Taking Action Photos

  • Dave Johnson (PC World (US online))
  • 26 October, 2004 17:22

Everybody likes motion--even our vocabulary makes that clear. We love "movers and shakers," for instance. We describe fun friends as having "animated personalities;" the good stuff is always "up and coming." Slowpokes, like sloths and snails, have a somewhat less glowing reputation. So if motion is such a good thing, perhaps we should put a little into our photographs.

There are any number of ways to infuse your pictures with activity. In this Here's How, we'll talk about how to capture motion with your digital camera, and even how to infuse some faux motion into a picture on your PC.

Prefocusing Is Essential

If digital cameras have one characteristic that's disappointing to folks coming from film, it's the fact that they have a short delay--sometimes called a "lag"--between when you press the shutter release and when the picture is taken. People complain to me about this all the time, and unfortunately there's not a lot you can do to eliminate it entirely. But there are a few things you can do to minimize it.

It helps to know what causes shutter lag to begin with. When you press the shutter release, your camera has to do a lot of things, like focus, measure and set the exposure, adjust the white balance, and a handful of other less-interesting housecleaning tasks. You can shorten the delay by doing some of those things in advance. For example, if you can, take your digital camera out of auto-white balance mode and use an appropriate preset for the lighting you're in.

Most importantly, when you sense a picture opportunity coming up, you should press the shutter down halfway to lock in the focus, then wait for the right moment to take the shot. Then press the shutter the rest of the way to catch the action with a much shorter delay. A side note: Are you shopping for a new digital camera? Try it out to see exactly how good (or bad) the shutter lag is. In my opinion, shutter lag is one of the most important specs, but it's rarely mentioned on the box. Try taking some pictures in the store to see whether the lag is short, like a tenth of a second, or long, like a half second or more.

Dial "A" for Action

Now that you know how to reduce shutter lag, it helps to know what camera mode is right to capture the action. Sometimes it's obvious: If your camera has a mode called action or sports, that's probably a good choice. Cameras usually indicate action mode with a descriptive icon, such as a running figure. This mode configures your camera to use the fastest available shutter speed, which accomplishes two things: a fast shutter stops action better than a slow shutter (which might allow the subject to blur) and it tends to make the depth of field short, which means the background will be out of focus so the subject comes to the fore.

Action mode isn't always the best choice, though. And depending upon the camera, it may not even be available. Shutter priority mode is a slightly more advanced alternative. When you switch to shutter priority, you dial in the shutter speed while the camera automatically picks the aperture setting to give you the right exposure.

Since you'll often be taking one-chance shots that can't be repeated, however, you need to be careful when using this mode. Some digital cameras will not let you choose a shutter speed that will under- or overexpose the scene--but many others will allow it, displaying a subtle warning in the viewfinder. If you pick a shutter speed that will create a bad exposure, usually the shutter speed or the aperture value will flash, telling you that something is wrong.

To get a good exposure, you need to find out how your camera works and keep an eye on the display. Want to test your camera? Set it on shutter priority and try to take a picture indoors. You should have no trouble setting a slow shutter speed like 1/2 second. Slowly change the shutter speed to 1/15, 1/30, and faster, keeping an eye on the display. When the numbers start to flash, you've gone too far and need to back off to a slower speed. Here's a handy tip: Since you'll need to shoot action with a very high shutter speed, the tendency when using shutter priority mode is to underexpose the picture. The good news is that you can safely underexpose most digital pictures a little bit without noticeably degrading image quality.

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Master the Focus Controls

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.

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. Although 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.

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.

Paint Your Pictures With Motion

From the top of Seattle's Space Needle, you can see for miles. On a clear day, the view is simply breathtaking.

Last month, I found myself on the top of Seattle's famous landmark not just on a clear day, but on a day that the Blue Angels air demonstration team was performing. As the aircraft made wide turns right in front of the Needle, I took dozens of pictures.

But afterwards, I was dissatisfied with the photos. The problem was that by using a high shutter speed, I'd lost any sense of motion. I'd stopped the action so thoroughly that even the propeller blades hung frozen in the air. As a result, the pictures lacked soul.

Adding a Layer

Save one of my airplane pictures to your hard drive and then load it into your favorite image editing program; I'll demonstrate using Jasc Paint Shop Pro.

We'll be using the Motion Blur effect to paint in some motion. But before we get to that, we need to start by adding another layer to the picture. Choose Layers, Duplicate from the menu. You should now have two layers in the Layer Palette called "Background" and "Copy of Background." If you don't have the Layer Palette on screen, you can toggle it on by choosing View, Palettes, Layers. Make sure that the top layer--Copy of Background--is selected by clicking on it in the Layer Palette. When it's selected, anything we do to the picture will happen to the top layer, and the bottom layer will remain exactly as it was when we started this project.

Paint in the Motion

Adding some motion blur is as easy as choosing Adjust, Blur, Motion Blur from the menu. In the Motion Blur dialog box, you can set two important options: the angle of the blur and strength of the effect. Set the strength to be around 50 percent. Then adjust the angle of the blur: As you click the up adjustment arrow and the degree value increases, you'll see the hand on the dial to the left sweep clockwise until it's roughly in line with the plane's fuselage and pointing toward the rear of the plane.

Fine-Tune the Blur

We've added blur--but unfortunately, it just looks, well, blurry. It's as if someone bumped into me right as I took the picture. Let's use the Eraser to fine tune the blur.

Click the Erase Tool, which lives in the eleventh cubby from the top (seventh from the bottom) of the Tool Palette on the left side of the screen. It shares this space with the Background Eraser, so make sure you select the right tool. The Erase Tool does just what it sounds like: It removes pixels from the picture. But since we have the original image in the layer underneath, what the Erase Tool will do is let us combine blurry and non-blurry sections of the picture by revealing pixels from underneath.

There are two important Erase Tool options we need to set: the Size and the Opacity, both available in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. (You can toggle the Tool Options palette on by choosing View, Palettes, Tool Options) Let's start painting with a brush size of 25 pixels and set the opacity to 100.

Use the Erase Tool to sharpen the leading edges of the plane--the nose, the wings, and the tail section--and sharpen the inner sections of the body as well, leaving just the trailing edges blurred. Be sure not to sharpen the propellers, though, which we'll want to leave blurred. Your image should look something like mine.

There are very rough transitions between the sharp and blurry parts of the picture; we need to smooth those transitions a bit. Set your brush's opacity to about 40 and paint a little more in the midsection, gently transitioning the plane from front to back wherever you see an abrupt change in sharpness. If you make a mistake, remember that you can always choose Undo from the edit menu to fix the most recent brush stroke. This is where this technique becomes an art form; you can spend a lot of time shaping the blur with varying levels of opacity. I completed my final image in just a few minutes with two opacity levels.