Great action shots are rarely a result of good luck. Knowing where to position yourself, being there at the right time and having the right equipment set up correctly will shift the odds in your favour. So, too, will being able to anticipate the peak of the action and having fast enough reflexes and on-the-spot timing. Understanding how your equipment performs is also important.
Successful action shots result from split-second timing, a good understanding of the subject and being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment.
1. Be prepared
Research the situation as thoroughly as possible before embarking on a shoot, making sure you cover all the legal and ethical obstacles you might encounter.Sometimes you will require prior authorisation from organisers of the activity in order to get into the venue to take photographs.
Always contact the organisers of the activity beforehand to seek permission. If you can’t contact them by normal means, turn up at the venue well before the action starts and ask to speak to someone in authority. Specify how you plan to use your pictures and whether they will be posted online. Obtain model releases for any shots containing recognisable people that will be used commercially.
Even when special permission isn’t required, it’s sensible to ask beforehand whenever you want to photograph community sports and amateur theatricals, particularly those involving children. Working With Children checks may be necessary in some situations where there will be direct interaction with subjects. Even if you’re shooting from the sidelines, be aware that many parents will not allow strangers to photograph their children unless their bona fides have been confirmed.
When subjects are not readily recognisable and they are photographed at public events, there is no need to seek permission from either organisers or parents ““ unless the resulting images will be used for commercial purposes.
Look after yourself while you’re on a shoot. If you’re shooting outdoors protect yourself against sun exposure, regardless of the time of year or whether the sky is clear or cloudy. Use sunscreen where necessary, on exposed areas of skin.
Long-sleeved shirts are ideal when you have to spend a long time on location shooting sports or wildlife.
Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, choosing a weight that is suitable for the conditions. Hats can be handy for protecting your face and may also provide extra shade that makes it easier to compose shots. But brims often get in the way when the camera is held to your eye. Some photographers prefer caps, which can be turned backwards to avoid such problems.
When using sunscreens and/or insect repellents, make sure you don’t get chemicals on any equipment. Traces of these chemicals can damage plastic equipment so clean them off your fingers before a shoot.
Be extra careful when shooting at the beach or in dusty conditions. Lenses can be damaged if sand or dust particles get into them. Keep your equipment inside a camera bag when travelling in dry and dusty environments and wipe it carefully with a microfibre cloth before returning it to the bag when you’ve finished using it.
2. Location, location, location
Being in the right place at the right time is critical. Make sure your line-of-sight to the subject is uninterrupted by power poles, trees or people walking in front of your camera. Try to find a background that doesn’t distract viewers’ attention. (This isn’t always possible at venues, where the arena is surrounded by advertising.)
A long lens and clear line of sight gives you the chance to focus upon and track moving subjects and then capture the shot at the peak of the action. ( © Don Norris.)
Arrive well before the scheduled start time so you are able to scout out the venue. Try to determine what the lighting will be like and where the best vantage points might be when the action will be taking place.
Large stadiums can be challenging, particularly if your seat is allocated beforehand and the event is popular. You may be forced to shoot action that crosses between deep shadow and brilliant sunlight, particularly in the mid-to-late afternoon.
When shooting in an outdoor venue, avoid composing shots containing bright sunlight and deep shadow. Aim for tight compositions that fit into the shaded (shown here) or sunlit areas.
The resulting brightness range is much more than most cameras can handle, even with in-camera dynamic range adjustments. Choose either the sun or the shade and only shoot when the subject is in the selected area. (An option is to have two cameras set up, one for shade and the other for sun, and alternate between them.)
Be prepared to move several times during longer shoots to obtain better lighting conditions or simply for different angles to add variety to your portfolio. (If you must swap lenses, practice beforehand to ensure the process is smooth and fast. Having an assistant to ‘caddy’ for you can be helpful.)
3. Setting up
Positioning your camera can be tricky, regardless of whether you are shooting sports or wildlife. A clear view of the scene (and expected subject) should be a high priority. Check that the lighting works well for the subject and the shooting angle creates a pleasing backdrop. At the same time, pay attention to your own wellbeing; make sure you’re well out of harm’s way and steer clear of places where you might interfere with the action.
If you’re photographing races, try to set up your camera overlooking a corner as that’s where most of the exciting action is likely to happen. Participants also slow down, making it easier to capture shots.
