Outdoor sports are about action. But action is fundamentally difficult to capture. Decisive moments—the leap of a skier off a slope, a kayaker suspended in midair, the nervous glance of a climber on a knife-edge ridge—only last a fraction of a second. Most action photos are blurry, boring or miss the action entirely. Here are some tips for distilling adrenaline into visual form and taking your action photography to the next level.
Big Gear Wins
Bad news for die-hard iPhone photographers, but big DSLRs with a wide range of zoom lenses are what you still need to capture the action. Nothing else gives the photographer the combination of speed, creative control, image quality and range of perspectives. Even the newest mirrorless cameras don’t measure up. Small portable cameras are small and easy to use—but not much else. You’ll hate carrying an SLR and your gear up the mountains, but you’ll be glad when the time comes.
The common perspective is a bit above your subject, the camera held conveniently at the photographer’s height. That’s easy, but easy seldom creates a compelling image. I start by getting down to the participants’ eye level, whatever that is, and adjust from there. Eye-level shots create a much more intimate experience between the viewer and the subject. You can also make great images by getting very high or low—but most images at your normal eye level are well, normal. And normal is boring when it comes to creativity.
Use your sense of creativity to decide how you want to convey motion. Motion, after all, is the core of all outdoor sports. Do you want motion stopped, showing atomized water droplets or snowflakes? Or blurs that convey the sense of smooth movement? You’ll only get this level of control with a digital SLR (and usually a tripod) and it takes some understanding of exposure, but the results are worth it.
Most outdoor sports take place in the middle of the day. Typically, this is when light is harsh and direct, and many photographers avoid shooting. But sports photographers seldom have many choices. Use that midday contrast to your advantage for the one thing it gives you: dramatic contrast. Deep black shadows and bright highlights don’t make landscapes look great—but they can make the action look dramatic. Fine-tune your exposure to avoid blown-out highlights, and make contrast your friend.
War photographer Robert Capa famously said that if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. It’s less dangerous in our photography than in his. Get close and zoom in on facial expressions, beads of sweat, the texture of fresh snow, the mud on a cyclocross racer’s face. Crop the edges—it adds a sense of tension and unfinished business.
Photograph the Back Story
Don’t just focus on the action highlights. Turn the other way and look at the spectators, people waiting to compete, the breaks in the action when people relax and exhale, the stress of anticipation.
Hide The Scale
Deprive your viewer of scale. In this image of kayaker Paul Kuthe descending a waterfall, the viewer has virtually nothing to provide any sense of size, or how the story ends. Cliffhanger moments create anticipation. Keep the viewer guessing enough to feel suspense, but not so much that they’re just confused.
Try and Try Again
You’ll only improve your action shots but shooting action more and more. There will be trial and error, and the more you experiment, the faster you’ll learn. Time to get out there and shoot.