Friday, September 04, 2009

Action Shooting tips

Today's Blog is about multitasking. Sorry about the title! You'll see where the "action" part fits into the topic in a minute.

I'm the worlds worst multitasker. Walking and chewing gum are mutually exclusive exercises. Ask Iris, she's great at it and always made fun of me. By the way if you are a multitasker, those of us who are not, find it quite rude when you're talking to us and doing something else at the same time. Ever notice how good it makes you feel when the person you're talking to is looking right at you, giving you all his or her attention? Think about it.

Anyway, my last post, about texting and driving, is a good example. I don't know about you, but it really helps when I focus on the task at hand. "So what's this all about", you may ask. I'll tell you.

On Monday, I took my grandson Ryan up to Clinton's "Canadian Motorcycle Training Services" for his first taste of offroad riding. It was his 10th birthday and I finally convinced his mom (my daughter) to let him go. Ryan had a fantastic experience and I posted a bunch of pictures in my August gallery here. Richard, Ryan's dad was also there: he didn't ride, he watched Ryan like I did, but I could see him itching to get on a bike. Next time. I was there to watch Ryan enjoying himself, to take care of the arrangements (it was his birthday present from me) and oh, by the way, to take pictures.

More than one purpose. Ah, you're starting to get my point. If I had been there just to take pictures, my results would have been substantially different. I can't multitask! Half the time I was out there, what was going through my mind was, "is he having fun? Is he learning? Look how well he's doing that!" Some of the time, I was watching and listening to Clinton because he's a superb instructor, relates wonderfully with the kids, and I'd like to be more like him (as an instructor) when I grow up.

I wasn't concentrating on taking pictures. Oh, I got some images, all right. But I ignored what was going on around me for the most part, and focused on Ryan alone. Shots when he was doing things technically correctly, showing the concentration on his face, trying to capture him having fun. This day was about him, not me.

Because I'm pretty comfortable with my camera equipment, because I can shoot pretty well without thinking about it, and use some of the advanced features of the D300, I was able to get some shots, but imagine if I had focused on the shooting! Here's one shot that I liked that came out of the day -- one of very few that wasn't all about Ryan:

After an hour or so learning how to work the bike, they took the kids to the "Farm" which is an open field with riding paths meandering through the wildflowers. It's more challenging than it looks. The 200mm lens
with medium depth of field was perfect for this image.

You know what? I wouldn't have taken that picture if Richard hadn't said something about how nice a shot that might be. We had also parked the car nearby and had walked into the field. I had the 200mm lens mounted on the camera, and didn't bother to bring anything else with me. Here's another shot taken from the same vantage point:

I had the luxury of being able to crop reasonably tightly because of the resolution of the D300 and the quality of the lens (I keep saying 200mm: it's a Nikkor 70-200VR f/2.8, great optics) and still maintain sharpness and contrast. The exposure was 1/320 sec at f/7.1. Even with VR, I strive for those kinds of shutter speeds for that extra sharpness.

Normally, when shooting action, you want to try different things, to achieve varying effects. And to me, somehow having motion in the shot makes the difference between a straight static capture and one which tells a story. The first image above tells a story, doesn't it? But not through motion. The second one, although I love the image, doesn't really say anything other than, this is a cool scene.

Here's another image that tells a great story: Clinton (that's him on the left: too bad I zoomed in a bit too tightly, it would have been a better image with more of him in it) is applauding Ryan's form and effort, going over the little jump standing up. But it looks like he's not moving (trials riders, eat your hearts out!) where he's actually riding at speed. The 1/500 sec shutter speed stopped the action completely. So while this makes a great poster, there's no sense of action here.

This shot, on the other hand, was taken at 1/100 sec and I panned the camera with the bike to create a motion blur. The other thing that adds to the action feeling is the composition: remember the "Rule of Thirds"? Look where Ryan is on that imaginary Tic-Tac-Toe grid. Notice the space in front and below the bike which gives the sense that he has somewhere to go in the picture.

So I spent half a day and about 150 exposures, and this was just about the only one with any motion in it. Those of you who have seen my other work know that I'm a big proponent of slow shutter speed and panning. Why didn't I do more shots like this? Because I was having too much fun watching Ryan having fun. I was multitasking.

OK. If I had been at Clinton's on assignment, documenting "A Day of Offroading", I would have done several things differently.
  • Consider what the desired final output was supposed to be:
    • A multimedia slide show
    • A printed brochure
    • Photos for a website, etc.
  • I would have prepared by storyboarding what I wanted to shoot.
    • What the facility looks like
    • Signing in
    • Getting dressed (I did take a shot or two)
    • Preparatory 'classroom' session
    • Sitting on the bike
    • First lap on the novice track, etc.
  • I would have prepared the equipment I needed and made sure I had it with me at all times
    • Inside shot and classroom needs the wide angle lens and perhaps the flash/diffuser for lighting
    • I was able to get close to the novice track so a normal lens (my 24-120) with VR was the right choice.
    • In the field or at the big track, the long lens was the primary choice, but imagine the drama of a low angle wide angle shot of a bike going by.
  • I would have made sure I got a wide variety of angles and effects
    • Low-to-the-ground close up wide angle shots
    • Telephoto shots
    • Multiple riders
    • Faces in sharp focus
    • Panning motion
    • Lens zoom motion
    • Low and high depth-of-field shots
    • Posed shots before and after riding
    • Get riders to go through the mud to get that splattered image and more action/motion.

I did get most of these (check out my August 2009 gallery here), but not with care and planning, with luck. But I wasn't there on assignment, I was documenting Ryan having fun at his first off-road experience. All of these steps and techniques would have made for better pictures, but then I wouldn't have been able to enjoy Ryan's experience as much as I did, and that was my goal for the day.

So the concepts touched on in this Blog post were:

  • Know what your goals are.
  • Multitasking is great for casual shooting but if you want to get some serious pictures, especially with action shots, you have to be focused on what you're trying to accomplish.
  • Plan ahead. Even if you're just out shooting for fun, you'll get better pictures if you spend a few minutes thinking about the possibilities
  • Your equipment is important: make sure you have what you need, that it all works (my first battery wasn't fully charged and died so I missed Ryan's first lap). And if you leave it behind in the car, then you're limiting your possibilities.
  • Know how to use it so that you can concentrate on the shot, not the mechanics. Practice, practice, practice.
  • Try a variety of techniques when shooting action. Freeze motion, pan, backlight, close-up, wide angle and telephoto. Your results may surprise you.

So let me leave you with one more image from that day: Ryan, on the left, took the other rider on that curve on the track. I'm pretty sure the other kid has ridden before. By the way, Ryan was registered for a half-day, dirt riding course, so the name tag they put on him said, "RYAN - HALF DIRT". I smell a new nickname coming!