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The word MOMENT, relative to a given circumstance, connotes different durations. A moment during someone's lifetime may last for hours. A moment in geological history spans thousands of years. A stolen moment of a secretive kiss may linger just a few seconds. Photographically, a moment may be as short as 1/8,000 of a second, and the difference between this duration and, let's say a half second, is huge. Timing is absolutely critical. I've learned that to increase my chance of capturing the decisive moment, I need to research, plan, learn to anticipate the peak action and preset the necessary settings on my camera. I will have more success than the photographer next to me who leaves it to chance.
Today's cameras make it easier to capture the perfect moment. Ten frames per second motor drives, fast lenses that lock on quickly and accurately, and very accurate metering systems make the job easier. I truly am in awe of the photographers who nailed peak action shots in the days of manual focus, manual advance and handheld meters!
Be Prepared—Focus: If action happens and it's repeatable, use AF technology to your advantage. For instance, if you photograph a bird in flight, lock onto it in the distance. This allows the camera to learn the rate of speed at which it flies. As it nears the lens and fills the frame, it will be tack sharp. Be sure the camera is set to continuous focus mode. If you photograph erratic movement, lock on to your subject when it's small in the frame. If you wait until your subject is in front of you, the autofocus won't be able to react fast enough to provide a sharp image. Again, be sure your camera is set to continuous AF mode. If the subject is close, a quick manual turn of the focus ring will assist the AF system.
Be Prepared - Exposure: Set the camera's ISO based on the amount of ambient light. If it's sunny, low ISOs should provide a fast enough shutter speed to stop the action. The lower the ISO, the less noise and better quality of the image. If the conditions are overcast or you're indoors, bump up the ISO to attain the necessary shutter, but realize that the higher the ISO, the noisier the image. Shoot some test shots and check the LCD to see if the shutter speed you use is fast enough. You may find that you can use a lower ISO, which will in turn give you better image quality. Find the proper shutter speed/aperture/ISO combination that stops the action and nets the necessary depth of field. Verify this in the LCD.
Be Prepared - Better Shots: Set your camera to high-speed motor drive. Try to anticipate when the peak action will occur, and right before this moment, shoot a burst. The heavier your shutter finger, the more time you'll spend editing. If time isn't important, fire away. If it's an issue, be a bit more selective. The more you watch the action and anticipate it, the fewer the necessary frames. Use a long lens to bring the action closer. Conversely, if conditions and safety issues allow, use a wide-angle lens and get close for some unique and dramatic angles. Shoot from different vantage points. Lie down on the ground or get to a higher location for a bird's eye view. As with any type of photography, get out there and practice. The more you shoot action, the greater the chance you'll have to capture the perfect moment.