Corners are often the best places to focus upon when photographing races and car rallies because participants often bunch up at these points as they slow their pace. At cricket and baseball matches, you will probably want to swap between the bowler/pitcher and the batter, which might mean moving to a different position between overs or innings. For surfing shots, find the closest point to the action but also be prepared to move when you want to capture the action from different angles or when conditions change.
Moving from a position overlooking the scene to a spot where you can capture dramatic close-ups, adds variety to your portfolio. ( © Don Norris.)
Once you’re in position, it’s a good idea to take a couple of shots to check the background and lighting. It’s impossible to do this in the heat of the action but relatively easy to do if you’re in position before the action starts. If something doesn’t ‘work’ you should have time to make any necessary changes.
It’s often easier when shooting in indoor venues because of the relatively confined space. But indoor lighting can be problematic, you’ll probably require higher ISO settings and even if the lighting is favourable, the following events can prevent you from capturing your shot:
1. Something comes between the camera and the subject. Sometimes this can be avoided by, say, shooting from a high angle that positions the camera above possible intrusions. But this will alter the perspective in the shot and you may find it also includes unwanted items in the background.
Using a longer lens with a wide aperture setting can render the background and foreground out-of-focus and make the subject stand out ““ provided it is sharply focused. It’s more difficult to achieve sharp focus with very long lenses (300mm or longer) because even slight camera shake will be magnified to the same degree as the magnification factor of the lens.
When seeking out a good shooting position, consider your angle to the subject and whether it includes items that connect the subject to the activity (such as the basket in this shot). Looking down from a high vantage point provides reasonable assurance that your line of sight won’t be interrupted.
2. You’re forced to shoot through wire mesh. The easiest way to get around the problem is to shoot with the front of the lens hard up against the wire, using a very wide aperture.
Outdoor photographers canalso be inconvenienced by rain. Keeping a plastic poncho in your camera bag is the best insurance against such situations. It will take up very little space but should be large enough to shelter both you and your camera, while allowing you to use both hands for shooting.
4. Pre-shoot checks
Decide well in advance what type of shots you want: freezing or blurring the action, a single shot or a sequence. Then adjust your equipment accordingly, determining whether you need a tripod (or monopod) and which aperture and shutter speeds settings you want to use. The following tips can help with your preparation:
Pre-focusing on a spot where you know the action will take place makes it easier to trip the shutter at the ‘decisive moment’, particularly when you’re shooting from a grandstand.
Focusing: Many professional photographers pre-focus manually on a point they expect the subject to pass through. This works well with most types of races (focus on a spot on the track) and ball games (focus on one of the bases, stumps or baskets) but is less useful with more random-moving sports like tennis, football and soccer.
If you can’t pre-focus, try to match the focusing mode to the subject. The best AF mode to select is continuous predictive AF. Some cameras provide additional settings to cope with subjects that accelerate or decelerate or change direction quickly and some can re-focus instantly if the subject is momentarily blocked by moving behind an obstruction.
Note: Most consumer-level cameras will have difficulty focusing on subjects that approach the camera at speed. In these situations, pre-focusing is the only option.
Metering: Spot or partial area metering are the best choices when you are phtotographing a single subject in action.
Sensitivity: A useful strategy is to define the Auto ISO limits in the camera’s menu and shoot with Auto ISO. But think about shutter speeds when setting sensitivity to determine the most appropriate settings for the end result you want.
Be prepared to switch to a higher ISO, when you want to freeze action and the lighting won’t permit fast shutter speeds. Carry a neutral density filter to reduce exposures when you want to blur movement with very slow shutter speeds and the camera doesn’t support low enough ISO settings.
Drive mode: Unless you’re photographing an action sequence, stick with single-shot capture. Avoid the burst mode if the action peaks in a split second. Check the AF limitations your camera applies in the continuous shooting mode and make allowances for a probable reduction in frame rates when you want autofocusing for each shot in the sequence. (The fastest frame rates usually focus and meter on the first frame in a sequence.)
Cameras that can combine AF tracking with continuous shooting can be useful, although it will slow capture rates and may not be able to keep pace with fast and/or erratic subject movements. Predictive AF is a better choice than tracking AF unless you require a burst of shots to cover an action sequence. This means balancing the camera’s capture rate against the need to have all shots in the sequence sharply focused. You will probably require a much slower capture rate to achieve this objective.
Excerpt from Action Photography.