And as photographer, you are responsible for everything, for maximizing safety and minimizing risk to your athlete, yourself, assistants, and onlookers or the public. That means scouting the approach, the shot point, and the exit, verifying landings, and anticipating bailout paths. It means walking through the scene with your model or communicating it well to them if they can’t see it. It means making sure you aren’t in the line of fire if something goes wrong. And it means walking away from a shot if it doesn’t feel right.

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Shut Down Kodak Courage
Your model wants to nail it. They want to look good, they want to impress. And sometimes that means they’ll go bigger, faster, or harder than they should. I was shooting in the Mammoth terrain park a couple of years ago with an hot young snowboarder — the kid could ride, but he was just 16, and despite my admonitions just to give me a few simple tricks he went too big and tried too much on his very first jump. He overshot the landing, stacked it, and snapped his wrist. I wasn’t directly responsible for the fracture, but I sure was culpable, and I felt terrible about it. I’ve never shot action with a young athlete since, but Kodak courage knows no age boundaries. Be aware of your crew and their personalities. Be very clear about what you want them do, and don’t be afraid to play the granny when necessary.


Photos by Steve Casimiro


Adventure Journal’s Make Better Photos series is brought to you by Adobe Photoshop Elements. Learn more at adobe.com.

See more from this series here.


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{ 6 comments…read them below or write one }

  • John Tannock

    Good stuff, Steve. If I may adding one more point…..
    I’ve always emphasized to my subjects that they forget about me and DON’T look toward me or the camera. It’s the easiest way to screw up as your not concentrating on your line. Besides, when your subject is looking into the camera the pic usually looks lame, though I’ve had a few exceptions to that.

    • steve casimiro Post author

      Good point, John. I’m going to address working with people in one of these and I’ll be sure to include something on that.

  • Rodger Phillips

    I think something got turned around in your comment about shutter speed in relation to the direction of your subject. If the subject is moving directly toward (or away) from you, you should be able to get away with a SLOWER shutter speed. If the subject is moving past you (or you are shooting perpendicular to the subject), then his speed is faster relative to you, and you would need a FASTER shutter speed to freeze the action. I hope that makes sense.

  • Jay Long

    Great article. I was debating over the cost-effective point-and-shoot versus the DSLR. Glad to know that there is no substitution when it comes to fast moving action shots; case closed. Just a ton a great information in this article; and great pics, too.

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