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Photography » Prefocusing for cameras with shutter lag

Prefocusing to where you think the action is headed is most effective with cameras that respond quickly to the shutter button being pressed. You can focus on the group in front of the net and then wait for the action to start. If your camera suffers from pronounced shutter lag, taking a long time to make a photo after you press the shutter button, then a different technique is in order. Instead of following the ball from the corner to the group in front of the net, your best bet is to keep your camera focused on the group and to keep your autofocus on by holding the shutter down halfway. By focusing on them the entire time, the camera is ready to fire as soon as you press the shutter button. When I use this technique, I try to keep my left eye open so I can see the beginning of the kick. Then I start shooting once I know the ball is in the air. With a fast motor drive, I can usually get off two to three shots during the entire sequence of events. Another key to making good sports photographs is realizing that a stationary camera and a moving athlete don’t combine for the best images. Instead, you should follow the athlete in the viewfinder as she travels so the camera moves in concert with the motion—a technique known as panning. Then, when the time comes to trip the shutter, you’ll be in sync with the action. You can also use panning, when light levels are too low to permit fast shutter speeds. By following the motion of the athlete, you increase the likelihood of keeping her in focus even though your shutter speed may not be fast enough otherwise. Panning can also help you produce an interesting photo. When you pan at a slow shutter speed, you throw the background out of focus because of motion blur. This creates a sense of speed and motion that the frozen image lacks. It’s a nice alternative technique when you want to create a different sort of image.

Keep in mind, you’ll have a higher percentage of wasted shots with this technique. If you want to try panning (and I hope you do), plan on lots of experimentation and repetition. If I need to get a panning shot as a planned photograph, I plan to take at least eight or ten sequences of shots using this technique to improve my chances of getting one good image. If enough opportunities exist, I shoot even more. Fast motion calls for fast shutter speeds. Although the speed varies from sport to sport, shutter speeds of 1/250th of a second or faster are the bare minimum needed for stopping action. Keep in mind that this is the recommended minimum speed for human motion sports. If you’re shooting auto or motorcycle racing, much faster shutter speeds are mandatory. Furthermore, faster shutter speeds are also necessary for motor drives to function at their fastest. You can also freeze motion by using flash. The burst of light from an electronic flash unit lasts only about 1/10,000th of a second, so its brief duration stops the fastest motion. Be warned though, that if you combine electronic flash with a slow shutter speed, the combination produces an effect known as ghosting. This is where the shutter remains open long enough for the ambient illumination to register an image on the sensor. The result is a ghost trail with the main one your flash recorded. The other problem with using flash to freeze motion is that its range limits its effectiveness. Most sports action takes place farther away than your flash can reach. Don’t bother using your built-in flash for this kind of thing either, it really won’t have the range. Instead look for a powerful accessory flash. Many of these can pump light out to a distance of 100 feet or more provided you’re shooting with fast aperture lenses (f2.8 or better). Even an f4 lens combined with one of these flash units will give you some distance (perhaps 70 to 90 feet). It’s hard to discuss sports photography without at least mentioning equipment. You’ve probably seen the sideline shooters at major sporting events with their huge lenses and multiple cameras. It’s easy to look at such gear and think that you don’t have a chance with your point-and-shoot camera or entry-level DSLR and modest optics. The truth is you don’t. At least you don’t if you want to take my job from me. If all you want to do is get good photos of your kids playing sports, that’s a different story. Your gear is good enough if you know how to use it.

Unless your kid’s a top chess or backgammon player, odds are their sport puts them at a distance from your shooting position. Let’s face it, most sports take place on pretty large athletic fields. Even with big telephoto lenses, there are still lots of times when I’m just standing on the sidelines because the action is taking place too far away. Still, a good telephoto (and many digital point-and-shoot cameras these days have powerful telephoto capabilities) can improve your chances of making a shot. So can a second camera. Many pros carry more than one camera when they shoot an athletic event. For instance, if I’m on the sideline of a soccer or football game, I usually have one camera with a long lens on it (300mm or longer) and another with a modest zoom (28–70). This way I can follow more distant action with the telephoto yet still be able to grab the camera with the short zoom and bring it up to shoot a play coming toward my sideline. (Of course this is the moment when sane people start running away from the action.) If you have a second digital camera, try carrying it with you. Set its zoom for its widest setting and have it where you can grab it in a hurry. Plan on shooting from the hip. In other words, just pick it up and point it in the direction of the action without bothering to bring it to your eye and compose the photo. I suggest you try this multi-camera technique with something like soccer or field hockey—a sport in which the participants don’t try to tackle each other at the sidelines. When it comes to football, leave this approach to the pros. The risks of a player/photographer collision are much greater in this sport. Shooting from the hip takes a little practice, but can really increase your chances of making good photographs. Here’s how it’s done. As the athletes get bigger and bigger in your viewfinder, keep shooting until they’re too big to photograph. At this point, pull the camera away from your eye and look at the athletes while grabbing the camera with the short zoom. As you backpedal away from the potential collision, point the camera at the players and hold down the shutter button. Frequently, you end up with a lot of garbage this way, but often mixed in among the bad shots is a keeper or two.

