Most photographers enjoy the challenge of depicting action in still photos, whether they shoot sports, dance, wildlife or simply family activities. The best shots capture the essence of the movement – speed, flow and/or position – in the instant recorded in the frame. Regardless of your level of expertise, all photographers must deal with five vital criteria when planning an action shoot.
1. How far you will be from your subject(s)
Different lens focal lengths will be required when you can shoot close to the action from operating at a distance. These choices can also influence the style of the shots.
Long telephoto lenses are required to get close to the action when photographing extreme water sports. In this shot, slightly tilting the camera to make the waterfall more vertical emphasises the speed and direction of the kayaker. Use of a fast shutter speed freezes the turbulent water. ( ©iStockphoto.com/VisualCommunications.)
Shorter focal lengths can be used whenever you can get closer to the action. This shot was taken with a 13mm wide-angle lens on a DSLR camera with an APS-C sensor. ( © Greyson Fletcher.)
Long lenses are required for photographing water sports, such as surfing and sailing as well as when shooting wildlife. A focal length of 300mm (35mm equivalent) is ideal for such shots.
2. The lighting at the venue
It can be much easier to shoot sports in bright sunshine than indoor venues. But bright, contrasty lighting can produce blown-out highlights and blocked-up shadows that may compromise the picture ““ unless you shoot raw files or have a camera with dynamic range optimisation to control exposures for JPEGs. Superior performance at high ISO settings and good white balance controls are vital for shooting indoors.
Indoor venues often have relatively low light levels and may require ISO settings of 800 or higher to ‘freeze’ action. Stage lighting can add different colour casts.
3. The types of pictures required
Are you looking to ‘freeze’ action or suggest motion with some blurring? Do you want a single, perfect shot or a sequence that records an action? How much stabilisation is required to achieve your objective? Will you need a tripod or can a monopod suffice?
4. Access to subjects
Can you guarantee a clear view ““ or is it obstructed by part of a building, a post or a tree? Are you at risk of having somebody bump or grab you at a critical time?
5. How far you have to carry your gear
Photographers who can set up close to a vehicle will have wider equipment options than those who have to hike for kilometres to find their subjects.
Compact system cameras (CSCs) and their lenses are smaller and lighter than DSLRs and require smaller camera bags, like this convenient Lowepro Photo Hatchback backpack. ( © Jason de Alba photography 2012.)
What to look for in a camera
Regardless of whether you choose a DSLR, a CSC (compact system camera) or a digicam with an integrated lens, fast autofocusing and good high-sensitivity performance are the most critical factors for capturing great action shots. Steadiness during exposures is also important, regardless of whether it’s built into the camera body or lens ““ or provided by a tripod or monopod.
The camera should also offer a range of shooting options, including the ability to adjust aperture and shutter speed settings and select sensitivity and white balance controls to suit the ambient light conditions. Battery capacity can also be a consideration; depending on the length of time you will be shooting and the number of shots you expect to take. You don’t want to miss shots through having to swap batteries after 200-300 shots (a typical limit for digicams and entry-level CSCs.)
Cameras that can record continuous bursts of shots can be advantageous, although continuous shooting has positive and negative aspects and should be used with discretion. Sometimes it will enable you to capture a sequence of memorable shots but at other times you’ll get nothing but near misses. (Check the section on Drive Mode Choice in Chapter 4 for more information and examples of using the continuous shooting mode for shooting action.)
Unless the camera supports speeds faster than 10 fps, burst shooting modes are best reserved for photographing longer action sequences, such as birds in flight or children and/or pets in action, particularly when they move erratically. Slower burst speeds (between four and nine fps) can be used to cover predictable movements like bowling balls or subjects racing on a track.
With a maximum burst speed of 15 fps with full autofocusing and a fast AF system with 205 Phase Detection AF points and 153 cross-type detectors, Samsung’s NX1 camera is ideal for shooting action. (Source: Samsung.)
The camera’s focusing and processing speeds will influence how quickly shots are recorded and processed when the shutter button is pressed. Determine how much shutter and AF lag your camera applies and learn to anticipate so you can press the shutter as the action begins. If you can see it in the viewfinder, you’ve missed it! Practice is the key to success for split-second shots.
Your camera’s buffer memory will limit the number of shots you can record in a burst ““ and it will hold many more JPEGs than raw files. Once the buffer is full, you may be forced to wait for 30 seconds or more until the files are processed before you can resume continuous shooting.
Selecting which lens to use will be dictated by how far you are from the subject and the ‘story’ you want to tell. The ‘speed’ (maximum aperture) of the lens will also be important as it will influence the usable shutter speeds. This, in turn, will affect the ISO settings you can use.
Unfortunately, many snapshooters choose extended-range zoom lenses that cover many focal lengths. While they are convenient to use, most such lenses are slow and, therefore, difficult to shoot with in dim lighting. It’s also harder to isolate subjects from distracting backgrounds since the widest apertures may not provide a shallow enough depth of field.
