The Fundamentals of Action Photography

Jan 12, 2012
by Ian Hylands  
 
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Action in One Frame

Action by its very definition and name implies that something is going on, however still photos are still. So one of the biggest questions we need to ask is how can we express motion in a still photo? We somehow need to show that the movement is happening, and we need to tell the whole story of what is going on, the movement, the speed, the height, the trick, whatever the action may be. And we need to tell it in one tiny little slice of time, one frame.

Taking a photo of something that is moving isn’t really that difficult, but taking it in a way that makes it look like it’s still moving can be. Especially if we want to freeze our subject and have it look nice and sharp. To do that we need to:

1. Freeze our subject - Usually we try to freeze action for a crisp image.
2. Show Motion - how do we capture what is happening if it's frozen?
3. Tell the Story - how do we tell the whole story of the action in one frame?
4. Make it work - that's our ultimate goal, to have a photo that sells itself, not necessarily for money, but to the viewer.


Basics of Action

Freezing the Action or Showing the Motion.

The first thing that most people think of when they go to shoot action is trying to freeze the action. Everyone wants a nice crisp shot, without blurry edges etc. and by using a fast shutter speed, typically 1/1000 or faster, we can stop all but the fastest objects in their tracks. This does leave us with a few issues however. If we shoot a photo of a car driving down the street at 1/1000 chances are it will be frozen, and there won’t be any action in the shot. We can assume that it might be moving, but it could be parked, the photo doesn’t really show us what’s going on. The wheels on a bike are moving much quicker than the bike itself, so by choosing our shutter speed carefully we can blur one but not the other. By lowering our shutter speed a little we can still freeze the bike, but blur the wheels a bit. Or we can lower the shutter speed even more, say 1/30, and pan with our subject, blurring the background. This is something that takes practice but it's a good skill to have if you need it.

Benji frozen at 1/1250, he could almost be balancing there. Not much sensation of speed in this one.
  Benji frozen at 1/1250, he could almost be balancing there. Not much sensation of speed in this one.

Rachel Atherton, in this 1/50th pan blur Rachel and most of her bike is fairly solid, background blurred. It looks fast.
  Rachel Atherton, in this 1/50th pan blur Rachel and most of her bike is fairly solid, background blurred. It looks fast.

This info comes from the Description field in the IPTC info.
  Myself in a 1/30th POV blur shot. Parts of my bike are reasonably crisp as well as the background in the distance, but the road is just a blur...



Positions of Action vs Positions of Rest

Another way that we can imply motion in an image that is to compose the shot so that our nice crisp frozen subject is in a position of action. A good example is a runner, if they’re standing straight up and down with one leg up it doesn’t really look like they’re running. But if they’re leaned so far forwards that they’ll fall over, we know that there is something going on. And our brain tells us that they’re moving forwards, the more lean, the faster they look like they’re going. If a bike and rider are leaned over in a corner we assume that they're moving quickly, otherwise they would fall over. If they're straight up and down in the same corner it doesn’t look very fast. The same goes for objects in the air, if they’re in the air they're obviously moving, even if they’re just falling, and we can usually tell from their position which direction they’re moving in.

We need to try to capture that one slice of time where the position of the action implies what is happening in the image.

  Just a little bit of lean from Jessica into this corner, combined with the dust off her tires and bit of tire blur it creates a solid sense of motion.
  In this shot Matti is leaned over in the air, definitely a gravity defying position that says a lot about where and how fast he's going. It really helps to make the photo look fast.



What is the Story that we wish to tell?

We need to keep in mind the entire story that we want to tell. If someone is jumping a huge distance, and we shoot a very tight shot that only shows the subject against the sky, we can’t tell from the image what is going on. If we’re trying to show speed then completely freezing the action may not be the best idea. It’s often helpful to spend a few minutes thinking about the story we are trying to tell with our image before we release the shutter.

Jump Ship event in Victoria BC
  In this shot of Casey we can't really tell anything more than it looks like he might be doing a 360. The photo doesn't tell us where, or how big it is.

  This shot shows how big the jump is, we can see where he's coming from and where he's going to land.



