The Subject is Key
... it is indeed all about the subject and I don't just mean you have to get the thing you're shooting in the frame. Since I hit up this subtopic quite thoroughly in the video I won't spend much time on it here, but I can't help emphasize it a little. Virtually everything such as the camera equipment you'll need for the shoot, the location you select, perhaps the time of day and camera settings will depend largely on the subject. In addition, some research might also improve the composition of the photographs. It's like the examples I provided in the video. Skateboarders doing tricks might look better with a wide angle lens, flash and a large depth of field (DOF) to capture cool moves, while certain motocross shots will be more impressive with the background motion blurred and a smaller DOF.
Preparation also fits into this realm. Since action photography can encompass many different types of subjects, consider creating a checklist so important details don't slip the mind (especially if you're shooting for money). Be mindful if shooting at various events where a permit or permission might be required to photograph. Although laws differ from place to place and I'm no legal expert so I recommend you ask someone qualified, generally speaking if you're on private property then you usually need some sort of permission. In some cases it's clearly allowed and nothing written is required, whereas I've read some articles stating that certain sporting stadiums only allow focal lengths below a certain value (e.g. 200mm or less) and in some cases you need to be a VIP with an ID tag dangling around your neck.
Setting the Shutter Speed and Camera Modes
In most action photography scenarios, the shutter speed is key to making the shot work. For example, if you need a very high shutter speed to completely freeze the action, then you'll likely be looking at something around 1/1000 of a second (I have visions of a speed boat race in my head with rooster tails flying out the back). If your camera is set to auto mode, the results will likely be unpredictable; simply said the camera will decide what shutter speed and aperture to use (I'll discuss sensitivity/ISO in a moment). So in some cases the action might be nicely frozen, but in others (perhaps due to lighting conditions) the detail might be blurred as the cam decides to slow the shutter in order to get the right exposure. Aperture priority may not be much help either (although it's worth mentioning that this mode might very well work for many cases, except in places where a very particular shutter speed is required or desired). Sure, you could open the lens as wide as it'll go, which would deliver more light to the sensor and help increase the shutter speed, but your DOF may be too small to your liking.
So this is where shutter priority and full manual mode come into play. Let's examine some of the pros and cons to these modes:
Shutter Priority - Pros
- You can set the shutter speed to almost anywhere you want
- Camera will decide on using the appropriate aperture to get the right exposure
- Depending on the shutter speed set, the camera may not be able to produce a good exposure (e.g. aperture may not be adjustable to where needed; a shutter speed of 1/8000 may need the lens opened wider than it can go, thus underexposure results)
- DOF might not be what you would like it to be as the camera manipulates the aperture
- You are the master; you can basically adjust any setting to wherever you want on the camera
- Excellent for specialized cases such as fireworks
- To confirm exposure, either test shots must be taken or a light meter has to be used; one is a bit slow to setup and not everyone has a light meter
- If sudden changes in lighting conditions occur, then the exposure settings need to be adjusted. Think of a cloudy sky and shooting that boat race. Everything might be ok when the sun is out, but when clouds obscure the sun, the drop in light intensity will likely result in an underexposed photo.
- Might be tricky to setup if a novice
The choice between shutter priority and manual mode must be made by you. As much as I'd love to suggest something, the problem is that everything from the type of subject you're shooting, to lighting conditions and even personal preferences must be considered; there are simply too many factors. But with what I've presented and some further research and experimentation on your own, I have a feeling you'll start to get a feel for it (seriously, experiment lots!).
Now I'd like to discuss sensitivity as it plays a significant part in getting the correct exposure. As with some other settings on your camera, you can leave ISO at automatic or set it yourself. Leaving it at auto means that the camera will decide when the sensitivity needs changing. There are some trains of thought on this as with anything, so I'd recommend that you again experiment and discover how your camera behaves. Personally, I tend to set it myself, as I usually go for keeping the noise as low as possible. On the other hand, leaving it at auto may give you some extra flexibility. For example, if you're shooting in shutter priority mode, then the camera could set both the aperture and ISO to get the right exposure; this may overcome certain cases where an adjustment to aperture alone isn't enough (Think back to the example in the cons section of shutter priority. If the lens cannot be opened any wider then the ISO could be increased, perhaps making the sensor sensitive enough to light to get a good exposure at 1/8000 of a second).
It's in the Skills
Having the right equipment and being able to push some buttons on the camera are only small parts to being an effective action photographer. In my opinion, the ability to "feel" the shot is another significant issue. In other words, the skill of the photographer to nail the composition of the shot and be able to anticipate what would work in regard to factors such as lighting, background and time (i.e. getting the right moment(s) to capture the images), amongst other things is key. I'm the type of person to believe that some people have a natural ability to do this, while others can learn and hone their skills by practicing often. To at least provide something useful in this regard, I've created a list below with a few things that might help you get started:
- Practice panning the camera so you can follow subjects in motion. And don't just pan, take shots during the motion to get used to pressing the shutter button while doing this.
- Sometimes it's convenient to shoot handheld versus using a tripod or monopod. Practice holding and taking shots with a large lens to get the feel for it, but keep in mind the focal length reciprocal rule, which works as follows. Let's take a 600mm lens, which in fractional terms is 600/1 (600 "over" 1). So the reciprocal would be 1/600... so to get a potentially blur free shot, use a shutter speed of at least 1/600 of a second. Of course you might need a faster or slower shutter speed in some cases, but it's a quick guideline to go by.
- Try unusual angles and not just those from a high or low perspective, but consider banking or tilting the camera. Often you can better fill a frame with the subject and create more interesting shots with the horizon off-kilter.
- If the possibility exists, experiment using a flash; either on your camera or remotely triggered in various locations.
There would be so much more to write about, but I think I'll stop here and if anyone has questions or if I think of something useful, then I'll zero-in on that matter and create a new post.
The next episode will be on time lapse photography as that topic had quite a few requests. L8r!