Tips on Becoming a Great Sports Photographer…Part 3
Freezing Action Shots
So far, we have discussed each event and they types of shots to be taken. Safeties generally are taken at times where the action is minimal, and we don’t have to concentrate as much on freezing the action. But what sells, and what the viewers want to see are people suspended in mid-air. They want to see the crisp ball laying just off the receivers finger tips. To do that, we must freeze the action.
Freezing the action requires fast shutter speeds. Most modern, high end 35mm SLRs have a top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second. Except for a speeding bullet, this is about fast enough to catch anything you or I are likely to shoot, even an Indy car blasting around the track at 230mph.
But it isn’t that simple. Lets first discuss a standard photographic rule of thumb, which is the minimal speed for hand-holding a lens. The minimal shutter speed for hand holding a lens is 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. Thus a 50mm lens should not be hand held any slower than 1/50th of a second. A 300mm lens should not be hand held at less than 1/300th of a second. If your camera does not have shutter speeds between say 1/250 and 1/500, then you round up. So for a 300mm lens, your minimal hand hold speed may be 1/500th of a second. The more proficient you get, the more likely you are to be able to cheat by one shutter speed. A monopod is the preferred way for action photographers to gain additional steadiness. It can generally buy you one to two shutter speeds of hand holding.
Not only has it become more difficult to hand hold these lenses, it becomes harder to freeze the action as well. The lenses get heavier and harder to hold. Your breathing and heart beating and muscle strain are enough to cause still objects hard to capture. Longer lenses not only magnify the scene, they magnify the apparent movement. If a runner passes through the viewfinder with a 50mm lens attached in one second, then at 500mm, the same person moving at the same speed will pass in 1/10th of a second.
Generally, to freeze action, you need at least two full shutter speeds if not more faster than the hand hold speed. So for our 300mm lens, you will need at least 1/1200 to 1/2400 to freeze action with this lens (rounding up, that’s 1/2000-1/4000th of a second). Even at these speeds, you may have to follow side to side movement, called panning to have the movement crisp when you expose the film Lets say you are shooting a car racing event. Even at high shutter speeds, if you hold the camera still and wait on the car, you will capture a blur. By matching the movement of the subject with the movement of the lens, you minimize the relative motion between the two.
For subjects coming to you or heading away, their apparent movement isn’t as great. Many people make up some of the action freezing by getting things coming toward them.
Film is critical in freezing action. Each increase in film speed gets you one more shutter speed. So if you shoot an event with ISO 100 film and the best you can get is 1/500th of a second, switching to an ISO 400 film gets you to 1/2000th which may be enough to freeze the action. Going to ISO 1600, will take you to 1/8000th of a second.
Adding high shutter speeds, fast films, monopods, panning, or shooting objects as they come toward you, and capturing action at its peak will let you freeze fantastic shots.
Giving the illusion of movement.
Many new action photographers worry about freezing action, trying to get the crispest shots possible. Even veteran photographers will try for crisp shots, but they are not afraid to allow some blurring.
Stop and think about it for a minute. A baseball pitcher throws the ball, the batter swings the bat. Your eyes don’t freeze the action precisely, so why should your pictures. A blurring bat, or an elongated ball leaving a blurry arm imply movement. As long as most of the body and the face is crisp a little motion in the hands, feet, and projectiles is acceptable and in many cases desired. This is another little cheat in not having that fast of a shutter speed.
Some times, we slow the shutter speed down intentionally to amplify the movement. We have all seen shots of runners where the background is a blur their arms and legs are a blur, but their body and head are fairly well focused. Combining panning, slower shutter speeds, and predictable movement and you can capture some very dramatic pictures showing all kinds of movement.
These types of shots require patients, work, and a lot of experimenting. Don’t hesitate, when at an event to experiment with different techniques . . . after you get your safeties and your primary shots.
Shots that lack emotion are ho-hum. They lack energy. They lack story telling ability. If there is no emotion, then there is little desire to view it. Most tight action shots of players will be emotional. Regardless of level, these players, when they are exerting themselves, exhibit emotion. From the little tee-ball player messing with her hair and her helmet, to the strain of a pole vaulter working to get over the cross bar, there is plenty of emotion to be found in sports. You will, from experience be able to edit out the shots that lack emotion and do not tell the story. But it requires shooting and shooting.
You should also look for emotion from other sources. As years of ABC’s Wide World of Sports told us . . . The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Make sure to save film to shoot the players after their events. Or during their events, don’t always focus on the ball, but on the emotion after the big 360 degree slam dunk. Don’t forget to look for emotion in the coaches and the fans. A lot of the best shots come from the crowd.
Where to Start
It’s important to understand that not every photographer will be able to take this information and expect to step onto the field at Great American Ball Park, sit in the press gallery and expect to capture Grade A shots of Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. To get to that level, you have to have a proven sports portfolio and work for an agency who can get you access.
Before you get to that level, you have to shoot a lot of minor sporting events. The best place to start is your local youth leagues. Early in my career, I got broken in on high school sports, but through my experience there, I got to shoot for my college papers and year books. That allowed me access to shoot NCAA Division I sports early on. But I would not have had that opportunity without having developed a portfolio from my early days of shooting.
Local youth leagues provide you great access and opportunities to use smaller lenses to capture shots. As your portfolio develops, you can approach shooting at higher levels. You can get a lot of practice and experience here which is valuable when going to “The Show”.
Today, I am back shooting for a small town paper and the highest level of sports that I have reasonable access to is high school. Even though I have been to “The Show”, I still enjoy getting pictures of 5 year olds when they catch their first ball or score their first goal.
You may however get opportunities to shoot pro games from a fan’s perspective. Depending on your location in the arena, you can get some reasonably good shots. Take your long lens and some high speed film and make the most of it. In these situations, freezing action isn’t as important as being able to hand hold the lens. The players will be at such a distance that their movement will be like a person closer to you with a normal lens on. As long as you have enough shutter speed to get a steady shot you should be able to get memorable shots.
One final note. Don’t rush your action assignments. Spend some time, and expect to burn some film. Only through practice and looking at the results and going back to it will you get the timing and skills needed to one day capture world class shots.
Written by Rob Miracle in 1998
Written by Sports Photographer Rob Miracle and posted by Cincinnati Ohio Sports Photographer Vincent Rush of Cincinnati Sports Photography.
Posted by Monroe Ohio photographer Vincent Rush, Cincinnati Sports Photography and Dayton Sports Photography of Monroe Ohio. Vince Rush can be contacted by phone at (877) 858-6295 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://CincinnatiSportsPhotography.com Check out my about.me profile!