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Getting in on the Action
The Lowdown on Motion Pictures

Reprinted from Escape Magazine

By Nevada Wier


Colorado River Rafter

After seven years on the waiting list, I finally got a private permit to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. With 11 friends, I spent 18 days rafting one of the greatest rivers in the world. We got tossed, dunked and hurled from one side of the river to the other. Later, my friend Sally complained that she didn't get any of the action on film. "My photos look like I was in flat water," she moaned, "even Crystal Rapid!"

Not being able to translate the drama of motion into a two dimensional image is a common lament. It's tough to get a photo to jump out of the one-dimensional realm and convey the excitement and activity of the experience. But that doesn't mean you have to settle for static, straight-on shots. With a few basic techniques you can animate your photos and pack them with action.

Good motion pictures start with composition. To get movement into the photo, you need to fill the frame with action. Come in close to your subject or use a longer focal length lens. On the Colorado, I either crouched low in the bow of the boat facing the paddler, using my Nikon N80085 with a 24mm lens, or I shot from the boat or the shore using a Nikon N90 with an 80 to 200mm or 300mm lens. If you don't have a telephoto lens it may be possible to stand at the edge of the river, or perhaps right on top of a boulder, and get close enough to the action with a 50mm lens. But only if the raft is coming right by you on the shore. No amount of wishing will turn your wide-angle into a telephoto lens.

For sharp photographs, you need a shutter speed fast enough to avoid out-of focus images from camera motion. A good rule of thumb is to note the focal length of your lens and use that as the minimum hand held shutter speed. Double it if you're using a 180mm lens or above. When I'm using my 80 to 200mm to catch movement, I try to use a 1/500 second shutter speed. However, if I hold my breath and cradle my camera and lens I can manage a 1/250 second without blurring.

To freeze action, you need a high enough shutter speed to stop movement and camera motion. If you are moving on a horse, in a car, on a raft you have to compensate for camera motion and use an even higher shutter speed, such as 1/500 second to 1/1000 second.

One technique used to capture activity is follow focus, which constantly readjusts focus as a subject moves toward you. But even the pros have a tough time with that. Some of the newer cameras, though, provide follow focus electronically (called continuous servo mode on Nikon cameras, al servo on the Canon EOS 1 camera). Combined with automatic film advance, this lets you stop worrying about focusing and direct all your attention to what's in the viewfinder.

Cyclist, Hanoi

Manual focusing takes a shortcut to follow focus. You can pre-focus on a spot where you know the subject will be and shoot the moment he arrives. Since cameras often have a microsecond delay after you fire the shutter, press the shutter a microsecond early, or you can use a highspeed motor drive and blast away. Another approach is to follow the subject with your lens while you are continually focusing and, perhaps, zooming your lens. The advantage is that you can take a succession of shots. You can practice this technique while sitting on a road with a telephoto lens, trying to keep the oncoming cars in focus. With time you will be able to follow the focus from infinity until the car fills the frame.

If you use a wide angle, you need to be very close to the action. That can get the adrenalin pumping as the skier or bicyclist in your lens bears down on top of you. You have to be quick on the trigger and on your feet with a wide angle. The subject will be in and out of your framing so fast you'll barely have time to shoot, let alone focus.

One of the most effective ways to create motion is by blurring the background with panning. This works particularly well with bike shots, where cyclists often look like statues. To pan a subject, set your camera at a slow shutter speed and move the whole camera along with your subject, and at the same speed to slightly freeze your subject while the background blurs in streams of colors.

There are no fast rules for panning. You can be as creative as you like. Just relax and move freely as you swing with the pan. Follow the subject with your camera to your eye, shoot at the middle of the pan and continue the movement. It's similar to swinging a baseball bat hitting the ball at the middle of the swing and following through. If you have an automatic film advance, set it to continuous high or continuous low so you can shoot a succession of shots.

A tripod can be very useful for panning. It works in low light situations, so you can experiment with a slow shutter speed. That allows both the background and a person to be in focus while the subjects are moving. If the light is low, or you want to add an extra pop, you can also stop action while panning with a bit of fill flash.

Adventurous travel is a world on the move. With good action photos you can capture that excitement. And bring the action home with you.

© 1996 Nevada Wier and Escape Magazine