Blur + Detail = Action! (Part 1)

Kenny Roberts maneuvers his Yamaha cafe racer through a turn at Laguna Seca Raceway; July 1975
Kenny Roberts maneuvers his Yamaha cafe racer through a turn at Laguna Seca Raceway; July 1975

01-08-2010

I have always enjoyed action and sports photography. In fact, it was my love of motorcycle racing that led to my love of photography. As a young adult, I spent countless hours tromping around the Laguna Seca Raceway, loaded down with camera gear, in pursuit of the ultimate racing photographs. Riders, like Kenny Roberts above, would race their motorcycles at lightning speed, challenging the expertise and fast reflexes of both themselves and sports photographers.

Action photography offers some special challenges. First of all, when dealing with high-speed action, it is important to capture enough frozen detail to give the viewer a “picture” of what is happening. Still photographs can disclose plenty of information not discernible to the naked eye. Check out the long-jumper below, frozen at the peak of her jump.

Fast shutter speeds freeze action, giving the viewer details about the movement
Fast shutter speeds freeze action, giving the viewer details about the movement

Her facial expression and outstretched arms are captured in great detail, this is something that you may not otherwise be able to see during the jump.

In many cases, it is important to include some motion blur in action photos in order to convey the sense of movement that is happening. A high shutter speed captures this bicycle racer in detail, but this image does not convey speed, movement or action. For all we know, the rider could be stopped and just balancing her bike upright.

Fast shutter speeds can stop action, but this photo does not convey "speed" or "action".
Fast shutter speeds can stop action, but this photo does not convey "speed" or "action".

Having the ability to use 1/4000 second shutter speeds does not mean they are the best choice for action. Photos like these need some motion blur to give the viewer the necessary clues that movement is occurring. One method is to use a slower shutter speed to allow movement to register in the image, and then follow the subject with the camera while taking the photo. This is called “panning” and is similar to the technique that hunters use when shooting at moving game. A couple of important things to remember when panning:

– begin the panning movement prior to releasing the shutter

– follow the subject carefully and keep it in the same place in the frame; the objective is to minimize the relative movement of the subject within the frame

– continue following the subject after the exposure has completed. If you stop panning when you press the shutter, the subject will continue to move across the frame, defeating the point of panning.

Following a moving subject while taking the photo will allow some motion blur to occur, yet there is enough detail in the subject to make the image interesting.
Following a moving subject while taking the photo will allow some motion blur to occur, yet there is enough detail in the subject to make the image interesting.

The result is some motion blur in the bicyclist’s legs and wheels. The background is heavily blurred because of the camera movement following the rider. Panning helps capture some detail in the bicycle frame, the rider’s head and upper body. Techniques like panning take lots of practice, so look for opportunities like local bike races to refine your methods.

The combination of detail with motion blur gives the viewer a good idea that the subject is moving quickly.

In my next post about action photography, we’ll look at the combination of motion blur and flash.

– + –

2 thoughts on “Blur + Detail = Action! (Part 1)

  1. Dear Ron,
    I’m a fan of the Yamaha international yellow team of the 70′. During a search, I found your web page with the photo that shows Kenny Roberts at Laguna Seca in 1975. That pic is very nice. I would like to know if during that race, you have realized some more photos of the 3 Yamaha of this team please?
    These where Kenny Roberts N°1, Gene Romero N°3 and Don Castro N°11.

    If yes, is it possible to obtain scans of these pictures please? From here in France and after a so long time, it is impossible to find any, so it would be fantastic.

    I thank you very much.

    Best regards Didier

    Like

    1. Didier,

      Thanks for the comment. I do have shots of Romero and Castro as well. I am in the process of scanning more slides and negatives of those races, and will let you know when they are done.

      All the best,
      Ron

      Like

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