Supriya Joshi speaks with 10 leading sports photographers about the challenges of action photography along with the art of capturing the perfect moment.
This article was published in February 2011.
Shooting sports and action scenes is not an easy task. Photographers are under constant pressure to capture ‘the’ moment, where even a second’s delay can make the difference between an average and a good photograph. We spoke to the 10 theme winners of the Red Bull Illume contest, the world’s biggest adventure sports photography contest, on what they thought were the challenges in action photography. Along with important tips, they also shared their experiences of shooting their award-winning images.
Theme 1: Illumination
As a sports photographer, you have to keep in mind what your audience needs to see. You have to give the viewer the feeling of physically being there. You have to deal with everything—from unpredictable conditions to travelling challenges. There are going to be difficulties in everything you do, and the more confidence you have in your capabilities, the more you will be able to overcome every obstacle. I shot this photo in Chile, after sitting in pouring rain for days. I woke up one morning after the rains, and the conditions were as good as they could have been. I was sunburnt and had no idea about how to shoot. The waves were some of the best I had ever seen, so I decided to risk it. I ran down the beach and went up a sand dune to get this picture. It was as if everything in nature fell into perfect harmony. The backwash hit, sending a shower of water 10 feet above the athlete’s head, sending him down the line of another 20-second barrel, and that is when I took this photograph.
Action Tips: Equipment is not everything. If you have passion and a vision, anything can be amazing.
Theme 2: Playground
There are no limits when practising action photography. You can make an action shot work irrespective of whatever equipment you own. Sports photography requires you to be on your feet and make do with whatever resources you have. Before I start shooting, I experiment with different angles and light settings to see what works best with the situation. Practising the sport that you are shooting can also prove to be a big advantage. This photo was shot in Düsseldorf, where I met the athlete for the fi rst time during his visit to Germany for a video edit. I grabbed my camera spontaneously and joined him for his visit. I suggested a special place I used to skate at for the shoot. The setting was perfect by the time we arrived. I realised how massive this pipe really was when looked at from the outside. Using that as the main focus of the picture, I took this photograph. Thanks to the athlete’s motivation, I had the chance to take this photo.
Theme 3: New Creativity
With sport photography, you need to adapt to whatever it is you are shooting. This image was shot in Canada. My colleagues and I found some interesting locations and angles after exploration. I positioned myself in one of the cracks to shoot the opening. Though I was pretty excited and nervous, I realised that it was a unique angle, which had the potential to be a great shot and I luckily managed to capture the frame.
Theme 4: Energy
In action photography, one must keep in mind the composition, subject and equipment, amongst other things. It is also important to be aware of dangerous situations. Also, the location can make a big difference to a photograph. This photograph was shot at a local big wave spot, when one of the biggest water swells had been announced. The surf, however, was too big for me to shoot in the water.
Action Tips: Take photos of everything. Focus not just on the action itself but also on things around the action.
Theme 5: Close Up
Action photography is a challenging field. Some of the challenges I personally face depend on what I am shooting. Keeping water away from the lens port when I am swimming is a constant challenge. You need to constantly find solutions that will help you work around such challenges. Getting the perfect frame is definitely not easy, but for me, I instinctively know a great shot when I see it. Anticipating moments does not come easy, but you will learn this over many years of practise. To me, that is the joy of photography. This is a shot of one of my friends, Andrew Mooney. It was taken when it was pretty dark. I love late evening colours in waves as they always make for a beautiful shot. I am happy with the way the picture turned out—I am sure it will always be one of my favourites. Surf photography is all about moments like this and that is what I am addicted to.
Theme 6: Wings
Photographing outside, in the midst of nature, is one of the best feelings. I began shooting as a hobby, but the exhilaration of photographing action sports made me turn the hobby into a profession. Since 2005 I have been shooting professionally, specialising in action sports photography. In September 2008, I went to Germany, for the Red Bull Cliff Diving event. It is very diffi cult to get permission to shoot at Speicherstadt in Hamburg, because all the buildings there are protected due to their historical importance. I used two cameras—one overhead, above the platform and connected with fl ashes, and the second on the opposite bank to shoot the sequences. Because of the bad light conditions, I shot an HDR image to get more information in the picture. In order to avoid the typical HDR look, I manually put the five single exposures together.
Theme 7: Experimental
Visualise what you want the final frame to look like, then check the light, background and technical equipment. I had the chance to set up this picture of two planes flying for a race. The pilots perfectly executed the idea behind the shot—they switched on the planes’ smoke at the precise moment. I was standing outside a helicopter, on the skid, and the airplanes were racing towards me at about 350 km/h when I managed to get this shot. The 3D depiction was created exclusively in post-production. (Use 3D glasses to view this image at its best!)
Theme 8: Culture
When you are shooting an action scene, wait for the right moment. Yet, be prepared to shoot in a split second. This photo was taken in one of the biggest international BMX events in 2008. The riders and their bikes were crammed into a bus. Everyone was getting antsy, and I took this shot without setting my camera or lens. It proves that you can get a good action scene irrespective of the location.
Action Tip: When you take a picture, feel the picture, live the picture and do not think too much about the picture.
Theme 9: Sequence
Location, angles and equipment are extremely important when practising action photography as they can help you achieve a great photograph. Your eyes and your mind are more important than any other photographic equipment. For me, the ‘perfect frame’ is one which shows how exciting the sport that is being practised is. To shoot this picture, I used just a Sunpak flash and my radio slave pointed towards a wall. I used the image of the athlete jumping in the air with his skateboard and then used his shadows to create the rest of the sequence.
Theme 10: Spirit
The main problem with executing the shoot was to convince the climbers to journey to the location in the photograph, as the region is known for its dangerous and unsafe routes. The idea for this particular frame struck me only during the climb. I saw the athlete resting before resuming the final section of the route. I used a wide-angle lens to capture the moment. The picture evokes a sense of peace, serenity and wonder. For me, the image symbolises the range of emotions climbers must experience when they make their journey to the summit.
Action Tip: Combine your travels with photography and learn from your experiments.