Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Point of View Action Photography

Recently a friend of ours was looking through the Adventure Gallery on our website and asked about this photo. “How did you make this shot?” He’s not the first person to pick this image out as intriguing. His initial assumption: the image had been Photoshopped to create its circular blur effect. Not true.

I think shots like this are part of what makes photography so cool! I’ve always been interested in making photos where I don’t have complete control of the process. Point of View photographs fall into this category because most of the time the photographer can’t physically look through the viewfinder to take the shot. They’re dynamic photos, where the shooter is part of the action, and by the same token unable to stop and compose. Whether the action is riding narrow singletrack, skiing a steep line, or dropping a waterfall in a kayak, there’s no way they’ll be able to carefully compose a photo, much less use their hands to push the shutter. It’s this “lets shoot it and see what we get,” philosophy that makes point of view shots really exciting. Sure, there are times when I want things to come out exactly as I envision them beforehand, but there’s something magical about leaving part of the process up to chance. And in the modern digital era there’s no penalty for shooting away and seeing what happens. You can also evaluate your shot immediately, adjust and improve upon earlier attempts. So go out and give it a try!

Here’s how it was done:

This shot was created by strapping a camera to my body using a chest harness, setting the self timer and riding down the trail until the shutter released. As I rode the bumpy track, the camera twisted on my chest during the relatively long exposure. On this dark Pacific Northwest forest trail, the shutter speed was just slow enough to show the blur the camera created as it twisted in its harness. This combined with the forward motion of camera created the distinct impression of riding down a tunnel. Not unlike the actual feeling of flying down a well groomed trail on a mountain bike. A little fill flash froze the bike handlebars and created an anchor for the viewer in the otherwise motion dominated shot.

Getting technical:

A few technical suggestions for creating an image like this one.

I’ve found through trial and error that shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/10 of a second find a happy medium between the abstract blur we’re looking for and the grounding visual clues of the immediate trail environment. Too much blur and you’ve got a featureless mess. Not enough blur and the photo lacks visual appeal.

Supplementing the photo with fill-flash will freeze the handlebars and foreground of the photo while letting the motion be captured further away from the camera. I’d recommend using your camera’s pop-up flash rather than an off camera flash for simple reasons. A camera strapped to your chest is cumbersome enough, let along an additional flash that could be easily broken. I used rear-curtain sync and dialed the flash down -1.3 to -2.3 stops depending upon the ambient light. Otherwise you’ll end up with white-hot hands in the foreground. These types of shots are easiest to create in low light, so riding just before sunset, or in a dense forest works well.

If you use a self timer to trigger the shutter, remember to set the camera to manual focus and pre-focus before you start. This will keep the camera from searching for a focal point while you’re moving down the trail. Remember to shoot lots of shots, some will be throw-aways, but you’re only looking for one keeper!

A final word of caution:

This might sound silly, but be careful trying to ride and press the shutter at the same time. You’d be surprised how quickly things come at you while you’re looking down at your camera and riding at the same time! Also be sure not to ride beyond your limit with your camera strapped on. It’s not worth a smashed lens or camera body to get the shot. Choose smooth trail segments until you feel out what you’re comfortable with.

1 comment:

Elena said...

Thanks for useful tips, Sonja and Mike!