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Fast-Action Photography


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BY Joseph Meehan April 20, 2011 · Published by Lark Books

Joseph Meehan talks about how to move beyond the "spray and pray" approach to action photography to capture outstanding sports and action shots in this excerpt from the book Capturing Time and Motion.

This excerpt from Capturing Time and Motion is provided courtesy of Lark Books. To purchase the book, visit the Barnes & Noble website.



Working at sporting events and teaching at workshops over the years, I have noticed that many photographers handle fast-action situations by blasting away with their cameras—at one time with their film motor drives, and now with their digital continuous shooting modes—hoping to catch a winning image of their subject (sort of a “spray and pray” approach). Indeed, successful action photography using fast shutter speeds does require quick camera skills. But as anyone who makes a living in this sort of work knows, there is far more to the process. Fast firing must be combined with a concept of the motion involved and an ability to anticipate when there is potential for a great picture. This chapter is about optimizing the conditions for getting outstanding results using fast shutter speeds. Much of this information is also applied in Chapter 6 regarding sports photography.

Developing an Action Mind Set

Human vision is limited when it comes to seeing specific segments of a fast movement. Even if you can see the ideal moment, it may happen so quickly that you aren’t able to react fast enough with your camera. Compare this to a portrait or landscape setting where there is time to contemplate the best moment for taking the picture. We tend to perceive fast movements as a continuum—a whole motion in which we can clearly recall the beginning and the end. But because the bulk of the action in between happens so fast, we have trouble isolating individual segments. Such descriptive phrases as “the player made a great move,” or “the dancer performed a beautiful motion” are used to sum up the whole movement because we cannot see the separate, individual portions. Thus, we are often left with a general impression of an entire movement. It is a skilled motion photographer who delves into this middle ground to recognize a great moment, and records it as a single representative image. But how does one develop such a skill?

One of the first steps to successful fast-action photography is to put aside the tendency to think of action as a whole and think instead in terms of single segments. The analogy of a single slice of bread out of the whole loaf comes to mind. But unlike the uniform slices in a loaf, the segments of a whole movement show great variation (as Eadweard Muybridge documented for the first time so long ago). Some segments can appear dramatic and some will look awkward—and still others rather ordinary, if not boring. Modern commercials, music videos, and other examples of today’s quick-cut visual media have built their dynamic appeal on selecting and presenting the most desirable moments to the viewer. The result is the reduction of a motion into quick flashes of individual components seen for a fleeting moment, rather than a presentation of the entire motion from start to finish.

The challenge for any photographer is to catch that one segment of motion that embodies the whole movement: The dancer at the apex of a beautiful leap, the football player at the moment of catching the ball in a pack of defenders, or the maximum height of a wave about to crash on the shore. The variable that makes it difficult to capture such moments is, of course, the speed of the event. Consider the example of a person casually walking or a couple dancing to a slow song. With a little concentration, it is relatively easy for the photographer to single out and capture a position that is complimentary to the subject and representative of what it is doing. This is because we can usually see the specific portion of movement we want. But once the action quickens and the person starts running, or a couple begins dancing fast, it is far more difficult to see and capture that desirable position. Let’s look at some successful examples of capturing a single section of a movement that summarizes the action in question.

While visiting Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro, NM, I saw a composition beginning to develop as wildlife photographers with their long telephotos were set up in front of an approaching flock of geese (below). The sun had just come over the horizon and the photographers were concentrating on waterfowl in the ponds to the right outside the frame. As the geese approached, I wanted to have the them overhead as background, with the photographers concentrating on their own quarry and not looking at me. With my zoom lens set toward the wide end at f/8 from a slightly lower than eye-level perspective, I used ISO 800 and a shutter speed of 1/500 second to freeze the wings of the birds. I feel this is a successful picture because it captures the wildlife photographers at work against a background containing their subjects. The key was to freeze the geese at just the right moment overhead. Notice also that the photographers were captured very close to the rule of thirds vertical power points.

The wildlife example with the geese reminds us that not every action shot has to contain large-scale dramatic movements (such as a roaring waterfall or a great play in a football game). Rather it is often small but important pieces in a picture that will make the difference. For instance, take a look at the image below by photographer Dan Larkin. It simply shows people walking in Amsterdam, but a number of photographic elements give it a sense of action and purpose: The wide perspective showing many people coming and going all at once; the juxtaposition of the moving walkers and the stationary bicycles; and the sun low in the sky casting long shadows that lend direction and momentum to the people, plus a sense of time as the walkers briskly go about their late afternoon business.

