Some photographs have such an impact that they have become part of our collective psyches: Lee Harvey Oswald, his face contorted in agony as he's shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby; Marines raising an American flag on Iwo Jima in the Pacific during World War II; the mighty airship Hindenburg going down in flames in a New Jersey airfield. While the stories of these happenings are powerful on their own, the impact just wouldn't be the same without the work of the action photographer.
No one would argue that there would be few great photographs without great photographers. While luck does play a role, a photographer must have an eye -- the ability to know what would make a good shot and the skill to use her resources to get it. Timing is also important. A good photographer must have not just the ability to capture the moment, but the foresight to anticipate it. Knowing to click the shutter just a tiny fraction of a second before the action happens is essential.
But all the talent, luck and knowledge in the world won't get the shot if the photographer's equipment isn't up to scratch. A point-and-shoot, disposable cell phone camera will work just fine to take a few shots of you and your friends. But it won't be sufficient to capture your nephew's game-winning slide into home plate or your Labrador's dive into the lake from the dock.
To capture action, you need special equipment, and the shelves at the camera store can be bewildering. But don't worry -- all you really needed is a good adjustable camera, a telephoto lens and a flash unit. You don't have to spend a fortune, and today's digital technology makes calculating focal lengths and f-stops a thing of the past. Keep reading, and we'll explore what it takes to get you shooting like a pro.
Action Photography Cameras
There are two types of cameras -- point-and-shoot and single-lens reflex (SLR) -- but for the purposes of action photography, SLR is probably what you want. While both types of cameras can take good action photos under the proper circumstances, you can customize the settings on an SLR and take control of the shooting situation instead of worrying about lighting and distance.
A point-and-shoot camera has one big advantage over an SLR -- it's less expensive. It's also lightweight and easy to use, making it good for a young or inexperienced photographer. Most point-and-shoot cameras use automatic settings for flash, focusing and shutter speeds, although some more sophisticated models have a manual mode, allowing you to change the settings. But you can't adjust them a great deal -- in most cases, the lens is fixed. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a zoom feature, but it won't be enough to focus on that tackle at midfield. The biggest difference between a point-and-shoot camera and an SLR, however, is the point of view. The image the photographer sees in the viewfinder on a point-and-shoot camera isn't the exact image registered on the digital image sensor or film. The viewing screen on a point-and-shoot camera does show what the camera is seeing, though. An SLR camera ends up with an advantage, because the image you see through the viewfinder is what the camera is actually recording.
So for the most part, if it's action photography you're interested in, you're probably going to want an SLR or DSLR, the latter of which which stands for digital single-lens reflex. Larger pixels in most DSLR cameras translate to better image quality, even when compared to point-and-shoot cameras that boast more megapixels. While point-and-shoot cameras do have manual controls, these manual controls are easier to access and change on DSLRs and offer more options.
DSLRs, while more expensive to begin with, are probably a better buy, since they hold their value longer [source: Rowse]. Manufacturers produce new updated models of point-and-shoot cameras often, but DSLRs tend to be more stable. While lenses are a considerable expense for DSLRs, you can use them on other cameras of the same brand if you decide to upgrade. Also, good quality DSLR cameras come at all levels on the pricing scale. If your budget allows for a medium-priced lens and a more expensive camera or a more expensive lens and a medium-priced camera, choose the expensive lens. You'll be fine with a cheaper camera, but that may not be the case with a cheaper lens, especially if it's action you crave.
Now that we've covered the types of cameras, we'll take a look at the piece of equipment that puts the action photography picture in focus -- the lens.
Action Photography Lenses
In order to recreate the image you see when you look through the viewfinder, a camera lens directs light through curved pieces of glass to the digital sensor or the film in the camera. Lenses are composed of several elements that attempt to relay the light rays to the sensor as accurately as possible. The lens also uses those elements to focus on the subject and give you a sharp image.
For action photography, you'll need a zoom lens. This enables you to change your focal length -- the ability to focus on an object -- in an instant. This is important in action photography, where the subjects don't stand around and pose as if they were in a portrait studio.
There are two types of lenses: wide angle and telephoto. For action photography, you'll need to stick with the telephoto lens. Its longer focal length can focus on objects that are far away and allows you to situate yourself some distance from your subject and still get a nice shot.
When purchasing a lens for action photography, you should understand the aperture range of the lens and how this will affect your image. Aperture range refers to the amount how wide the aperture can close or open up to let in light. A specific number, known as an f-stop, describes how wide the aperture is at any given moment. It may seem confusing, but the smaller the number, the larger the opening. An f-stop of f/1.4, for instance, will have a wider opening than an f-stop of f/22. The more light you let in, the faster the camera's shutter speed can be (and vice versa). Fast shutter speeds are crucial when shooting action. Users of DSLR cameras will find that lenses that let in more light provide brighter images on the viewfinder, which is helpful if you're shooting in low light.