Long lenses are essential for photographing wildlife.
You need a focal length of at least 200mm to 300mm (35mm equivalent) for shooting most sports if you’re sitting in a grandstand ““ and also for covering many theatrical performances (where fast lenses are particularly advantageous). This range can also be suitable for photographing wildlife in zoos and parks and from safari vehicles.
Many professional sports photographers mount their cameras on a tripod with a pan/tilt head to minimise blurring and make it easier to keep the subject in the frame when shooting with long telephoto lenses.
A focal length of 300mm is usually seen as the minimum requirement for photographing animals and birds in the wild as well as for shooting water sports from the shore. Longer lenses can be heavier and more difficult to keep steady and many photographers rely on tripods when shooting with faster lenses. Tripods with pan/tilt heads are recommended.
Wide angle lenses can work well for shooting skateboarding and capturing ‘ambience’ shots that show the action in its context. They can also work for shots of wildlife and sports action when the camera is remotely triggered.
Choosing appropriate maximum apertures requires you to balance your shooting needs (related to ambient lighting at the subject) against the size, weight and cost of the equipment. Fast lenses will provide bright viewfinder images, making it easier to focus. But they are much larger, heavier and more expensive than slower lenses.
Some photographers use teleconverter extension lenses to give them more magnification for shooting distant subjects. Unfortunately, they reduce the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor so are best used with fast lenses (ideally at least f/2.8 maximum aperture).
They are also slower to focus in low light levels and increase the risk of camera shake. They can also amplify flaws in the lens, particularly in backlit situations where flare and ghosting can occur. Image sharpness and contrast may also be reduced.
Batteries and memory cards
Battery capacities vary widely. Professional cameras typically support around 1000 shots per charge but digicams and entry-level CSCs can be as low as around 200 shots/charge, which may not be enough for an action shoot.
Add-on battery grips can increase battery capacity. Most will hold an additional battery or accept a set of AA cells. Being designed specifically for the camera, they shouldn’t compromise handling or performance. In fact, some photographers prefer using smaller camera bodies with an additional grip.
Fast memory cards enable photographers to capitalise on high burst capture speeds ““ provided the camera can support them. The fastest cards are required for high-resolution cameras with burst rates of 10 frames/second (fps) or higher and those that support 4K video.
The SD (Secure Digital) format is the most popular, offering three ‘flavours’: SD, SDHC and SDXC. SDHC and SD cards differ in capacity, holding up to 32GB and 2GB, respectively. SDXC cards are the fastest and have the greatest storage capacity. They are required if you want to record 4K video.
Cheaper SD cards come in four speed classes: 2, 4, 6 and 10, with the numbers referring to the megabytes/second write speeds. The Ultra High Speed (UHS) ratings apply to faster cards, with the UHS-I rating covering read/write speeds of up to 104MB/second and the UHS-II rating for speeds up to 312MB/second.
The fastest memory cards, like this SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC/SDXC UHS-II card are essential for recording 4K video or use in high-resolution cameras with burst rates of 10 frames/second (fps) or higher. (Source: SanDisk.)
CompactFlash (CF) cards are only used in high-end DSLRs and display an X rating to show their data transfer rates. Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA) ratings also indicate transfer speeds, with Mode 0 supporting up to 16.7MB/s and Mode 7 up to 167MB/s. Only a few DSLR cameras support XQD cards, which use the PCIe interface and support speeds up to 400MB/s.
You may not need the fastest memory card unless you use a camera with very high resolution (24-36 megapixels), capture RAW and JPEG files and record long continuous bursts of shots. Normally, a regular 200X or 300X CF card or an SDHC card should suffice. Many photographers prefer several lower-capacity cards to a single high-capacity one, because if one fails or is mislaid, they still have the data saved on the other cards.
Action cameras are very popular because they’re small and relatively cheap. You can strap them to your body, your bike, your surfboard or a drone and record activities you’re involved in. They also provide a simple way to acquire different camera angles for shots.
Joby’s Suction Cup & Locking Arm enable an action camera to be attached to almost any smooth surface. Photograph by John Rathwell.
However, most are designed primarily for recording video, so their top resolution is 1920 x 1080 pixels (just under two megapixels). Some recent releases support 4K video, which ranges between 3840 x 2160 and 4096 x 2160 pixels or 8.3 and 8.8 megapixels. By modern still camera standards this resolution isn’t high. Many camera-phones offer higher resolution.
Many action cameras come with waterproof cases, making them ideal for recording water sports. Most support remote triggering and playback via Wi-Fi. Some include internal stabilisation, although it may crop the image. Battery life and colour accuracy can vary widely.
Some cameras include high-speed recording modes for slow-motion playback and some use bitrates and codecs that support integration with professional footage. Action cams aren’t ideal for still pictures, but they’re great for recording exciting video clips.
Excerpt from Action Photography.