As a visual storyteller, I sometimes look at my video-shooting colleagues with more than a little envy. They carry only one camera (albeit a big one) with one zoom lens of incredible range and speed; they not only capture sound, but seem to be able to shoot in pitch-dark conditions as well; and most enviable of all, they can record movement and the passage of time.
It’s a powerful set of tools, but not enough to make me hang up my D-SLR and give up Photoshop for Final Cut Pro. However, it has made me think more, of late, about trying to capture movement in my still images. Still photography’s great strength, traditionally, is freezing, capturing and holding a moment still so we can study it.
One of its continuing appeals to viewers is that certain research indicates that a still image may actually be the way the human mind remembers things. Think about it. Despite the plethora of video clips out there, it’s often the still image that will sum up a famous event in our memories: the flag raising of Iwo Jima, the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, even the recent Abu Ghraib prison debacle are all conjured up and filed in our memories by still images. So there’s no reason to give up freezing those decisive moments.
But I’m trying more and more to capture the fluidity of movement in my still pictures, and it takes some thinking to recognize situations that have potential to be depicted in motion. It usually involves a slow shutter speed, a tripod and a lot of frames. There are obvious situations for this technique: horseback riders, bicyclists, runners, etc. However, if you put yourself in the right mind-set, you can find many less-obvious subjects that are ripe for the movement treatment.
The trick is to get your mind to recognize situations of juxtaposition: something still against something moving. The obvious situations are where the subject is moving but the background is static. But travel, outdoor and nature photography also present the reverse, less-obvious scenario: where the subject is static but the background is moving.
Sometimes you can take what appears to be a liability—a moving subject you’d prefer to be static, like a field of wildflowers blowing in the wind—and make it an asset. Instead of freezing the field of flowers, go the other way and use a tripod and long exposure to reduce the flowers to waves of impressionistic color.
On a recent trip to the Galapagos, I came across some cooperative Sally Lightfoot crabs in the late-afternoon fading light. Rather than try to track the colorful creatures scampering across the rocks, I put the camera on a tripod and concentrated on the static ones near the water’s edge. I cranked the shutter speed lower to record the movement of the waves as they washed over the clinging crustaceans.
Here are a few pointers with which to refresh yourself if you decide to put your own work in motion, or more precisely, more motion in your work.
The most popular technique for adding motion to a still photo is panning with a moving subject. Panning involves tracking the subject in the viewfinder and shooting during the tracking process. It always works best when the action is moving across your field of view, as opposed to toward or away from you.
For most of us, the ideal panning shot shows a lot of movement in the background and maybe even parts of the subject, but usually includes some part of the subject that’s sharp for the eye to rest on. Some of the best panning shots I’ve seen can be complete impressionistic blurs, however. It depends on the subject matter (not to mention the viewer’s tolerance for abstraction).
For horseback riders, bicyclists, runners, etc., a zoom in the 70-200mm range is ideal, and a useable shutter-speed range for a good combination of blur and sharpness for me seems to be 1/15 to 1/60 sec. Any slower than 1/15 sec., and it‚’s difficult to get anything sharp; anything faster than 1/60 sec., and it’s hard to retain any feel of movement.
Panning requires you to smoothly follow the subject in your viewfinder by twisting your upper torso and, this is important, to continue to follow through with that motion after you’ve banged off your frames. Think of a baseball player hitting a ball. The batter won’t stop the swing once the bat connects with the ball; the batter continues to follow through after the bat connects with the ball.
Back in the film days, when it cost some bucks to experiment with techniques, I used to practice panning by shooting without film. If the subject was in the same relative position in my viewfinder after the series of exposures as it was when I started shooting, I could be relatively assured that I had successfully matched the speed of my panning to the speed of the subject.
These days, of course, you can see your results immediately, and there‚’s no worry about burning up film (and dollars) on experimentation. This also will help you determine the best shutter speed for your subject. And the more you practice, the higher the percentage of keepers you’ll have.
Sometimes, there’s just too much light around to get a slow enough shutter speed for panning. That’s when a neutral-density filter comes in handy. The Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter is especially useful because its variable two-to-eight-stop range lets you dial in enough neutral density to get just the right shutter speed for the job.
A variation on the panning theme is to throw a bit of flash into the mix. The flash can help to freeze the subject, while the long shutter speed adds the blur. It’s a great technique, much used in photojournalism, and photographers have pet names for it: "strobe and burn," "shake and bake" and "dragging the shutter" are but a few.
While I tend to do long-lens panning with available light only, the "shake and bake" technique is almost always used with normal to wide lenses. This is probably because of the relatively weak throw of most shoe-mount flashes. In addition, it’s harder to match the speed of the subject with a wide angle, thus the flash’s action-stopping burst of light helps to raise your percentage of keepers.
This technique essentially combines slow-sync flash—whereby the shutter speed drops to record the low-level ambient light in the background—with the motion of panning. Because the effect of motion is somewhat less visible than it is with the telephoto (due to the wide angle‚’s larger angle of view), my usable range of shutter speeds will drop down to about 1/4 or 1/8 sec. and up to about 1/30 sec. Slower than that, and large parts of your subject, frozen with flash, can disappear during the long ambient exposure. Faster than 1/30 sec., and you don’t get much feel of blur in the background.
For this technique to work well, you need background scenes with lots of ambient light. Panning and flashing, say, a horseman riding against a darkened prairie probably won’t work all that well compared to shooting a bicyclist on a brightly lit street in India. The background lights are the things that "drag" to indicate movement.
As with most other techniques, practice makes perfect when you want to add movement to your photos. But the effort will definitely put your visual storytelling skills in motion!