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.|
| Rachel Atherton, in this 1/50th pan blur Rachel and most of her bike is fairly solid, background blurred. It looks fast.|
| 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.
| 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
CompositionHorizontal 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.
| 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.
| 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 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.
| 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...
| 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...|
| ...and Willow with a great suffer face.|