Making it Work

Composition

Horizontal or Vertical? Does your image have a certain aspect that looks better? Does it need to be a certain orientation for a reason. When we’re shooting for a magazine cover or a single page ad we often need to shoot vertical, but if we’re shooting for a spread or the web we probably want to shoot horizontal. And sometimes how the subject fits in the frame dictates how best to shoot it.

Carter Holland Pipe Ride in 1997
  With these shots of Carter Holland I kept my options open by shooting both horizontal and vertical. I also left lots of negative space for text etc. The vertical shot was used as a cover for mtbRider in Germany, and the spread was used as a TOC spread.

Tight or Wide? Do we want to show the background, the landscape? Do we need to show certain elements? Or do we want to shoot really tight and capture the detail of an athlete without anything else to distract us. What do we want our focus in the shot to be? A lot of the time this can also be decided by the lenses we happen to have. Learn to work with what you have, but always consider different options.

Carter Holland Pipe Ride in 1997
  This is the same pipe same day. I pulled back a bit to show a lot more of the surroundings. The horizontal was used in Decline, and the vertical was never used.

How can we make it interesting? Which way is the action going in the photo? What makes us want to look at the image, what makes us remember it? There are many different considerations when taking a photo, most of them become automatic after a while. Things like compositional rules, but also considerations like whether the action is moving into or out of the frame. Photos should be interesting and capture your attention, and composition plays a huge role in how a photo makes us feel.

Compositional elements are important in creating the mood of an image, diagonal lines down to the right suggest fast motion, while diagonal lines up to the right suggest slower climbing, at least in the countries where we read left to right. Focus can play an important role by keeping our focus on the subject and getting rid of a busy background or foreground. Focus can also create shapes out of foreground and background objects, as can light and shadow and color. None of these things are specific to action, but knowing how they affect our action image is important, without them it's likely to just be a boring snapshot.

For more info on composition check out my composition tutorial.



Timing

Timing is key to achieving most good action shots. There is one split second where things look best, where the action is at it's peak, where the riders position is the best. Timing is something that can be practiced and learned, if you don't have it when you first start out keep trying. You need to understand ahead of time what moment you are trying to capture, and then feel the timing as much as see it. Remember that if you're looking through the camera and you see it happen you didn't get it.

360 table

no foot can
  Sometimes timing is a little bit subjective, in the first two shots of Carlo Dieckman doing a 360 table there are tiny differences, but in the second two shots of Carter Holland the shot on the right definitely has better timing. In the shot on the left his legs aren't fully extended.

  Even in an XC shot timing is key. These two shots were taken a split second apart and the one on the left is a keeper, the one on the right is garbage. It's all about body position...



Emotion and Exertion

These are things that are usually more noticeable in a tighter shot, but they can be important in any shot. The expression on the face of our subject can tell an entire story on it’s own. They can be focused, angry, happy, or incredibly intent, as well as a whole range of other things, and their expression can really help to show this. Are their muscles tight and exerting force, or are they relaxed? It’s hard to sell a photo of someone in the middle of a powerful movement if their muscles look relaxed and they have a peaceful expression or a huge smile on their face...

Canada s Catherine Pendrel races the Cross Country at Mountain Bike World Championships at Mt Saint Anne in Quebec.
  Catherine Pendrel and Willow Koerber battled it out for third place at World Champs last year, and there is no doubting the effort they put in when you look at their expressions. Catherine looking aggressive early on...
Willow Koerber races the XC at Mountain Bike World Championships at Mt Saint Anne in Quebec. Willow placed 3rd.
  ...and Willow with a great suffer face.


