At first glance, it would seem that unless you’re a full-time adventure athlete, photographing action and adventure photography is something to which you’ll have little opportunity to apply yourself. I believe that nothing could be farther from the truth. When considering the steps to shooting action photos, there are many ways you can use these ideas when practicing and honing your photographic skills far from the mountains or wild rivers.
In this column (based on a chapter of the same name from my new book National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Action & Adventure), I want to help you understand the crossover possibilities of adventure photography and how you might apply adventure shooting skills to your everyday photography. There are many places around your neighborhood, everyday outdoor activities and amateur team sports where you can sharpen your eye for shooting adventure and action.
Adventure photography is part anticipation and part reaction. The best way to sharpen your reaction time for shooting photos isn’t when you’re photographing your first raft crashing through a rapid, but at home shooting at the local sports field, the skateboard park or on a bike ride around the block. The preparation to photograph good photos at a little league baseball game or a skateboard park is the same as on any adventure.
Shooting at those events and activities isn’t simply an exercise that will train you to react faster, because the more you shoot, the more tuned into the activity you become, and speed will follow naturally. Crossover exercises will also teach you to approach an active situation the same way that professional photographers prepare before they shoot an event or an expedition.
Such photographic exercises simply help you see a game, for example, as a photographer and not as a spectator. As a photographer, you approach the activities as someone who’s looking for photos that tell the story of the game.
There are many opportunities to shoot photos, but what separates a snapshot from a good photo is the preparation and planning that goes into making the shot. Before going out to shoot, pro photographers always have some kind of plan that includes a mental image of the type of photos they want to shoot.
Begin with a rough idea of the photos you want to shoot. Then work backward and decide what camera, lens and other equipment you might need to get those photos. As you preconceive the photos before a shoot, keep the ideas simple and flexible.
Before shooting a local little league baseball game, for example, think of photos of the pitcher winding up for a toss, a kid sliding into home plate, etc. Having a general idea of what photos you want to shoot will give you a focus and help you decide not only the lens and camera needed, but also when and where you need to position yourself to shoot the photos.
Let’s go a little further with photographing a little league baseball game. We’ve already decided some of the photos we’d like to shoot. To photograph the game, you’ll need a long lens; a 70-300mm or 70-400mm lens would work best. Just as in deciding the gear you choose on any adventure, you first determine the average distance from where your shooting position will be relative to the subject you’re shooting. In a baseball game, the rules of the game restrict you from getting very close to the players. For this reason, you’ll require a telephoto lens.
If you’re shooting at a skateboard park, however, you can stand very close to the edge of the skateboard ramps and can therefore use an extremely wide lens, such as a full-frame fisheye, which captures a 180-degree field of view. With this lens in mind and your knowledge of how the sport is played, you now can determine your strategy in deciding where you’ll position yourself to take photos.
Remember as you plan this out, you’re essentially making the same decisions as you would if you were deciding strategy for shooting a rafting trip or a climbing expedition. You’re anticipating the best place to position yourself to capture action. In determining your position, you should also consider the position of the sun to your subject. Frontlit or sidelit subjects will be better lighted than backlit subjects. If you do find yourself shooting into the sun with a large telephoto, be sure the lens has a lens hood; this helps to reduce lens flare on your photos.
When I shoot a game like baseball, besides the action at home plate, the pitcher’s mound and first base, I’ll also keep an eye on outfielders catching pop fly balls. I may move my position so I can shoot team players in the dugout watching the game and then move my position again so I can get a shot of a batter swinging at a pitched ball.
What determines the shots I make is based on the story I want to tell. Do I want to focus on just one player or do I want to shoot a bigger story, like a winning team with a star pitcher? If the playing field is immaculate, I might want to use a wider lens and capture the players on the playing field. If the game is tied in late innings, I might focus my lens on the stands to see if I can capture any tension in the crowd or focus on the coaches or players in the dugout.
This and other exercises teach you to determine in advance the cameras you might need as well as the strategy you’ll employ to shoot your photos. With a little practice on your home turf, you mentally prepare yourself to think like a pro sports and adventure photographer.