Some Thoughts on Capturing Motion

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I haven’t done an “educational” post in a while so I thought I’d go ahead an impart a little bit more of my wisdom bull-crap opinion general ramblings upon the interwebs for y’all to take what you will from it. Today, I wanted to try and tackle a topic that I get asked about continually and I believe I’ve had a decent amount of experience with over the years: Capturing motion.

Motion is a tricky thing for a non-moving medium like photography. It isn’t as simple as strapping a GoPro to your dog and pressing the ‘record’ button. You have to figure out how to convey the emotion of motion and the intensity of that motion without being able to capture multiple frames. I mean sure, you have the option of taking multiple frames and overlaying them into a sequence to show the arc of a motion, but that’s not the same as having one image that has to convey everything that is contained in an active subject.

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So, you have a few choices. You can blur the entire image, you can take an image with an extremely fast shutter speed and stop all movement for that instant in time, or you can pan with the subject and hope to get them in a sharp focus while the rest of the movement is blurred with the movement in the background. All good choices, all have their place, and all of them can suck in their own right as well. Too negative?

Let me explain, one by one, my issues with the above choices I laid out starting with Option A: Blur the whole image. You won’t see anything, you’ll get a blur of colors and that blur can be more and more OOF (out of focus) depending on how long you drag that shutter (leave it open and exposed to light). I’m sure it can be pretty for fine art images, but I tend to shoot people and people like to be shot in focus and in a manner that makes them recognizable as a human being. Cross out option one.

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Option 2, do the opposite of option 1 and speed the shutter speed up to only capture a fraction of a moment where time has stopped. And so has the subject. Completely. I mean utterly motionless. Now, this can be done in a manner that looks awesome, but it takes a lot of work to get it looking like you’ve done more than have the runner jump up in the air for a moment or sit still on their bike for an instant. It’s going to come down to how you compose the image to capture the actual motion that was present when the image was taken. I believe that too many photographers believe that this is the key to capturing motion (just stopping it altogether) and don’t realize that you’re capturing the subject and not necessarily the motion that was the essence of the sport. There needs to be SOME movement there to show the viewers who weren’t present that this athlete was doing some thing awe-inspiring.

Option D, panning. This can look absolutely sick in the hands of a professional and under the right circumstances. There are some photographers who nail this for car races, horse races, some running events, and cycling events. But it’s hard. I mean really hard and I’m sure all of these professionals thank their lucky stars for the digital age of photography because it takes A LOT of shots and A LOT of practice. Even then, it’s extremely dependent on the subject and how well they maintain a path of travel that perfectly aligns up with the path of travel of your sensor. Essentially what you’re doing when you pan is you are matching the speed you’re moving the camera to the subject you’re capturing, keeping them in the same point in the frame the entire time the shutter is open. Everything else is blurred and the speed and motion in the image is extremely easy to see and the subject looks separated and beautifully crisp against the background. I love the look, but I don’t always have the time to try and nail that shot over and over again. With practice, as with all things, I’m sure it becomes much easier but I haven’t put in the time necessary to perfect and unless you’re an avid sports photographer, it can be difficult to do so. (And yes, I know I said Options A, 2, & D. If you don’t get the joke, you weren’t a 90’s kid and you need to go back and watch Home Alone much more closely)

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So that’s it. Pick your poison right? Nope, I choose Option D (the real option D): All of the above and then some. There is no magic bullet and everybody’s eye is different. However, this is something I care about and I’m about to really get to the meat of what I’m trying to say, so pay attention. When you’re photographing Sports Portraits there are 2 subjects in the image: the actual subject and the motion the subject is performing. I feel that we owe it to both to capture them and keep them in the photo. My technique for doing this is a mixture of all of the above with the added bonus of using lights. The lights allow me to rely on their flash duration rather than my shutter speed, and the fact that my max shutter speed (I haven’t used high speed sync much yet) is 1/200th of a second, I still have plenty of room for motion blur in the image. I always pan my camera with the subject as well to eliminate the motion in their face while still allowing some movement in their limbs and the background. The face is a KEY point to keeping the image looking like a portrait, but I want the rest of the image to scream ‘MOVING!’ If you want more details on how I do this, there are plenty of BTS blog posts and videos of me working on this site and others, I just wanted to give y’all the answer to a question I see a lot and one that I am continually mulling over and trying to answer for myself. Of course, this is just my answer to the question and there are an infinite number of answers to question and an even larger number of techniques to execute it. With one caveat…

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Please, please, please, PLEASE for the love of all that’s good, don’t capture an athlete and then go back and motion blur the background in Photoshop. It looks like crap. There it is, I said what every other photographer was thinking. I understand if you’re doing a composite or something like that because the entire image is an artistic representation of reality that you’re creating piece by piece with one of those pieces being motion. But, if you’re taking a shot at your kid’s soccer game or you’re hired to do a portrait of an athlete, pay them the courtesy of capturing their motion and not faking something they already do very well.

With all of that said, I sincerely hope that you at least gleaned some small tidbit of information from this confusing and rambling monologue I’ve thrown out on the screen here. Seriously though, all snarky jokes aside and in all honesty, this is a topic that I’m truly passionate about. I had never really given it much thought until a good friend and amazing athlete, Balazs Csoke, had me do some photos of him and he wanted to make sure that we captured images of him that really showed him moving. He said he always felt like his images looked like he was just sitting still on his bike for a moment or jumping up in the air in a running stance. There was no “movement” in the images from his perspective, and for an athlete that spends his professional life moving 140.6 miles at a time, movement is kind of important to his brand. Understandably so, am I right? So whether it be something you’re doing with your camera, something you’re doing with your lights, moving along with the subject, or staying absolutely still and eliciting a ‘look’ from that subject that shows motion, make sure you’re truly capturing motion.

There isn’t much we do in life that doesn’t involve motion, and I feel that as an athlete and a sports photographer, it’s something that we need to make sure we’re spending time looking at when we’re going through our images. Now get out, move, and capture it…

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