|| Taking Action Photos
Action photos can have two themes: (1) the biker makes an
unbelievable move, or (2) the surroundings of the biker suggest incredible
Action photos that are biker-oriented are generally close-up, with the biker
filling much of the frame. Just enough terrain shows up to orient the viewer.
Biker-oriented action photos are usually shot with an upward angle. Where
possible, isolate the biker against the sky. If there's no sky nearby, try to
get the biker against a plain sandstone cliff, or a background of homogenous
trees. If necessary, open the lens (use a smaller-numbered f-stop) and speed up
the shutter, so the background will be out of focus. Simplify the background, so
the action will stand out!
||When shooting a rapidly-moving biker against the sky or a distant background,
you may have problems with your autofocus. It's usually best to focus on a rock
(right where the biker will be doing the stunt), then lock the focus on manual.
Otherwise, your camera may take so long to find the focus that you'll miss the
This photo was supposed to catch Mike in the air at the edge of the
ridge, but the autofocus delayed the shutter snap a tad. Still a decent
photo, just "no air."
Action photos that are terrain-oriented generally have a smaller biker,
dwarfed by the difficulty of the task. For these photos, longer shutter speeds
are possible, and the focus usually isn't as critical.
As a rule of thumb, action shots should be shot at 250 (one 250th of a
second) or faster. You can freeze a jumper at 125 shutter speed if you catch him
just as he's leaving the ledge. If
you'll be using a polarizer, or if you're going to shoot in the shade, you
need to pack fast film -- 400 ISO or even 800 if you're shooting in the
shadows of pine trees. But if you watch for the right shot, you can
use your flash (more on that later).
||Here's Chad in a biker-oriented action shot. He fills almost
the entire frame, but you can see the ledge, sandstone hills suggesting
Moab, and some onlookers (suggesting that this is an important stunt).
This picture was taken with wide angle (28 mm) while I was lying down
with the camera as close to the dirt as possible. The upward angle
isolates the biker against the sky. Note "back wheel leaving
ledge." This is the best place to catch a ledge jumper.
||This is a terrain-oriented action shot. Here Mike is dwarfed
by spooky steep wet-your-shorts sandstone in the Toilet Bowl at Bartlett
Wash. Notice the simplicity of the composition, and the diagonal lie of
Although the biker is absolutely necessary for this shot, it's the
terrain that dominates this photo. The mountain is the
"star" of the photo. This picture wouldn't mean much if I zoomed
in close on the biker.
||Here's a combination-type action shot of Matt jumping a
ledge. We have a biker-oriented action shot, but with a scenic view of
Bartlett Wash in the background. In general, the background in action
shots should be very simple. For this shot, I was lying on the rock, in
order to get Matt's trajectory up into the sky.
The best time to take the photo is just as the back wheel is leaving
the ledge. Pictures of bikes that are half-way to the landing zone are
But for upward jumps, for example jumping over something, the best place to
catch your biker is right at the apex of the jump. The composition looks best,
and the bike is actually moving the slowest, right before gravity starts pulling
the bike back to earth.
In general, action shots require fast shutter speeds. But there are some
action shots where it helps to use your flash. In fact, with some cameras like
the upper-end Nikon, you can synchronize flash up to a shutter speed of 250!
(For most cameras, the fastest you can shoot with flash is 90.) If you're
fortunate enough to own one of these cameras, you can shoot log drops in the
deep woods with excellent results.
For this photo on mud-covered Tibble Fork on a rainy day, I shot Matt
and Jackie at 1/90th second using the strobe. There's only a tiny bit of
motion blur detectable (see the dog's ears?). Because Matt was coming
hell-bent towards me, he's not moving much relative to the camera. The
flash does a nice job of illuminating his face and arms.
The burst of
light from the strobe is very brief, and it can actual "crisp
up" some of the edges on an action shot at lower shutter speeds.
When you're not sure if you can freeze the action, follow the biker. Watch
the middle of the biker's chest, and follow it with the camera. If necessary,
underexpose. (But pick a shutter speed that's appropriate to the action.) If
you're shooting print film, the automated equipment at the photo shop may still
give you a reasonable photo.
||This photo of Mike was shot under full overcast, near
sundown, in the bottom of a narrow canyon. Following the biker with the
camera, I shot at 125 in a deliberate underexposure. I've got a little bit
of background blur, and little bit of leg blur, but the photo still looks
good, even enlarged.
For action photos, you should plan the shot in advance. Visualize where
the biker will be. Use the rules of composition ("get down, shoot up,"
"rule of thirds," "use diagonals," etc) to set up the shot.
Lock your focus, set an appropriate shutter speed, then hunker down and wait for
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All photos and text on this website are
copyrighted works of Bruce Argyle.
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