From Sharp To Blur

Art Wolfe shares his insights for the creative use of motion
From Sharp To BlurSharpness is important to Art Wolfe, so much so that he shoots virtually all of his images using a tripod. You might even find him navigating through the crowds of a bazaar, carefully examining the scene, working on visualizing the next shot with his camera firmly mounted on a ballhead.

For Wolfe, a sharp picture for its own sake doesn't automatically mean a successful picture. Instead, he'll consider how to use motion and a slow shutter speed to enhance a photograph. For him, the photographer's control of both sharpness and motion offers the potential to elevate an image from typical to exceptional. You can see it in his images. The author of numerous photographic books, including Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky; Alaska Wild; and Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, motion is his way of using a photographic tool to make his work distinctive.

"It's an effort to do something different," Wolfe explains. "I see a lot of great images, but many are just static shots. I think, as photographers, we have to move the medium forward rather than repeating, ad nauseam, what has been done in the past. One of the ways of doing this is by altering the shutter speed with which we shoot the subject."

Wolfe shares some of the tips and techniques he uses for capturing and using motion.

Shutter Speed
Rather than simply choosing the fastest shutter speed for which the lighting or the camera allows, Wolfe recommends trying a slow shutter speed to render the motion of your subject. The shutter speed you choose should reflect the speed of what you're photographing. The faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed needs to be.

"For example, a bird flying past might be best photographed at 1/60 sec.," offers Wolfe. "Something moving faster would need something higher."

Wolfe has a natural sense of what shutter speed is appropriate for his own work, but it's a skill that has been honed after experimenting and exposing many frames of film. There's no magic bullet for all subjects. The ability to successfully render and capture motion comes only with time and practice.

Tripod Wolfe is a strong advocate of the use of a tripod. His enthusiasm isn't reduced when it comes to shooting motion. "A 500mm or longer lens is a heavy lens and so the bulk of that weight is better beared down on the tripod," he says.

The tripod provides the photographer with greater control over what's sharp and what's not. That control is important, as the intended motion of a handheld camera, even with a moderate telephoto or wide-angle lens, can result in an unintentional blurred shot.

"For an image to be successful, the appearance of motion and blur has to look as if it was intended rather than accidental," says Wolfe. An image that looks like it's just blurry takes away from the strength of the photograph.

Panning The technique of tracking a subject while photographing is key for an effective motion shot. When done properly, panning maintains a relatively sharp subject while producing a blurred background. Wolfe finds it indispensable. Panning results in a contrast between the sharp subject and blurred background that reinforces the action.

He also notes that it's important to be aware of the background for such images. "For example, a complicated background like a forest with branches creates lines that move across the frame," explains Wolfe. "In a panned shot, these lines moving horizontally create an even greater sense of speed.

"The shots that are ultimately successful are those where one part is tack sharp and the other is wildly out of focus. That creates a sense of motion, of emotion with the image."

Light Wolfe says that an awareness of light is crucial for any successful image, even one emphasizing motion. Although it's easy to focus solely on the subject, he stresses the importance of remaining constantly aware of the quality of the light.

"Bad light is as bad for photographs in motion as it is for the static shot," says Wolfe. "It's all about the light. I'm often shooting when the light is low on the horizon and behind my shoulders. For wildlife, it produces a catchlight in the subject's eyes as well as reduces the harsh contrast you would have when shooting during midday."

Even in less-than-ideal lighting conditions, camera movement and a slow shutter speed reduce the impact of strong contrast on an image. "It will soften the harshness of the look, but when I can, I try to use the best light," adds Wolfe.

When photographing wildlife, don't let the subject blind you to everything else around it. This can lead to disappointment when a distracting element, such as a car, is found in the final image.

"When I photograph a wild animal, I anticipate where the animal is moving," Wolfe explains. "I quickly react and try to point my camera ahead of the subject so that when it enters the frame, I have the subject in front of me against the background I prefer." By doing so, he becomes increasingly aware of what surrounds the subject and ensures that unwanted elements in the scene aren't present.

This anticipation allows Wolfe to place himself in the best position to take advantage of the light and the background. He acknowledges that it's very easy to be distracted by the main subject, but that a photographer who expects to create an exceptional image must be fully aware of all the elements of a scene and be prepared to make the most of them.

Continuous Firing

The continuous firing capability of his film and digital cameras are key tools for Wolfe. He will set his camera for its fastest burst rate rather than for single frame to ensure he gets the shot he's looking for.

"I use the continuous firing mode and shoot as fast as I can because I know that although there may be six shots that are almost identical, invariably there will be one out of the six frames where the paw of the big cat or the wing of the bird is just perfect. You need all those frames just to make sure you come away with the right one."

Although continuous firing often is used when freezing action, Wolfe explains that it's just as effective when capturing blur. He says that it becomes much more than merely depressing the shutter and hoping for a good shot, but rather anticipating the moment, just before that significant gesture that creates a stunning photograph.

As a photographer who has made the transition to digital, Wolfe has found the immediate feedback of digital cameras helpful when capturing motion.

"It's a great tool for verifying the shutter speed that you're choosing, right on the spot," he says. However, he cautions that photographers shouldn't be so quick to assume that their images are sharp by merely looking at the LCD. He recommends using the zoom feature during playback to magnify the recorded image. This allows you to confirm that your subject is as sharp as you intended it to be.

"It's critical to verify," he says. "The zoom on the LCD allows you to do that."

Wolfe rarely exposes a frame without imagining his shot beforehand. Harking back to his days as a painter, this previsualization allows him to consider all the various elements of a scene: lighting, contrast, subject, background and motion.

"I'm often drawing pictures of what I want," he says of many of his landscape images. But even when he isn't working with pen and paper, he's open to making changes to the scene to compose a successful image.

Even when the subject isn't motion itself, Wolfe uses movement to create a more dynamic image. A static shot of a group of monks was transformed by having them jump up and down in front of his camera lens, for example. Their smiling faces and a slow shutter speed captured the movement of their limbs and resulted in a shot filled with emotion.

"By having them moving, they found themselves smiling because they weren't just staring at the lens," he says.

Cameras are wonderful tools for freezing action, and Wolfe believes that using these tools to render and interpret motion allows photographers to expand the palette of their creativity and the way they choose to express themselves.

"When you're using motion, it's an effort to do something different," says Wolfe. "Those who repeat and repeat or copy what has been created before are never going to achieve what they're after. I'm always trying to push my craft forward.

"I want people to look at my image and say that they've just seen something that they've never seen before."


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