Some of the most difficult action photos to shoot are the quiet moments surrounding the peak action. The quiet action photo, if done right, can capture the essence of the activity in one big shot. Instead of a tight composition on the breaking action, the quiet shot is most often a wider shot. The photo frame brings in elements and activities outside or around the center of the action.
These quiet photos are often better at telling the story of the action than the alternative, which are the typical tightly composed action photos. It’s not easy to shoot these wide shots when the action is peaking, however, but we’ll get to the reason behind that shortly.
One of the masters of the quiet photo, whose work I greatly admire, is National Geographic photographer William Allard. Allard has published five books, my favorite of which is an earlier book titled Vanishing Breed: Photographs of the Cowboy and the West (Little Brown, 1982). The photos are classic Allard, with many portraits, but the book also includes a selection of great action photos.
In many of the photos, it’s as if, for just a moment, all the movement in the scene stood still, with all the elements of the photo falling into perfect place. Allard’s words aptly describe how he’s able to capture these photos: “My work is done 99 times out of a hundred in places where I can’t control anything. I can’t control the light, I can’t control the movement, the environment, I can’t control the clothes people wear. I can’t control anything—and that’s fine. So what I have to do, I have to be in the middle of these uncontrollable elements and I have to simply make my selection.”
This brings me to another reason why it’s so hard to look at the broad view—that quiet moment in a high-action situation. The simple truth is that by nature we’re predators, and predators by nature key off of movement and action. In other words, when you’re in a situation where there’s movement and action, your eye naturally follows the action.
When I’m out on a shoot, I have to be diligent about not focusing too much on the action. I keep one eye on the action and then I keep watching for how elements are developing around the action. When I shoot with a big telephoto, I often take my eye off the viewfinder to take a quick look around. If I see something building outside of my tight telephoto field of view, I’ll grab my camera with a wider zoom and, sometimes with the comment “and here’s the rest of the story…,” I shoot the bigger picture.
While teaching a photo workshop for the Banff Mountain Center in Canada, our group was photographing several kayakers in a “play wave” on the Bow River. The purpose of the morning shoot was to give the students a chance to shoot intense action on several miles of river.
We hiked a short way down to the river to photograph a group of five skilled kayakers. The kayakers would play in a rapid for a short time and then move downriver to the next rapid. Our group would follow them along shore.
The idea was to have the students shoot from a variety of vantages on the shore. The shooting positions varied from place to place. At some rapids, we literally were on top of the kayakers and the rapid. In other locations, our position was 100 yards away on a cliff above the river.
The kayakers, including several members of the Canadian National Kayak Team, were doing incredible acrobatics. But most often, there was only one kayaker in the rapid at any given time. I found the line of other kayakers as they waited their turn to be an interesting composition. I shot hundreds of tight, action photos, but my favorite shot from the morning session was made not with a 300mm ƒ/2.8 sports lens but with a highly unlikely sports lens—the 16mm fish-eye.
I chose the fish-eye not because of its signature distortion, but because of its 180-degree angle of view. In one shot, I could include the action on the wave as well as the entire view of the kayak line. Once I saw the possible photo in the fish-eye lens, it was only a short wait until the kayaks lined up for a colorful composition. This image is a quiet shot that tells so much more of the story than the hundreds of in-your-face action photos I shot that morning.