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At first glance it may not seem like photographing sports and photographing wildlife have anything in common. One takes place out in the wild and the other usually takes place in a town or a city. But there is an important similarity: with both types of photography you can't control the action. You're relegated to the sidelines where you wait for the action to happen, and when it does, you've got to be ready to capture it; you may not get a second chance.
In every active situation there is a moment called peak action. It's the one photograph from a series that can stand alone, that tells the story. It may be the longjumper at the top of our arc, or your daughter as she kicks the winning goal, or a bear just missing a salmon, or the driver flying out of the hydroplane. Let's take a closer look at peak action. I spent a wonderful day at Oso Ranch photographing Sue jumping on horse.
Before I even took a shot, I asked Sue what I should look for in this peak action photo. Then I watched her jump a couple times, paying close attention to how the horse approached the jump and Sue's posture. The point of my research was to help me know a bit more about the activity, so I could anticipate the action. Now the best tip I can give you when shooting peak action is to take a lot of photographs. It increases your chances of getting everything right. To show you what I mean, here's my entire take from the horse jumping assignment: a total of 54 images.
My exposure was at 1/2000th of a second to make sure I stopped the action. My aperture was f/4.5. Using my Depth of Field preview button, I knew that the jump would be in focus. I put my camera shutter in Burst mode so I could shoot continuously, and I set my camera's Auto-focus feature to Continuous mode so that the lens would constantly keep the subject in focus. On Canon cameras this feature is called AI Servo; on Nikons it's called Continuous focus.
As soon as the horse began its approach, I pressed the shutter button and held it down to shoot a burst of photos. Let's check them out. No, no--Oh! Here it is: of this series this image is the peak action shot. The horse's legs are up and it's jumping over the rail. It's okay, but based on what I learned from Sue, this is not great form. I want the horse's front legs to be raised a little bit more. I missed it by only a split second.
That can be a problem in Burst mode: the best peak action sometimes happens between shots. This time I waited to start continuous shooting. I figured that my instincts would do a better job. I kept the same settings as before except that I pre-focused on the rail. Now I still used auto-focus, but this gave the camera a starting point close to the action. This is helpful because not all cameras and lenses are the same when it comes to auto-focus speed or burst speed.
By holding the shutter button down part way it makes a camera's job of focusing a little bit faster. Burst speed is affected by your camera, your Flash card's write speed, the buffer, and the size of the capture. Here we go. The first one is definitely the best peak action. I was able to anticipate the moment and catch it. In this situation I know exactly where the action was going to happen, but what about shooting wildlife or sports like football or soccer.
You've really got to do the research so you can anticipate the action and then be in position when it happens. Before I shoot wildlife, I learn about the animal behavior. For example, where do bears fish for salmon? With sports, too, knowing the behavior of the athletes is important, but also study the rules so you'll be able to anticipate the plays of the game. You get the idea. The more you understand the action, the better chance you have of capturing the peak action.
Here are some general tips to remember when you're going for peak action. Set your shutter speed to 1/500th of a second or faster. If you're shooting in dim light, increase your ISO to allow for the fast shutter speeds. Follow the action with your auto-focus set to continuous. Shoot a little bit looser than you normally would to allow for the animal or athlete's movement. Shoot in high speed burst mode. You'll shoot a lot of images, but what the heck. As photographers used to say film is cheap, opportunity is expensive.
And keep your head in your game. Don't be distracted by who is winning or losing. So next time your kid's playing a soccer match, head out and get some practice in. If you can get great shots from the unpredictable action of a junior soccer game, you can shoot just about anything.
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