Action Photography Techniques and Tips

Are you getting tired of shooting Aunt Matilda squinting at the camera out on the lawn? Tired of the same old photographs of family and friends? Do you feel your photo collection is a trifle boring, particularly when you see all the sleepy faces while showing off your shots? Then perhaps you’re neglecting something important in your approach to photography.

It might be that you are overlooking one of the simplest and yet most interesting aspects of picture taking — action! In most cases, the camera equipment you now have can be used to shoot professional-type action photographs. All you need is enthusiasm and the willingness to try a few of the action photography techniques and tips discussed here.

Action Photography Techniques and Tips

Get into the action!

A high shutter speed isn’t always the answer. Aside from good action photography techniques you also require something appropriate to photograph. In other words, setting your shutter at 1/500 will not guarantee that you’ll get an interesting action photograph. Action photography, although mechanical, is primarily psychological.

Unless you like to count the rivets on a speeding Ferrari’s hood or the stitches in the shirt of a jockey at full tilt, the most useful action photography technique is panning — following the action in the viewfinder and using relatively slow shutter speeds to blur the background while keeping the subject in sharp focus. By this means, the feeling of motion is greatly accentuated. This action photography technique can be used on anything from running children to the speeding Ferrari. Simply remember that the subject must be moving in a relatively straight line at about a 90 degree angle to the camera, thus maintaining the exact position on the camera’s sensor for the entire exposure.

Another thing to keep in mind is “follow-through.” Begin to pan with the subject well before you press the shutter release and keep moving at this speed until after the shutter is closed. Jerking the release or bobbling momentarily will result in nothing but total blur.

Users of D-SLR cameras should modify this action photography technique slightly. The image in the viewfinder actually disappears during the exposure, so both eyes must be kept open to enable you to keep track of the subject during the split second when this occurs.

Get in close!

Most photographers tend to keep their distance when photographing anything except perhaps a still life or flower. This is particularly true of action photography — and tends to make many amateur action photographs somewhat dull.

Remember that a lens of normal focal length covers quite a bit of area and that a semi-close-up can have tremendous power compared to a shot taken farther away. By getting close, you may even get reactions from your subject; instead of merely observing, you become almost a participant. This can work wonders to significantly improve the visual impact of your photographs.

Most pros keep both eyes open when working close. They seldom get so involved in the picture that they become an obstacle or a nuisance, however.

Peak action

Everything that goes up must come down and the moment when inertia and gravity neutralize each other is usually the time to take the picture. Not only is the subject literally suspended in mid-air for a split second, but it has usually reached the most photogenic point in the action.

Action photography tipsAppropriate action for this type of shot can be anything having a rhythmic or repetitive motion, such as a child on a swing, a diver leaving the high board, or a dancer leaping straight up.

Use you camera’s highest shutter speed and trip the shutter just before you think you should. This procedure will compensate for any slowness in your reaction time, at least until you’ve shot a few pictures this way and regular practice develops within you the ability to react at the right time without really thinking about it.

Sharpen your trigger finger!

Every camera’s shutter release has a certain amount of “play” built into it, usually to prevent accidental exposure. This can sometimes amount to as much as a half-inch of downward pressure before the shuuter operates, especially in certain large D-SLRs and press cameras.

When your shutter needs this much “work” to go off, your reaction time is lengthened considerably, thereby increasing your chances of missing an important shot.

It’s important that you keep practicing and get to know your camera equipment as well as you can — try to become intimately familiar with it. This way, with practice, your brain will automatically compensate for any lag inherent in your particular camera.

The art of ‘zone focusing’

If you’ve ever tried to follow-focus a basketball player or a football play, you know it’s next to impossible. Luckily, today’s cameras — even the relatively inexpensive ones — are built with fairly decent, accurate, and fairly speedy auto-focusing systems. Unless you own a high-quality, and rather expensive camera, however, it is possible that you may find your camera’s auto-focusing ability somewhat lacking when it comes to getting some high-speed action shots. If this is the case, take heart!

You can still get sharp photographs of this type of action if you preselect a distance at which you hope the action will occur, then wait for something to occur there.