A medium zoom is usually considered to be a range of focal lengths running anywhere from 24mm at the wide end to about 135mm at its longest telephoto. This is a handy optic for many indoor sports, such as cheerleading, basketball, volleyball, and wrestling. The biggest problem with such lenses is that most of the affordable ones (at least for DSLRs) are too expensive for the typical amateur user. More and more point-and-shoot digital cameras are offering this range of focal lengths at reasonably fast maximum apertures, but be sure to check what the maximum aperture is at the extreme end of the lens. Telephoto lengths usually have smaller maximum apertures than wide angle ones. Still, the action in these sports frequently takes place at a distance where an accessory flash can be effective, so that can compensate for smaller lens openings. Be careful though, some sports (such as volleyball) don’t permit the use of flash because it distracts the players. Medium range zooms are also handy second camera optics. Rack them out wide and shoot from the hip when action comes your way. They’re also good for shots of athletes on the sidelines and from behind the bench for pictures of coaches coaching. These lenses have limited use in sports photography, but when they are effective, they provide a much-needed different perspective on things. They’re useful for shooting from the hip and to frame certain sports, such as skateboarding. Wide-angle focal lengths are also useful for sports portraiture because their distortion and great depth of field can grab your attention with a very different sort of portrait. Add elements of the sport into the photo and you can create an interesting sort of image. One example is to photograph a baseball player by having him hold the bat as if in mid-swing. Position your camera so the end of the bat is right in front of the lens and make the photograph with the athlete looking up the barrel of the lens towards your camera.

The list of potential sports a professional photographer can end up covering is a long one. That list begins with adventure racing and makes its way through the alphabet up into the Ws with white water rafting and wrestling (sorry, I couldn’t think of any sports beginning with Y or Z). For the remainder of this article, I give you a rundown on techniques for photographing all the major sports and most of the minor ones. First, however, here is some general advice that will help no matter what sport you’re photographing:

Get as close to the action as you safely and reasonably can. Obviously, there are limitations, but often you can get fairly close to the action, particularly for junior high school (and younger) sports. This is good because it’s the junior high and under age groups that are the most in demand markets for sports photography picture sales these days. (And if you’re the parent of a middle school student you probably already understand firsthand why these pictures are so important to you.)

Shoot at the highest resolution possible. This way you can use the extra pixels to let you crop in tighter when your lens isn’t long enough to fill the frame.

Try to place yourself near likely action spots where the person you want to photograph is likely to be. I’ll give more specific information for each sport, but there are predictable patterns for just about every sport.

Never be satisfied with just a couple of good images. Keep plugging away. Pros with all their expensive gear rip through hundreds of photos in the course of a single event. If you’re really interested in making the best sports photos you can, study both the sport you’re following and the coverage of that sport. The more you look at published photos made by top sports photographers, the more you get a sense of what good sports photos look like. This can help you anticipate particular moments or situations that lead to these kinds of photos. Keep in mind that it’s not unusual for a working pro to be sent to photograph a sport he’s never even seen before. You still have to make useable photographs even though you have no experience to fall back on. This happened to me at the Philadelphia X Games, a couple of years ago, when I had to shoot the wakeboarding event. The key to effective photography under such circumstances is to see where to position yourself to catch the action and then get a feel for the timing of the event. One of the more interesting archery photos is also one of the more dangerous. Use a telephoto lens to photograph the archer head on. This is a posed shot, which should be very carefully coordinated. Even then, I like to be standing behind a tree when I try this one. Another good photo is from the side with the drawn bow framing the archer’s face. An even better shot is to zoom in tight and photograph the head from above the eyes down to slightly below the hand gripping the arrow. Try to be even or slightly forward of the archer (no more than a foot or so) for this photo. You can try a similar shot from nearly head on remembering the bit about being really, really careful.

One of the fastest sports in the world (based on the speed of the shuttlecock), badminton, is challenging to photograph because player movement is so unpredictable. Adding to the problem is the poor lighting found in most gyms. If your circumstances permit, set up a shot before competition. Get up on a ladder and shoot down on a player poised for an overhead slam. (Try to be fairly close so you can shoot almost straight down). Once competition starts, try to be as close to the floor as the game will allow. Use a medium focal length for wide shots of the court and a longer lens to isolate the players. If you have a fast telephoto, this is a good time to use it. Prefocus on the net and then back out another couple of feet. You can do this with an interchangeable DSLR lens, but maybe not with a point-and-shoot digital camera. If you’re using a point-and-shoot, prefocus on the net; that will at least get you close. If you’re interested in making a picture story, get some close-ups of the racket and shuttlecock. Also photograph spectator interest. Mix up horizontals and verticals.

When shooting in a gymnasium, you may not be able to use flash. So plan on ratcheting your camera’s ISO setting up to around 800 ISO or higher, if possible. Keep in mind that setting your camera to manual exposure mode and choosing an f-stop/shutter speed combo that’s a full stop below what the camera’s light meter recommends is effectively doubling your ISO setting. This means you can “force” your camera beyond its normal ISO capacity. Another way to force it beyond an ISO limit is to adjust your exposure compensation setting. Note, however, that you don’t gain any improvement in your image quality this way. In fact, you’re deliberately underexposing your images with this technique. What this does do is let you shoot at a fast enough shutter speed to make sharper underexposed photos. It’s possible to salvage a sharp, but underexposed photo in the digital darkroom, but it’s impossible to sharpen a blurred photo, so this approach at least gives you a chance to get a useable photo. It doesn’t work miracles and will reduce the final quality of your image, but it may also save an otherwise impossible situation.

Look for loops, switchbacks, or goosenecks in the course. This will enable you to photograph a specific athlete then cut across the gooseneck and be in position for the racer to pass you by again. Zooms rule for this kind of photography. A long zoom range will let you start shooting the racer coming toward you and keep shooting as the racer continues to move toward you. Vary your shots between tight compositions and slightly longer views to include some of the scenery in order to create a sense of place. The majority of your compositions should be vertical because the human form is a vertical one. If circumstances allow, plan on making some shots from above and some from a low angle. If you can photograph the start from above you can make a shot of a mass of heads and feet all moving in the same direction. Shooting from a low angle can make for a dramatic shot too, but be wary of the sun’s position or you might end up with a badly backlit photo.

Prefocusing for cameras with shutter lag