Digital Focus: Action Photos, Part 2

Feature: More About Capturing Action Photos

I recently had the opportunity to photograph a junior soccer competition. The field was alive with kindergarten-age competitors, and I was using a friend's digital camera to record the action. The event reminded me just how hard it can be to take good action shots--especially when you're working with a digital camera.

Last week I talked about the basics of taking action photos. This week it's time to go a step further and discuss tricks that will make your sports photos come alive.

Master the Focus Controls

Take your camera's focus controls, for instance. Most digital cameras lock in the focus the moment that you apply slight pressure to the shutter release. Last week I recommended that you do just that to help reduce the inevitable shutter lag you get with most cameras.

That may not work all the time, though. The camera I was using at the soccer game, for instance, worked a bit differently. In its action mode, which I used because it delivered the fastest shutter speed, the lens continued to autofocus continuously, right up to the moment of exposure.

That can sometimes be good--but more frequently, it's going to be really bad.

If you're trying to capture a single, fast-moving object that's very close to its background, this kind of focus can be helpful, especially if the camera-to-subject distance is changing continuously. A car race comes to mind as a perfect use for this mode.

But in a situation like my soccer game, it's dangerous to rely on continuous focusing since, just as you try to take the picture, it's likely that another player than your subject will dart into the focus zone and steal the camera's attention. Or if you aren't careful, the subject might leave the middle of the frame, and your camera will refocus on the more-distant background. If either of those things happen, your intended subject will suddenly go blurry.

The moral of the story? Know your camera's behavior and use the right mode at the right time. For a sporting event with a lot of people on the field, I'd prefer to lock in the focus before the shot, so that would mean not using this particular camera's action mode.

Turn on Your Virtual Motor Drive

Even if you minimize shutter lag, it can still be hard to catch the action when you're shooting a sporting event--or worse, a scene with kids and pets. That's why some digital cameras (particularly ones with notoriously long shutter lag) come with the digital equivalent of a high-speed motor drive. Switch to this mode--usually called "sequence" or "high-speed"--to catch a series of pictures at a rate of about two or three frames per second. Get ready, press the shutter down, and hold it there--then keep tracking the action as the camera takes and stores a slew of pictures. The theory is that lag may prevent you from getting that one perfect shot, but you can probably get one or two good shots in a high-speed sequence.

Freeze the Action

When I showed the soccer pictures to my buddy (the proud dad of the little girl I was there to photograph), he asked me a really good question: What shutter speed is fast enough to stop action?

Here's a rule of thumb: To get sharp pictures without a tripod, use a shutter speed that's "one over" the 35mm-equivalent focal length. What does that mean? Suppose your 3X optical zoom is equivalent to about 200mm (check your camera specs to find out). The slowest speed you should use when zoomed all the way is about 1/250 second. Is there action in the scene? Double that number.

That recommendation is just a bare minimum; you'll want to go with the fastest speed your camera allows. Usually, action photographers like to use 1/1000 second or faster. But don't dial in the speed with your digital camera's manual mode; it's too hard to simultaneously adjust the aperture to get a good exposure. Instead, use either action mode or shutter priority.

Panning for Motion

What if your shutter speed is too low to freeze the action? Then fall back on my favorite time-tested technique for conveying the impression of motion in a photo: panning.

Imagine you're taking a picture of a race car that's speeding past you. Instead of freezing it in a moment of time, set the shutter speed a bit slower (say, 1/60 second) and track the moving vehicle in the viewfinder. Keep it centered in the viewfinder, and as it passes right in front of you, take the picture. Be careful to follow through, as you would if you were trying to toss a football to a crossing receiver: Continue to track the car even after the shot is complete. With a little practice, you can get a razor-sharp subject with a cool, motion-blurred background.

Next week, I'll wrap up our discussion of action photos with a technique for "painting" motion into photos on your PC.

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