Action Quick Tips: Part 1 – Freeze the Action

Action and digital photography go hand in hand
Outdoor Photographer Tip Of The Week

Lots to think about: freeze the motion / emphasize the action / make it artistic / zoom it / pan it / time it right / know the subject—so many options to depict action. Action and digital photography go hand in hand. It expedites the learning process with instant feedback. If the results aren’t what you desire, modify the settings to produce the wanted effect. Bump up the shutter speed, slow it down, adjust the ISO for more versatility, change your angle, etc. Given the fact there’s so much to share with regard to action, this is a two-part Tip. This week’s concentrates on freezing the action. Next week’s will focus on slowing it down.

Outdoor Photographer Tip Of The Week

Images that appear in newspapers, news magazines, Sports Illustrated and natural history publications mostly depict frozen action. Every facet of the movement comes to a stand still. Whether it’s the point of impact of a key tackle, a split-second emotional expression as the rescue team pulls a loved one to safety or two eagles colliding in a mid-air duel over a fish, the image leaves the viewer saying, WOW!

Completely stopped action is dependent upon the shutter speed at which the photo is made. It’s not an “almost stop” where part of the subject depicts movement. This often implies the photographer didn’t quite accomplish the goal. The shutter speed needs to be fast enough to arrest all movement. There are a number of factors that determine at what speed a photograph can be made. Knowing how these factors play into the mix is huge in order to create the perfect action-stopping shot. Based on the limitations of each given situation, it may or may not be possible to produce the desired result.

Ambient Light: Bright, sunny conditions allow the use of very fast shutter speeds. Bright, overcast conditions provide less light, therefore less versatility. As clouds thicken, options decrease further. Indoor lighting and/or artificial street or stadium light imposes further limitations. SOLUTION: As light levels decrease, open the lens to wider f-stops / use lenses with wider maximum apertures / bump up the ISO / remove light-robbing filters from the lens.
Fast Glass: Most professional sports, newspaper and nature photographers have lenses with fast glass. These lenses allow the photographer to set apertures of ƒ/4 or ƒ/2.8. With each additional gained f-stop comes one additional shutter speed. If photographer A uses an ƒ5/.6 lens while photographer B uses an ƒ/2.8 lens, photographer A’s fastest shutter speed may be 1/125th, while photographer B can use 1/500th. This difference is huge when it’s necessary to freeze motion. SOLUTION: Buy fast glass, but it’s expen$ive / bump up the ISO / wait for the ambient light to brighten.

Outdoor Photographer Tip Of The Week

Stalling Point: If you’ve increased your ISO to the point where image quality will suffer, and your lens is open to it’s widest aperture, don’t throw in the towel—shoot often and a lot. The reason I suggest this is two fold. a) Simply edit out the blurry shots. If none work, chalk it up to practice, gained knowledge and experience. b) The second is more key. A lot of action has a stalling point. If the shutter is open at this point, the necessary speed to arrest it doesn’t have to be as fast as when it’s moving more quickly. SOLUTION: Shoot more photos and set the motor drive to continuous high to increase the odds of capturing the stall point.

The Plane: The ambient light is low, you have a lens with fast glass, your ISO is set high, you’ve tried the stalling point theory and still the pics don’t reveal frozen moments. There’s still one more option, but it’s contingent upon the direction in which the subjects move. Subjects that move across the film plane require faster shutter speeds to arrest motion than those coming toward or moving away from you. Try to limit your photography to the moments at which this occurs. SOLUTION: While it’s not the ultimate in providing versatility, it offers an option and hopefully a winner.

Flash: Flash is a great tool to help freeze the moment if the subject is close. The effective shutter speed is actually the duration of the flash as opposed to the shutter speed set on the camera. For example, even if the camera fires at 1/60th sec., if the subject is close, the duration of the flash may be as short as 1/5,000 sec. The slower the shutter, the greater the ghosting. Ghosting is the shadow of the moving subject that is frozen in time by the flash.

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