81 Comments

  • + 34
 Great tips Ian! Really useful for action photographers way more than geek tech infos that internet is full of. Thanks for sharing!
  • + 12
 best photo teaching article ive seen on here.
  • - 2
 i still think the photo off Rachel Atherton looks good, but i can understand not having a blurred background.
  • + 1
 sick shots, the captions remind of english lessons aha
[Reply]
  • + 21
 That's a great shot of Willows cleavage. You've left plenty to the imagination. I kid I kid. Nice tips. The illustrations were very informative for a novice photographer.
  • + 16
 Ohhh shes got a powerbalance bracelet on. Those things are unnecessary added weight Razz
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  • + 3
 Thanks for all the great comments everyone, we'll be doing a little more on the photography tips and techniques and probably even a few reviews etc in the next few months. And a few behind the scenes posts as well, just need to get a little more organized...
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  • + 3
 Great article... Finally someone writing about the important things in photography. If you don't have composition and timing, the best strobe work in the world isn't going to save your shot.
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  • + 2
 Ian. How do you get Rachel to be in focus and the background to be blurred like that. I tried this shot in 1/60th many times and never got this result. Do you have to have a steady hand and follow the subject??? are you using a tripod? When people go to world cup races and not using a flash of course, this is the shot that needs to be mastered and I cant seem to get it.
  • - 1
 Thats zoom blur. He is using a long telephoto or a zoom lens to get that effect.
  • + 0
 Really? I had no idea. I'm still not sure I understand. I guess I'll have to go out and buy one to realize. Thanks!
  • + 2
 Using a telephoto lens will help exaggerate motion when panning, but it's not always the way to go. You just need to make sure that you are panning at the correct speed and using a shutter speed slow enough to create excessive blur with the focal length you are using. With lenses longer than ~100mm, the shutter speed doesn't need to be super slow to create blur, but with wide-angle lenses it definitely has to be slow. When I do panning with a 9mm lens (18mm equiv.) I usually use a shutter speed around 1/10, but with a 200mm lens (400mm equiv.) I can use up to 1/100 as long as my subject is moving fast.
  • + 2
 He shot that pic at 78mm (Fullframe), which is quite a distance so you get noticable background blur as well. But you still have to move with the subject and use a relative slow shutter to get the proper effect of movement. The horizontal streaks are what you want, they show the direction the camera was moving in (following the rider)
Even then its still quite hard to get the photo right as you need to stay focused on one spot of the rider during the whole exposure. Other than that, it is as you described it. Slow shutter and move with the subject. If you put your camera on constant focus it will adjust continiously untill you actually shoot the pic.
See original here with all the camera settings www.pinkbike.com/photo/5572637
  • + 1
 It's a simple pan at 1/50th. It takes practice to be able to do it well. Simply put your focus point on the subject and keep it in the same place on them as they go by. You have to match your camera movement speed with that of the athlete. The longer the lens, the more pronounced the background blur will be, but the harder it will be to get the rider sharp due to other errant lens movement. This shot was taken the same way, yet notice it was at 300mm. A longer lens allows you to use a higher shutter speed, which will help remove any vertical movement in your subject as you pan, giving you a shaper rider with just as much BG blur. www.pinkbike.com/photo/6832889 Just practice, it will take time but you'll get it.
  • + 1
 Thanks Fraser, I will try it once all this snow clears... You remember me from way back when we were racing Quebec cup with fellows named Jerold and William Scrimgeour and Silvio something? I keep wondering if your the same Fraser...
  • + 1
 Well, hell of a way to make it in this world... Congrats on whats gotta be top 10 coolest jobs in the world. We were never good enough to make it in front of the lens so why the hell not behind.
  • + 1
 Hey Fraser, do you have Image Stabilization on or off to pull off those panning shots? (You had some great panning shots from Worlds!)
  • + 1
 With the 300mm, sometimes on in mode 2 (pan) as the lens wobble can be pretty bad with a 6.5lb lens on a 4lb body after a 6 hour day. I have T rex arms. I switch back and forth though as the gyro in that thing is huge and kills camera batteries pretty quickly. Shorter pans are harder to get right, so I'll turn it on then. Longer pans (when i can be further away and have wider, smoother lens movement) I'll leave it off. With any other lens, off. In fact, my 300mm F2.8 is the only lens I have with IS.

