Photography tips: capturing action

By Nick Rains 7 November 2013
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AG contributing photographer Nick Rains gives some tips on capturing the peak action in a shot.

LEGENDARY PHOTOGRAPHER Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase ‘the decisive moment’ where all the elements come together for a split second, at which time the image must be made. In sports photography there is a moment where all the elements line up for maximum impact, and in people photography, even in travel photography, the same principles apply.

This image (above) of children playing on the beach of Kitava, in the remote Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea illustrates the point well. Not only is the diving child completely horizontal, but the other children make a nice sequence of climbing out of the water and onto the rock – the story is complete. I have a lot of images quite similar to this but only this one has all the elements arranged in such a harmonious fashion; as well, it captures the peak of the action with the dive at its most dramatic point.

Timing is, of course, everything. Pressing that shutter button at just the right time is critical, but what about the camera itself? Some cameras have quite a bit of lag between pressing the shutter button and the camera actually exposing. Generally, the cheaper the camera the more noticeable this is, with pocket-sized compact cameras the worst offenders. If you do try to take a shot where the timing is important and you are using a compact, try pressing the shutter button halfway to let the autofocus lock on to the subject and then keeping your finger in the same position, wait for the ‘moment’. By pre-focussing you make the camera a lot more responsive because the camera no longer has to calculate the focus point before taking the shot.

Using a high shutter speed is a good idea too. This shot used a shutter speed of 1/1000 second which is why the diving boy is tack sharp. Almost all cameras display the chosen shutter speed somewhere on the rear screen or in the viewfinder – keep an eye on it and if it drops below 1/250 second you may have difficulty freezing a moving subject. Use a wider aperture or a higher ISO to keep the shutter speed high.

Nick Rains is a regular photographic contributor to Australian Geographic and was recently aboard an AG Society/Orion expedition to PNG. See more of his images of Purnululu.