In today’s world, the old photojournalists’ adage “f/8 and be there” tends to concentrate on the second part of the phrase. “Be there” is a reminder that getting a great shot is not so much about equipment or settings or even composition, but about putting yourself into the heart of the action and capturing the decisive moment. But the technical details do matter.
So what do you do when you are photographing a subject that is moving so quickly through your frame that even the fastest and most advanced autofocus can’t lock in on it? Go old school, and pre-focus.
One field of photography where pre-focus is still employed regularly is close-action watersports shooting, where the photographer is in the water with a waterproof camera. In order to capture a droplet-free frame, he or she keeps the camera submerged until a second before the shot, then pulls the camera out of the water and shoots a burst of photos, generally without looking through the viewfinder. Experienced water shooters, much like the “one camera, one lens” photojournalists of old, instinctively know how much of the frame is going to be captured by their lens and where the subject should be in the frame to get the best composition. It’s not easy, and as any water shooter will tell you, it takes dozens of “almosts” to get one great shot.
For this trick ski shot of championship waterskier Thibaut Dailland at Swiss Waterski Resort in Clermont, Fla., autofocus is not a practical choice. I had about three seconds to get a clear shot, between when the water clears the lens and before it starts to bead up. And, because most waterproof housings do not have gears to adjust the focus ring or the focal length of the lens, both must be set manually before placing the camera in the housing. Thus, most water shooters will calculate the optimal focal distance and aperture based on the light, the lens they are using, and the shutter speed they need to get the best chance of capturing a sharp image.
You can calculate the focal range of any aperture/lens/focal length by using a depth-of-field chart; but nowadays, like everything else, there’s an app for that. I use IndieFilmGear’s Simple DOF but there are many similar apps that will do the same job.
Most action sports require a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster to freeze motion; so depending on the light, your camera’s sensor, and your lens, you may need to fiddle with the aperture or your ISO to get the best setting. A good digital camera will shoot clean at fairly high ISOs, so use this to your advantage. In action sports, unless you are going for an artistic motion blur, there is no such thing as a shutter speed that is too high. Also keep in mind that the wider your camera angle, the greater your depth of field. So all of this is much easier the wider you go.
After that, you’re ready to take the plunge. All you have to do now, is be there. Which, as any close-action photographer will tell you, is the hardest part.
(NB: The settings for the above shot were an aperture of f/13, a lens angle of 35 mm on an APS sensor, a shutter speed of 1/640 and an ISO of 640. The focal distance was pre-set at 5 feet. I also had a polarizer on the lens to heighten contrast and accentuate the blue sky, which brought down the light sensitivity about 1 stop. There is a very slight amount of motion blur in the picture which I could have corrected with a higher shutter speed and perhaps a more precise DOF setting, but part of the “be there” philosophy is that capturing the moment is more important than absolute sharpness. That’s my excuse, anyway.)
See more photos by Chris Bickford on Instagram at @chrisbickford.