photographing speedy subjects

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Most people would agree that, as a culture, we re moving faster than ever. There are so many things vying for our attention, so much to see and do and read and watch and comment on, not to mention the vast array of technologies being released every day —it can feel downright dizzying just trying to keep up.

Ever feel like you simply want to slow down and maybe just take the opportunity to photograph everybody else going fast? Here are my top 10 tips on photographing speedy subjects, from speedy toddlers to professional athletes to over-caffeinated friends —and everything in between.

METHOD ACTING: Before you can act on your preferred method of capture, you need to determine how you want to portray the subject or scene. Do you want to blur the action to offer a sense of speed? Or do you want to stop every hair on your subject s head and freeze everything? Maybe you want to show a blend of frozen action and blurred motion. I often start with a clear idea of how I wish to capture the image, make sure I ve nailed that, then play with other options to see if I might catch some happy accident, albeit often on purpose. But starting with a decisive take on the action will help you achieve your objective that much sooner.

SHUTTER UP: Just keep in mind the relationship of increased shutter speed to the darkening of the light and adjust your light accordingly.

WIDEN THE VIEW

It s awfully difficult to photograph a crazy-fast-moving toddler from a distance with an aperture of f/1.2. I m not saying it can t be done —but when you combine a heavy lens with an extremely shallow depth of field and some serious motion (especially unstable motion), you re pitting yourself against rather tough odds when it comes to being able to capture your subject with acceptable focus.

If your goal is to show sharp focus on just your subject and not his environment, work to separate your subject from the background, then grant yourself the gift of using a smaller aperture setting. If I have a subject on the move, and I m shooting from a distance, I rarely dip under f/4.1 don t lose the shallow depth-of-field look; I just better isolate my subjects from the background to achieve similar results with a more extended field of focus.

Get some stability: The more tightly you secure your camera body, the less chance you have of capturing unintentional blur. A tripod has been the traditional go-to resource for stabilizing your gear, but just as many sports shooters use monopods to stabilize their long lenses, you can use a simple monopod to secure your camera body, as well. This offers you the added advantage of not having to manage excessive gear while out on a shoot, as monopods are relatively simple to pack and use.

The other option is to practice stillness. Learn to hold your own body as a tripod, to lean against walls, doorways, benches, tables, or whatever you can find. When you start naturally stabilizing your body and exhaling at less critical times, you ll start routinely delivering crisper shots.

FOLLOW THROUGH: just as it matters that you follow through with your golf swing, paying attention to how you follow through on a shot can make a significant difference in the sharpness of your image. Too often, photographers will click the action and then quickly move their camera away. Whether this is due to self-consciousness or lack of awareness, they unwittingly add a bit of unintended motion to their capture. When I m shooting action, I hold my camera steady, click the image, and then continue to hold my camera and lens in place just a beat or two after the shot.

GO, GO, GO: If you haven t already, experiment with the continuous focus mode on your camera, a technology created for the sole purpose of being able to better capture subjects in motion. Generally speaking, this technology works at the sensor level by determining changes in contrast and actually predicting where the subject will be in the slight near future —like an athlete sprinting to a finish line, a bride nervously zipping down an aisle, or a toddler careening into a park fountain.

Some people find that they become so dependent on this continuous or AI Servo mode that they keep their camera constantly set to it. Others want to control the focus and never leave One Shot mode. I suggest that you experiment to see which you prefer.

TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE EQUATION: A fun and different way to catch action is to use remote triggering with products such as Pocket Wizard transceivers. You can set up a transmitter to one camera, a receiver to another, and then operate one of the cameras remotely to get a totally different view of the action.

BE THE EXPRESSION YOU WANT TO SEE: Along with all the technical tips listed in this piece, I would be remiss not to include the importance of interacting with your subjects. This isn t the case in all types of shoots, of course. You d get yourself viciously booed out of most games if you tried to interact with the players. But when photographing a portrait client or an athlete for an editorial piece, it helps to offer guidance in respect to preferred movement and preferred expression. I use mirroring techniques often, showing my subjects what I have in mind for the shot. And I often find they are grateful for the direction.

GO LONG: There s a good reason pro sports shooters use long glass. You don t always know where you re going to end up as the photographer, and you don t always know where the action will be, either. The better long lenses, such as a 300mm or 400mm, allow you to get in close (and clean) from multiple distances. The downside, of course, is the cost and heaviness of the lenses, which is why many of them come with a built-in tripod mounts. You often need the extra support.

BRING THE LIGHT: When photographing speediness indoors, or outside when the light is dropping quickly, to be able to kick up your shutter speed, you re going to need to add more light. Using an additional, portable light source (such as a video light or a battery-supported continuous light) is an excellent way to add light to your shot, enabling you to crank up the shutter speed.

There are pros and cons to using strobes versus constant light sources on action shots. Traditionally, strobes have been highly preferred, especially since they ve always offered more power. Recently, though, continuous lights have been improving dramatically in multiple ways, and many prefer the what-you-see-is-what-you-get upside of continuous lighting. The other advantage of using a constant small light on a fast-moving subject (in close range) is the avoidance of a strobe-like flash, which can distract the subject and subsequently kill the spontaneity of the shot.

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