© Dan Larkin


In the same vein, consider the examples below by professional photographer Donnette Largay. In both of her pictures, Largay has been able to capture a specific segment that represents the total action. In the case of the horse and rider in the snow, she caught the raised foot of the horse with the rider smiling and looking right into the camera. What visual cues are telling us the horse is in motion and not just standing still and raising a foot? It is the spray of snow around the horse caught as small particles at 1/800 second. This shutter speed also renders the falling snow as flakes instead of nearly invisible streaks. This is a photograph in which a specific shutter speed and timing by the photographer combine to capture one moment of a scene. Notice also how Largay’s choice of an f/4 aperture produced a shallow depth of field that nicely isolates the subject from a busy background.

© Donnette Largay


Largay’s second photograph, of the cowboy chasing a mustang, records a specific moment when the lasso is over the head of the rider, about to be thrown to capture the escaping horse. Her experienced eye has also captured the runaway horse in a dynamic posture, with a burst of dust from the moving hoofs as well as the body and head at a near 45-degree angle to the ground.

© Donnette Largay


As with the previous picture, it is often the secondary cues—such as the lasso, the bearing of the rider as he turns in the saddle, the dust thrown from the ground—that contribute to the overall dynamic quality of the photograph.

This photographer is completely familiar with her subject and has perfected a sense of timing geared to her subject’s characteristic movements. Let’s now consider ways of developing such skills with concern for rapidly changing situations where we cannot see individual segments of a motion.

Detecting a Direction and Finding a Pattern

Since you can’t see the exact representative moment for an action photograph before it happens, the secret to dealing with this limitation begins with a quick analysis of the whole movement. A skillful fast-motion photographer is attuned to the direction, pattern, and rhythm of a movement, and learns to press the shutter when he or she feels something is about to happen. That is what a sense of timing is all about: Anticipation based on observation. Instead of shooting blindly, you can increase the chances of success by looking for purpose and patterns in a movement. Needless to say, it also means having the camera at its optimum settings as discussed in Chapter 3.

Some situations lend themselves very well to the strategy of looking for directions and patterns. For example, most dancers have very controlled, directed, and frequently predictable movements. Stage dancers will characteristically repeat various steps, giving the alert photographer a second chance to anticipate when to press the shutter for either a single frame or a burst. Likewise, waves crashing on a beach or racecars burning around a track also follow a pattern of predictable movements. Even speakers at a podium will repeat various mannerisms and gestures that can be anticipated by the photographer who picks up on such idiosyncrasies. The idea is to learn to see such patterns and the direction they are taking in order to develop the timing needed to capture those key photographic moments. Let’s take a look at this process by examining situations in which a series of shots were used to record a whole motion.


In the soccer sequence above, I have included three shots leading to a score. Here the direction was obvious: The player with the ball gets as close as possible to the goal with a good angle to take a shot. The overall pattern on the field was also predictable. The defenders were moving to block the kick or get the ball away from the attacker. When I saw this developing, it came down to the challenge of timing the speed on the field, and selecting which part of the shot I wanted.

In most sports photography, the play is typically recorded over several frames using a continuous or sequential drive mode. In these soccer pictures, I used a drive speed of 8 frames per second (fps) at 1/2000 second with a zoom lens set at a long telephoto focal length, shooting from the sideline. I framed the picture to include the goal area in hopes of catching the ball in the net. I pressed the shutter button as the attacking player was about to kick the ball. The first frame (not shown) failed because the attacker was blocked by a teammate in the foreground. The next three frames caught the whole motion of the score after the kick, with the ball ending in the net. Any of these shots could have been selected to show the drama of making a goal.

At Play

I was faced with a situation, when seeing a group of boys taking turns sliding in puddles, that needed more than one photo to successfully capture and convey what was happening. Actually, several boys were playing around a sprinkler at the time. The direction was clear, as was the pattern of their movements from start to finish. They ran through the sprinkler toward the mud puddle in a sequence of run-dive-land. My decision came down to how many images I would need to represent the whole motion. After watching for a few minutes, I thought just three shots would be enough: the running approach, the dive with arms out to break the fall, and the slide through mud that seemed to swallow each of them. With the camera set at 6 fps and 1/250 second, I took the three pictures seen above. I had to photograph five different boys to get the timing just right. While photographing, I did not realize the mud was completely engulfing the boys until later viewing. Once again, the still photograph can show something the human eye misses.

