Tuesday, October 10, 2017


I’ve been doing action photography for 40 years. Most of that was in the film era with everything in manual mode; most significantly our lenses were all manual focus! Many technical capabilities have changed, to our advantage, since we went digital.

— Shutter Speed:  Our old 35mm cameras were limited to 1/1000 of a second; today 1//8000 sec., is common.

— ISO Choices:  Our film limited us to 400-500 ASA—pushing to 1000 ASA had to be done at special labs; today the sky is becoming the limit.

— Manual Focus Lenses:  That’s all we had; today our auto focus lenses are superb giving us an amazingly high yield rate.

One of the most important things I learned, that has not changed, is to carefully plan my action images. Part of that planning is knowing what your action subject is going to do.  If I know where it’s coming from and where it’s going then I can place my camera in a great place to capture it in the proper place, compositionally, within the frame.

In this first example….

f6.3 @ 1/2000 sec., ISO 640
I wanted to catch this BMX Stunter with my camera in a vertical orientation and show the stand and street lamp (to indicate his altitude), as well as the horizon line of hills in the background. I did not pan my camera with his action, like I usually do; for this image I held dead-on to the compositional framing you see here and snapped the shutter as he flashed through the frame. This wasn’t really that difficult because his forward progress has slowed because he’s doing a 360 degree loop and I caught him at his peak altitude; he’s at 180° here and when he completes his rotation, wheels down, he’ll exit at frame left.

In this next image….

 f6.3 @ 1/2000 sec., ISO 500
For this image, since I just wanted to isolate him against the sky, I follow panned his run up the ramp, from camera right to left, and as he went airborne I froze his action at its peak with my fast shutter speed.

A Style Note on Shutter Speeds

My style or philosophy on capturing action is generally:

— For relatively slow moving subjects (like these bicycles or rodeo photography) I use Very Fast Shutter Speeds.

— For very fast moving subjects (like race cars and motorcycles) I use Slow Shutter Speeds.

Sounds counter-intuitive does it?

Well I found many, many, years ago that slow moving action subjects often look more interesting when frozen at peak action.  Whereas very fast moving subjects like race cars or motorcycles, on a road course, look very boring when frozen in place; it turns the race track into a parking lot!

Here is how I portray great speed….
f16.0 @1/15 sec., ISO 400
This fast action pan is pretty radical with my shutter speed at 1/15th of a second. You can see its effect on the front bike as we have some “jiggle-blur” because that bike hit some bumps on the track.  However, the effect of panning on the track and background is great and the isolation of the racers, as a result, leads your eyes to them.

The key to pulling-off good pans is to follow the action smoothly and to follow-through. You’ll get a better yield with high speed action pans if your shutter speed is a little faster—say 1/30th or 1/60th of a second.

How about a fast moving stationary subject?
f11.0 @1/30th sec., ISO 400
This image at the Western Idaho State Fair of an antique steam engine driving belted pulleys to a pump is a fast mover and yet is just sitting there! So, I used a slow shutter speed to make the large flywheels mostly clear to reveal the crank, rods, and belts working between the wheels. Then in post I did some tone mapping and converted the image to Black and White.

Now in this final image the dragster is not going super fast, but it’s not slow either….
f11 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 400
This image of the legendary Chi-Town Hustler, funny car, at the Fremont Drag-strip was done at a medium shutter speed because when a dragster is doing a long burn out, like the Chi-Town Hustler was famous for, it’s not moving at race speeds because it’s literally spinning its tires!  My goal was to freeze all that nice back lit smoke with the funny car at the head of its’ rocket like contrail.

Technical Note:
The first two images, of the BMX stunter in the air, were done with the auto focus, on my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, in the AI Servo AF Mode. This mode is for moving subjects when the subject’s distance keeps changing. As you hold down the shutter release halfway the subject will be focused continuously.  The AI Servo AF Mode is simply fabulous! I wish I had this technology 40 years ago; my yield doing action photography would have been dramatically higher.

So, any of you out there reading this, try some radical, slow shutter speed, pans of a fast mover and show me your results,  Have some fun!

’Til next week….Don’t hesitate to ask question….

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

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