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Action Photography – Capturing the Moment | Part II

Action Photography

Learn Photography

Know the course and the best vantage points. Keep in mind the time of day, the angle of the sun and how long that spot is likely to be well lit. Ask officials about the course layout. These people want coverage of their events and will probably do what they can to help you but don’t leave the approach to the last minute! Also, ask if and when access to any part of a course might be closed. Rushing to a great location only to find it is off limits would be frustrating, to say the least.

Once you’ve selected the best vantage spots get the approximate times that athletes will get there after the start and how many circuits will be made. An elevated vantage point can be handy and you can even take your own, such as a small, lightweight stepladder, an aid that Bob Woodward uses often.

Track events are bounded by lines and lanes, elements of graphic design that the well-trained eye can harness. Duane Hart has done just that in an overhead view of the start of a race at the 2000 Olympic Games. Canon 10D, 200mm f1.8 lens, ISO 100, 1/1000 at f4.
© 2008, Duane Hart/sportingimages.com.au, All Rights Reserved

The finish of an event is usually the most crowded part of the course—with spectators and other photographers. So, if you’re hoping for a shot of the winner crossing the line, be prepared to get there early and wait. If you want a varied diet of images, you are better off out on the course.

The Peak Of Action

Sports provide a multitude of great subject matter but perhaps most typical are the peak of action shots made at just that right instant—the decisive moment—when all the elements of a phase or play come together. Often this happens when the subject or a ball is between the rise and fall of a movement and can be caught with a slower shutter speed. For example, a basketball player momentarily suspended before slam-dunking the ball may be moving slowly enough to be photographed at 1/125 sec. A shot taken just before that, as the player rises to the net, might need a shutter speed twice as fast.

An overhead wide angle view and a wireless remote camera mounted behind the backboard were used to catch this brilliant shot at the hoop as California Baptist University player Pete Rajniak gets the two-pointer. A wide-angle lens ensured sufficient depth of field to maintain sharpness throughout. Canon 1D, 16mm f2.8 lens, ISO 1000, 1/400 at f2.8.
© 2008, Ben Chen, All Rights Reserved

The difference between that peak of action and a split second before or after it can be the difference between a good shot and a great one. Peak action shots usually are the result of several factors, not the least being the photographer’s intimate knowledge of the sport, accurate focusing, his or her sense of timing and anticipation, and having the presence of mind to press the shutter just before the action. Taking the shot as it happens will almost definitely result in an “after the event” picture—a good one, perhaps, but not the great one.

Essentials To Capture The Action
Be in the right position and use a focal length sufficient to isolate the principal subject matter. The shutter speed should be fast enough to freeze the action but some blurring on the outer part of the shot—feet or hands or a ball—can enhance the shot. Usually a shutter speed of 1/500 sec or faster is needed, especially if a telephoto lens is used. Use the widest aperture possible. This has two advantages: 1) the shallower depth of field of a wide aperture will help throw a potentially distracting background out of focus and 2) you will be able to use a faster shutter speed, reducing the chances of camera movement.

Being ready for any eventuality was key to getting the shot of tumbling ponies and polocrosse players hitting the turf. Nikon 801, 300mm f2.8 Tamron lens, manual focus, Fuji 800 film, 1/1000 at f2.8.
© 2008, Duane Hart/sportingimages.com.au, All Rights Reserved

Depending on the ISO setting—either the film speed or the ISO setting on a digital camera—you should aim for an exposure in the range of 1/500 sec to 1/1000 sec at f4. Of course, if you have an f2.8 lens, use that aperture and the corresponding shutter speed.

Timing, Anticipation, And Knowing The Athletes
These come with knowledge of the sport and being aware of what’s likely to happen. Photographer Diane Kulpinski points out that knowing the flow of the action, not necessarily all the rules, is critical to capturing good images. “That way you have a good idea of where peak action is likely to occur and what it will look like,” she said.

Duante Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings valiantly dives for the end zone. Bruce Kluckhohn anticipated and captured the action. Canon 1D, ISO 800, 400mm f2.8 lens, 1/500 at f2.8, available light.
© 2008, Bruce Kluckhohn, All Rights Reserved

And it pays to know not only the sport but also its participants. Most athletes have habits or a style that make it easier to anticipate their next move. Team coaches and managers study films of their opponents ahead of matches to plan how to counter specific moves or players. Leading professional sports photographers do much the same thing, even if for different reasons. They want to capture the action of that athlete either succeeding with a typical play, or shooting the peak of action as the opposing team thwarts the play. Knowing the players’ style and habits gives them an edge. All athletes, Little Leaguers, high school players, Olympians, and even older sports men and women in the growing ranks of senior competitions have their individual style.

A great example of an overhead view adding another dimension to sports photography. Arms and hands flail and water boils as Spanish and Australian water polo players contest possession at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Canon 10D, ISO 800, 200mm f1.8 lens, pattern metering, 1/1000 at f2.8.
© 2008, Duane Hart/sportingimages.com.au, All Rights Reserved

And Bill Hurter, editor of Rangefinder magazine and a former sports photographer, advises that another good rule of thumb, in addition to knowing a sport, is to never take your eye off the ball or puck or action, especially when shooting sports such as baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey or tennis at the pro level. There’s always the chance you or your camera will get hit, as has happened to him.

USC Trojans tailback Reggie Bush hurdles over a UCLA defender on his way to a touch down. Background color strengthened the image. Canon 1D, 280mm lens, ISO 200, 1/2000 at f4.
© 2008, Ben Chen, All Rights Reserved

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