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  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.

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 shot.

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 the chute.

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 visually confusing.

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 the rider.

Please go on to the next lesson!

All photos and text on this website are
copyrighted works of Bruce Argyle.

Photo Basics

Composition Guidelines

Shooting Landscapes

Taking Action Photos

Flowers and Detail Photos

Pictures of People

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