10 Tips – Putting Action into your Stills
This is a very common and understandable question that I receive. I was asked it a lot this week as many are heading out to airshows. So I thought I’d cap the most common ways I like to put action in my stills. Realizing most learn best from watching rather than reading, you can head to my Kelby Class on Aviation Photography for more in depth explanations. But just because you see planes here, these techniques apply to ALL moving subjects! Start with understanding that shooting unrestricted is essential! My airshow set up this year is the lightest ever consisting of the D4, 80-400AFS and 18-35AFS and that’s all. I love it being so light as that permits me to easily carry it all in my slingbag along with iPad (to show previous images to pilots) and business cards (to give pilots). The less you carry, the more mobile you are, the more mobile and limber you are, the sharper the photos and better composed they are (here is a complete listing of the gear that’s with me, most in the vehicle just in case). With that in mind, here are some tips that you can apply to any action photography and in particular airshows.
Put yourself in relationship to the action in a position where it performs around you. At airshows, aircraft often make a “photo” pass which is often done in what’s called a “banana pass.” If you can picture a banana with your being inside the curve of the banana, that’s basically a banana pass. When you’re on the INSIDE of that curve, the aircraft or athlete or motorcycle will will be MOVING into your frame which gives a feel of not only speed but also intimacy. Keep in mind that being on the inside of the curve, the subject will be going faster in relationship to your position so your panning has to be spot on.
Taking your shutter speed down below your comfort zone is key! Shooting in Shutter Priority to be in control of shutter speed and then the blur puts action into your still. In some cases the shutter speed is arbitrary based on how you feel. In some cases it could be a very specific shutter speed to blur props of aircraft or blades on a helicopter, in this case 1/20 to blur the blades of this Cobra. Keep in mind that your panning blurs the background and the degree of that blur is a function of how fast you’re panning vs. your shutter speed. Now if your background is all blue, bald sky, there is not a slow enough shutter speed to show motion. You need something in the background to scream movement.
When you’ve got the light, forget everything else! Ya, there are lots of rules, ideas, suggestions and sexy action that can grab your attention but when you’ve got light, ditch them all for that light. I love this example of just that because many tend to not photograph the bellies of aircraft. This belly shot is of a Hawker Sea Fury Race 232 which ended up in the victory circle in the 2012 Reno Air Races. On the afternoon this shot was taken, it wasn’t this fact that is was a winner that had me trained on 232 but rather the way the light played on its red color against the great blue / white background. The angle of the light makes all the rivits pop and creates a shadow that just makes it seem like it’s going faster. You can’t go wrong with great light!
Go for the ass! Any subject that is going away from you in the frame sets the mind to thinking movement. While this seems obvious, ass shots in themselves can be tricky. There is the matter of proper social protocol (not my speciality) along with attractiveness. There are a couple of aspects of subject positioning that goes along with this. Lower and centered in the frame is the place to start and then based on other elements in the frame can be moved about accordingly. When shooting the ass of an aircraft, the blurred prop is required to speak of movement. The slower the shutter speed, the more blurred the prop and the more blurred the prop, you change the position of the aircraft in the frame.
This one is real simple. When you have a great background, think of smaller subject size in a slightly awkward placement in the frame. Yeap, that’s all it takes for the mind to see the placement and move the subject through the frame against that background. I like simple!
Let the path set the movement. A track, street, sidewalk or trail of smoke communicates movement when you place the subject on that path. This again is another real simple one to employ but to take it to the next level, put the subject on the path again in a slightly awkward place.
Low angle with a wide angle is a great way of communicating motion! Here is a classic example considering the only thing moving in the frame are the props. The rule of thumb is to leave enough room in the frame in front of the subject for the mind to give the subject motion. You can enhance this mental path by getting down low with a wide angle. This technique is great when in reality, you’re crammed up in a crowd and can’t get physically where you want to. In the case of aviation, think of slow shutter speed and not keeping the horizon plum. Here, it’s slightly slanted up hill and the sun is included (lens closed down all the way for a sunburst) to finish the feel.
Follow your subject in the viewfinder for its entire path! You just never know what surprises you might find in the viewfinder that if your eye is not up against it, you’ll miss. In this case this P-40 did a loop right overhead so a normal view of an aircraft from the ground, the top of it, was all you see in the viewfinder. A unique perspective to any common subject begins the journey of having a unique photograph!
Cramming action into a vertical creates lots of mental movement in a still! The tension of the subject looking like it’s going to run into the side of the frame can work with the rest of the elements are in sync. Other elements? Ya, light, blur, color, placement in the frame vertically, all those elements that together bring movement to the subject. Keep in mind that as soon as you turn the camera to vertical, your panning gets more difficult and composition more challenging. At the same time, the rewards for success goes up as well.
Never ignore the common! This little Piper is no warbird or screaming jet yet I would be really bummed if it weren’t in my files. When you can make the uncommon out of the common, your photograph always wins! In this case, since it’s an airplane and it’s up in the sky, the mind knows it’s flying and that in itself says motion. Use proper handholding and panning, look for the light and think motion with a big dash of fun and you will be successful! have a great weekend shooting!