And thanks!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 You should do something on lighting with flash for sports photography, especially at racing events--not staged events. Often, races are held at high noon, what tips do you have for shooting with fill flash? Do many sports photographers take their flash off their cameras? What about shooting in the woods/spotty lighting areas during the day when you have no choice? It gives off horrible shadows and can be difficult to balance faster shutter speeds without f1.4 or f1.8 lenses. Even f2.8 lens can pose problems unless you're pan blurring.
  • + 1
 I believe he has already done a series on this? I think I also had a 3 part article run on it. Run a search! If you have no choice but to shoot during the day in the trees at noon with spotty light - fill flash is king. Make it look unobtrusive. Make it look natural. Try not to make it look like you were shooting at midnight with a flashlight. Remember the bigger your light source, the softer it will be.
  • + 2
 I did one on basic light, and I have two on flash set to go in the next month or two...
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Thanks everyone, absolutely pinned at the moment, I'll try to answer some questions in the next few days. Needed to get packed for a little trip to go shoot some GT bikes stuff...
  • + 1
 hmmm, The Athertons maybe, considering the recent press release and the upcoming season?
  • + 2
 Ian- if it is the Athertons could you try and get a willow style cleavage shot of Racheal? Just kidding, honest!
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  • + 4
 Great write up Ian! You never cease to impress.
  • + 1
 I agree- some incredible photos there... Can we get Sylvia, Anthill or someone else amazing to do a similar guide on filming? That would be well handy!
  • + 1
 Yes, this would be very cool. Looks like PB is going to have to expand their video production department Big Grin
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great bit Ian! You've got me digging for some old shots I took and love just to see if I captured any of the elements you mention. As well as wanting to get out apply them on some new shots.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Why isn't this under "Photo Tutorials" when you hit the "Photo" tab? It's one of the best I've seen and written by a PB staff member.
  • + 1
 Don't worry it will be...
[Reply]
  • + 1
 We should be able to fav articles the same as pics and vids because this is a keeper! Could just bookmark it I suppose but you get my point.
[Reply]
  • + 2
 I can't find previous article about photography :/ Could anyone link me to it? Thx Smile
  • + 1
 thanks for help Smile now my girlfriend might take some decent photos of me Wink
  • + 2
 They're all linked on the left side of the "Photo" main page
  • + 1
 Blind I am... Big Grin
[Reply]
  • + 1
 very interesting article, usually my visits to pinkbike are for the videos but this time i clicked on this before the Whistler dj edit
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Good Tips, handy to have shots to illuminate the differences in timing! would be really handy to have the shutter speeds but i suppose the picture details tell you that.
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  • + 1
 @Ian Hylands, I enjoyed your article. I'll start messing about with the shutter speed! Up until now, I've only played with shutter speeds in night landscapes. Thank you.
  • + 1
 You're welcome, and good luck!
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  • + 1
 Wow I thoroughly enjoyed that. Nice to actually see what goes through photographers heads vs just taking a lot of really good shots. Thanks!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Thank you for the tips. I'm slowly getting into action sports photography so any tips are much appreciated.
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  • + 1
 Great article. I'm just getting into photography and have just got my first dslr and this is really helpfull. Camera
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Really dig the perspective on that self portrait, any pic of how the camera was mounted??
  • + 1
 no pics, but it involved a custom bracket, a camera mount, and a cable...
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Very interesting atricle with a lot of helpful tips. That shows, equipment is not all, a lot of brain is also helpful :-)
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Really helpful, simple, essential, but if every photographer reminds those tips, we could see a lot of better pics!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Thanks Ian, that really sparked my interest in photography! I might just take up another hobby other than mountainbiking.
[Reply]
  • + 2
 What a brilliant article thank you so much Ian grate work
  • + 1
 You're welcome!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great work Ian. Thanks for putting in the time to write this
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great article Ian, many thanks for putting it together!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I will put this into practice, thanks for the tips
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I wish you could up-prop articles...


awesome write-up tup
[Reply]
  • + 1
 sweet write-up- very informative
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great post! It's all about the details, little details...
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Need to try some of that.
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Did you snap picture three on a skateboard???
  • + 1
 Probably done with an arm attached to his seat stay.
  • + 2
 yes, arm mounted on the seat stay with a custom bracket and a safety cable so the camera can't hit the ground. Well, unless I crash or something, then nothing will save it...
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  • + 1
 Can't wait to get out and start getting some photos!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great article ,well presented.
[Reply]
  • + 2
 great article Ian!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great tips I'm defiantly going to try and use !
[Reply]
  • + 2
 Great stuff Ian!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Thanks! That helps a whole lot!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Thanks Ian! It really help me on out shutter speed settings!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great tips! Thanks Ian!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Thanks for the tips!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Excellent article!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great post, IanH! :-)
[Reply]
  • + 0
 ooohh!
Another Awesome XC shots on the HomePage!
^_^
[Reply]
  • + 1
 Great article. Thanks!
[Reply]

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