Mark Alberhasky looks at the value of planning and practice in photography.
Anyone who has ever studied photographs has seen images whose timing seems to defy the odds. Photojournalists regularly document the world with photos that many of us simply don’t think we’d ever be capable of making. While some of their skill is unquestionably the result of years of experience, there are things we can all do to improve the likelihood that one of our own images might end up a great shot.
A lot of what I’m going to suggest isn’t rocket science or the result of deep pockets and high end equipment. Rather, it’s a matter of thinking in advance about what you’d like to accomplish and following through to capitalize on future potential.
During my medical training, I recall well the mantra recited by an emeritus professor, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” For a pathologist that means, read a lot of books and look at a lot of slides. Some things you will only see once or twice in a career. If you’ve had a glimpse of your future unknown once before as you studied, the odds increase dramatically that when the time comes for your diagnosis, you’ll be better prepared.
For a photographer, it’s much easier, and it need not be stressful. A recent photo op of my own will underscore how simple this can be, and how a little preparation can make a world of difference.
I decided a couple of years ago after seeing someone else’s photos, that I wanted to try and capture the beauty of running horses in a natural setting. In my mind’s eye there lurked an ill defined vision of a majestic horse at speed, captured with a pan technique to convey to my viewer the same excitement I felt at the moment. The hurdle that lay before me was my inexperience with action photography and the pan technique. I knew the principle, that use of a relatively slow shutter speed while tracking the subject in the viewfinder would allow the background to blur while ideally keeping the subject sharp. What I didn’t know were the particulars, how slow a shutter speed? At which ISO? For which focal length lens? How would the path of the subject (across in front of me vs coming straight toward me) affect the results?
My trip to shoot the horses would take me completely across the US, at some expense, and there would be a limited number of shooting opportunities to craft my vision. I decided that I needed to reduce the number of unknowns that stood between me and my elusive goal. Short of hiring a horse and rider for practice (not very practical), what could I do? Well I had the equipment I would use in hand, so there was no reason I couldn’t make test shots of a simulated subject and compare the results. Get ready to laugh. I set up camera on tripod to help assist in smooth movement through the horizontal plane during exposure and then enlisted my forgiving wife as a subject. Now, don’t think for a minute that I said, “Honey, I want to practice taking pictures of horses. Would you pose for me?” That stupid I’m not. Instead I said, “Would you mind riding your bike quickly up and down the street in front of the house while I test some shutter speed settings?” This went over well and gave me just the results to get me started.
Metadata, all that digital information that we get packed in our image files, is a great learning resource. By analyzing the degree of motion blur that could coexist with good core sharpness on important subject areas, I picked the shots that had the intended result. I could then dig into the metadata from those frames and see exactly what ISO, shutter speed and aperture (for a given lens) did the job. Now all I needed was more experience.
I looked in the paper for an action event I could shoot the weekend before I left to travel. To my delight I found a motocross track in a nearby town and quickly made plans to go shoot dirt bike riders as they flew around the course, churning in mud and dust, conditions that would actually be very similar to how I would shoot the horses. I spent a couple of hours on two afternoons putting my equipment and recently derived camera / lens settings to use with great results. Besides the obvious shutter / aperture / lens choices, I also experimented with the several continuous focus modes available on my camera (Nikon D2x) to see which yielded the sharpest results for subject size and speed.
I felt good as I boarded the plane to Bend, OR, armed with limited but real world experience fresh in my mind. I shouldn’t have been surprised I guess, but when I lined up with the other photographers at the event, I chuckled at the questions buzzing up and down the ranks. “What shutter speed should I use? What ISO are you using? What lens is that?” Looking back, I realized how valuable my efforts had been, since I could concentrate on the subject without sweating the details. In the end I was able to realize my vision, and it made the whole adventure that much more satisfying. Was the keeper shot a sure thing because I came prepared? No way! But by laying the ground work, I was ready to give it my best shot when the opportunity ran by, in the dust and early morning sunlight.
Think it through before you head out in search of your next vision.
Mark Alberhasky Photography