By finding something tangible and stationary within this zone of sharp focus — say a tree, or post, that’s very near to the same distance from the camera that you predict your action subject is likely to pass — and locking your camera’s focus on that object, you can keep an eye on the subject and still know when to shoot.

Extending this a step further, imagine that you are at the center of a circle whose circumference crosses the mark you have decided on. By finding other reference marks approximately the same distance away, you can easily follow the subject in the viewfinder without being limited to one small area.

Know the angles!

Did you know that an action that can be “frozen” at 1/1,000 of a second at a right angle to the camera axis requires only 1/200 or less when the subject is moving directly toward or away from the lens? This photographic phenomenon, usually referred to as “apparent motion,” can mean the difference between getting a sharp photograph and nothing at all, particularly when the light is too dim to use a high shutter speed.

Action photography tips techniques“Apparent motion” depends on a number of factors: distance from the subject (optically, not physically, since a wide-angle lens produces essentially the same effect as backing off, and using a telephoto would be like moving closer); the angle of the action relative to the lens axis; and (surprisingly enough) the type of shutter on your camera. A focal-plane shutter can distort a moving object tremendously, particularly if the camera is large, the curtain slit is small, and the action is swift. If the curtain is traveling in the same direction as the action, the subject will be lengthened. If it’s traveling in the opposite direction, the subject will be shortened.

A really striking effect is achieved with a vertical-travel focal-plane shutter and horizontal action (Although, such shutters are somewhat rare on modern digital cameras) If the action is very rapid, such as a speeding automobile or a race horse at full gallop, the top half of the subject will be ¬†elongated in the direction of the action. If your shutter doesn’t travel in this direction ordinarily, simply tipping the camera on its side will yield the same effect. Work as close as possible when trying to produce this effect, as the apparent motion increases with proximity.

Fake it!

Many types of action are unphotographable under ordinary circumstances. If you’ve ever wondered how some of the most spectacular sports shots were made, the answer is quite simple — they were “setups.” The action was specially staged for the photograph, rather than spontaneous.

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever attempt to stage, say, a basketball game or a professional boxing match, but this technique will prove useful in making action pictures of your family or friends. Stage a game of hopscotch or a footrace past a designated area. And remember — there’s no law that says your subjects can’t have fun while you photograph them.

Vary your camera’s viewpoint

Most inexperienced amateur photographers tend to take their pictures at either eye-level or slightly below this. Neither of these viewpoints are optimal when engaging in action photography. Move your camera to a low angle to transform a moderate motion into something dramatic and to put the horizon line somewhere near the bottom of the picture, thereby simplifying the composition.

If you are photographing a sports event and your seat is not strategically located, it’s usually a simple matter to roam to a nearer, higher, or lower level, provided you don’t block anyone’s view. You’ll be amazed how close you can get to most of the action if you follow this procedure.

Use an electronic flash

Taking great action photosNot the one that’s built into your camera! These are usually too under-powered on most cameras for being all that useful when taking action photographs. Most outboard electronic flash units are significantly more powerful than your camera’s built in flash, and they have an extremely brief flash duration. (which is why they’re commonly called ‘speed-lights’) The exceedingly short pulse of light that these speed-lights produce are fast enough to freeze almost any action you’re likely to encounter. If you are using a fairly powerful unit, keep in mind that lowering the power of the flash will reduce the brightness of the flash-pulse the unit puts out, but it will also shorten the flash duration as well.

This can be very useful when you need the maximum in action-stopping light. Halving the power of the flash unit will usually make a flash that goes off at 1/1,000 of a second into a 1/2,000 one.

Be prepared to crop your shots

Action photography, particularly your first few attempts at it, may leave you with a growing collection of missed shots and badly framed images. This is a common occurrence, unfortunately. Rather than becoming discouraged, examine all your shots carefully. You may find a superb area in a corner of one of your “worthless” rejects and some judicious cropping might just turn this “circular file” candidate into one of your favorite shots. Above all, look for the things you didn’t expect. Every action photographer has been amazed by the surprising details that he never noticed when he clicked the shutter. Many fine examples of action photography are obtained this way, without the photographer’s knowledge.

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