Your need for a telephoto lens also means that you'll need a camera with optical zoom rather than digital zoom. Optical zoom physically extends the lens to get closer to and magnify the subject. Digital zoom simply crops the photo inside the camera and enlarges it. The enlargement process creates additional pixels in the image, a process called interpolation. In order to enlarge the image, the camera is imagining pixels based on the pixels that are actually in the photograph, but these imagined pixels often aren't accurate and tend to distort the image. Focal length and aperture specifications are listed on the lens box.
Now that you know how a lens harnesses the light to create an image, keep reading to find out how flashes help create light in action photography situations.
Action Photography Flashes
We've come a long way from the bang and puff of smoke you might see photographers using in silent movies. Instead, modern flash units use battery power to create electricity. This electricity produces a brief surge of light from a glass cylinder, which is filled with xenon gas.
In order to get action photographs that rival those of the pros, you're going to have to bite the bullet and spring for an electronic flash unit. The built-in flash on your camera won't provide the burst you need to capture images in motion. If you rely on it, you'll need to limit your shooting to outdoor events on sunny days or bump up the ISO setting on your camera. ISO is a numbering system, named after the International Standards Organization, that determines how "fast" or "slow" camera film is. Films with lower ISO numbers are slow, or less sensitive to light; films with high ISO numbers are fast, or more sensitive to light. A higher ISO setting, therefore, will allow more light to expose onto your film. Remember, however, if the ISO goes over 800, it'll probably produce a grainy image.
Nowadays you don't have to be a professional photographer to get a good flash photo. Sophisticated cameras and flash systems calculate all of the information to take a properly lit photo at an aperture within the flash's ability. If you're old-fashioned, you can calculate the distance that an electronic flash unit will let you shoot. Simply divide the flash unit's guide number for the ISO you plan to use by the maximum aperture of the lens [source: Shutterbug]. You can always increase the ISO number to give you a little more distance, or you can use a faster lens.
Professional action photographers enjoy experimenting with different combinations of flash and shutter speeds to get interesting effects. Slow-speed sync, high-speed sync and rear-speed sync are all potential techniques, depending on the desired image. More expensive flash units include a strobe feature, which allows the photographer to capture several points of motion at once. Flashes controlled by radio waves from the camera allow for synchronicity without any physical connection.
For longer-range action photography, you can purchase a tube that focuses the light from the flash. The angle of the view is narrowed, but the light is amplified, greatly increasing the distance you can be from your subject.
Remote Camera Triggers
Gone are the days when it seemed like you had to be a math major to do all the calculating it took to produce an acceptable image. Digital technology does so much that even the pros are inclined to just set it and forget it. Remote triggers take this hands-off approach a step further by allowing you to press the shutter button while you're away from the camera -- or maybe even in the shot yourself. You can also set up series of flashes remotely, using each other to set off a chain of flashes that can light a photo creatively and in ways that wouldn't be possible using just one flash.
Wired triggers use wires to close an electrical shutter switch or fire the flash. Wireless camera and flash triggers use radio waves to set off flash units and cameras located in different areas. Creating homemade triggers is a common hobby for photographers, and instructions abound on the Internet for making remote triggers out of old cell phones, walkie-talkies and even doorbells.
While one of the main uses of remote triggers is in long exposures, such as those occuring in astrophotography, there are certainly other ways action photographers can make use of a remote trigger. A remote trigger allows photographers to get shots from locations that aren't accessible in real time. Using clamps, photographers can attach cameras to specific locations and then trigger the camera when the subject moves near the frame. Action photographers use remote relay flashes and cameras at races, for example, to follow the action around the track. Nature photographers also love remote cameras for capturing animals in unguarded moments. A camera rigged to a backyard birdfeeder can collect fascinating shots.
For lots more information on photography and photography equipment, see the links on the next page.
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- Anchell, Steve. "Wireless Radio Remote Triggers." Shutterbug. November 2007. (Dec. 3, 2009) http://www.steveanchell.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=14:capture-film-and-digital&id=108:wireless-radio-remote-triggers
- Cambridge in Colour. "Understanding Camera Lenses." (Dec. 5, 2009)http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-lenses.htm
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- Miracle, Rob. "Sports Photography." Photo.net. January 2007. (Dec. 3, 2009)http://photo.net/learn/sports/overview
- Photography Pros. "Tips for Buying Camera Equipment." (Dec. 3, 2009)http://www.photographypros.com/infozone/buyingtips.php
- Shaw, John. "Photo Gear." John Shaw Photography. (Dec. 3, 2009) http://www.johnshawphoto.com/equipment.html
- Shutterbug. "Sports Tips." (Dec. 3, 2009) http://www.shutterbug.net/refreshercourse/sports_tips/192/index3.html