The Rodeo

I was invited to photograph a Navajo rodeo but had no experience with this type of action. So I took a few minutes to watch and see if I could identify any patterns. I noticed that the animal during the bull-riding contest would usually burst out of the pen in a straight direction, but then typically spin left or right to try and unseat the rider. I decided to compose the shot just as bull and rider came out of the pen, face on to my position. A pattern of basically up and down movements developed, along with a spinning motion of the bull. I took the shot above to the left just before the bull began to turn sideways, using a shutter speed of 1/650 at f/5.6 for an isolating effect on the rider. The rodeo clown sticking out his hand was actually a lucky addition.

As I continued to observe the riding action, I became intrigued with the way the riders were unseated. This moment in the pattern could be anticipated by watching the way the hips of the rider’s body gradually (but often quickly) lost a solid position on top of the bull. It was tempting to watch the upper body with the hand flying in the air, but it was really the hips that dictated what was going to happen. I decided to pay close attention to that movement through the viewfinder. As soon as I saw the hips come off the saddle I begin shooting at 6 fps, eventually capturing the image above to the right, which was the fifth shot of a 10-frame burst. Luck was with me because the bull had turned to become perpendicular to my position, giving a frame-filling view just as the rider was being thrown. Unlike the previous bull-riding example, I wanted the background in focus to catch the spectators watching the action. I set the camera at f/8 with a 1/1000-second shutter speed. When it came to the final crop in the computer, I noticed that the young Navajo boys were watching the rider. There were also several other people farther beyond who were looking away. I cropped them out to produce the almost square framing of the final image. This square crop actually helped reinforce the downward direction of the dislodged rider.

I was also in the head-on position outside the ring for the calf roping competition, and captured the image seen in the frame above left. I liked the shot, but felt the frozen motion was taking away from the speed of this event. I consequently decided to add a zoom effect in the computer using the Zoom Filter in Photoshop (10% Filter > Blur > Radial Blur > Zoom), with the middle frame as a result. But this effect was too much for me, so I selected the area of the picture that I wanted to remain clear using Photoshop’s Lasso tool, and then selected the outside area (Select > Inverse) and applied the Zoom Filter as before. The result (above right) was an interesting combination of a fast shutter speed capture and a slow shutter speed refinement.

At the Ocean

Photographing waves is a relatively easy action shot since there is a predictable pattern. You should be able to isolate a single dynamic wave like the one above, which was taken at 1/350 second, or portray a more serene feeling with flatter, gentler waves lapping at the beach (below left, at 1/250 second). It is more difficult to record the shape of larger waves with a curl, as in the example below to the right, taken from a high perspective at 1/1000 second, because stronger and larger waves often do not come into the beach evenly spaced. The bottom line is that you should be prepared to take several frames and to be frustrated by these irregularities. Wave formations in more active seas can really try one’s patience, but can also deliver spectacular results.

Photographing during a whale watch is again a matter of picking up on a direction and pattern of behavior. My goal in the photos above was to catch the fluke of the whale just as water came streaming off the surface when the animal began to submerge. Speeds of 1/1250 to 1/1600 second were used, and the idea was to catch this segment with several different whales. Each whale’s pattern was quite consistent. First its back would appear and then the fluke would come up out of the water. I had only a few seconds to catch the fluke with all that water coming off its surface. Of the four pictures in the illustration, the second from the top shows the largest volume of water, whereas the bottom frame is unique due to a larger funnel of water that has been caught bridging the ocean’s surface and the fluke. The main challenge in this series was the lack of control over direction. The angle I wanted was straight on to the back of the whale, as in the top three shots. But I simply had to wait for the boat and the whale to line up, and then time the movement of the fluke as it came out of the ocean to get the streams of water as they rolled off.

To take the picture below, I was in an enclosed sledge being pulled by a snow machine across the frozen ocean during an assignment as an expedition photographer in the Arctic. I looked out of the blue tinted Plexiglas window to see one of the Inuit guides on another snow machine splashing through the water that was accumulating on the ice. At first I wanted to use a slower shutter speed to blur the water coming off the rails of his machine. Since we were both moving at the same speed, he and the machine would be recorded in focus. This is a variation on the pan technique covered in chapter 5. Thus, his direction was parallel to mine and his driving pattern was consistent. But my sledge and his snow machines were both bouncing rather hard over the irregular ice. That meant having to use a fast shutter speed, so I switched to an action-freezing composition. The 1/750-second shutter speed froze the chunks of ice and splashing water from the rails in mid-air. I also tilted the camera for a dynamic angle. After a few shots he noticed me and pointed, which gave a little something extra to the shot.


Camera Techniques

Featured photographer: Joseph Meehan

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