The lip is a little sticky this morning. I’m only going to do this jump once," crackles over the radio. "Are you ready?" Dave asks.
I answer, "Ready down here. But please be careful. Do whatever jump you want."
"I’m going for it!" Dave replies. "This is what I do every day!"
Dave’s a pro skier and jump instructor, and his enthusiasm is contagious. I nervously watch Dave ski off the ramp high on the hillside above me, but then lose sight of him. I’m biting my nails waiting and listening for the sound of Dave’s skis carving through the icy snow. I won’t see him until he flies off the jump above me. And I’ll have milliseconds to hit the shutter and get the shot.
And then it happens. A split second before I see Dave’s ski tips clear the jump, I hear his skis rattling on the hard snow. I push the shutter button right as Dave’s skis clear the lip. For a moment, it seems like I’m witnessing a surreal scene. Dave clears the lip and soars to treetop heights against a deep blue sky, rotating and flipping in the air. Meanwhile the shutter on my Nikon D3 is blazing away at nine frames a second. Dave somehow rotates out of his upside-down position right as he disappears downhill onto the landing area. I hear a whoop of joy and I know he stuck the landing. My finger is glued to the shutter button, and the camera is still cranking away. I just shot 15 frames in less than two seconds, the amount of time Dave was airborne. Now I need to seam the frames together into one shot for a dramatic aerial sequence of Dave’s jump. Time to sequence it!
Creating image sequences is easier than ever before. Today cameras all shoot at rapid frame rates and can capture numerous frames of fast-moving action. And Photoshop has made improvements to allow quicker and easier image alignment to seam all the frames together.
You don’t need a pro skier and nine frames a second to create stunning sequence shots. Any moving subject will work, from a person riding his bike down the street to a group of rafters floating down a river. The slower the activity, the less frames per second you need. Many cameras have a maximum frame rate speed of four to six frames a second. This is fast enough to capture bikers, rafters or runners on a trail. Some sequence shots don’t even require a fast shutter speed. Imagine photographing a rock climber as he moves up a cliff face. He’s moving slowly, so you can shoot a frame every five seconds, and after a minute, you’ll have 12 frames to seam together to show his ascent of the cliff.
GEAR AND TECHNIQUE
There are some key techniques and equipment considerations that will make sequence shots easier to do. First, use a fast flash card. Today’s flash cards write much quicker than the turtle pace of the past. I use SanDisk Extreme cards that are fast and can keep pace with my D3.
Another variable that affects the number of frames you can record is the camera buffer. The buffer stores images while the card writes data. If your camera buffer is full and the card is still writing, then the camera stops shooting. One trick you can do to increase the amount of images your buffer can hold is to shoot in JPEG, which are much smaller than RAW or TIFF files, and most cameras can shoot many more JPEGs than RAW before maxing out the buffer.
I recommend you set your camera to manual exposure. The trick to making your life easy when combining the images in Photoshop is having consistent exposures for the entire sequence. If your camera is in an automatic mode, it may record slightly different exposures as your subject moves through the frame. When you combine these frames later, your subject will change appearance through the sequence.
I also use manual focus and prefocus on the scene. I don’t want my camera to miss focus on the subject for a few frames in the middle of the sequence. This would result in blurry shots in my sequence."
Use a tripod. Using a tripod is similar to using manual exposure. Every frame will be identical, making it much easier to combine shots later. You can shoot sequence shots handheld, but it makes it more difficult to line up the shots later in the computer. I also find using a tripod eliminates camera motion caused by the photographer. I get so excited watching a skier fly overhead, I push the shutter like I ring a doorbell—really hard!
Finally, compose your shot so you get the entire sequence. Know where your subject is going to travel through the frame. Most sequence shots are done with wide-angle lenses to capture more of the scene. This allows more room for your subject to travel through, and more frames for you to capture.
CREATING THE FINAL SHOT
Okay, now you have gone out and shot this incredible sequence of your neighbor flying off a jump on his dirt bike. How do you combine all these shots into one image? I use Photoshop and layer masking for this task. And even if you’re new to Photoshop, the process isn’t that difficult. Follow these steps below and start creating your own sequence shots.
Open the first image in your sequence. If you shot JPEGs, then simply open the file. If you shot RAW images for your sequence, then the RAW processing dialog box will appear before you can go to the next step. If you make any adjustments to your RAW file, you need to do the exact adjustments to every shot in the sequence for consistency.
With the first image open, open the second image. In Photoshop CS5, the default viewer uses tabs rather than multiple image windows. For this process, it’s a lot easier to work with both images side by side, so click on the second tab and drag it until it’s in its own window. Now you should have the first two images of your sequence open and visible on the screen.
Next, using the move tool, grab the second image and place it on top of the first image. If you hold down the Shift key as you place the image on top of the first image, they should be perfectly aligned. The layers window should show both images as layers at this point, with the second image on top of the first image.
Now we want to add a mask to the second layer. This can be done from the file menu by choosing Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. This will add a mask filled with black, hiding the second (top) layer.
You can also add a mask filled with black by choosing the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the layers window. Hold the Option (Alt on PCs) key down when you click on the icon, and the mask will be added filled with black.
Here’s where the fun begins. First, set your foreground color to white. This is located at the bottom of the tools panel. Use the arrow keys to switch colors, or click on the foreground color and set it to white.
Now choose the Brush tool (shortcut is the "B" key), and set the brush hardness to 100 percent. Then brush on the image where you think your subject will be, based on his direction of travel. Presto! Your subject magically appears. Since you used manual exposure and a tripod, everything els
e in the frame should stay the same. Sometimes your subject will merge over his previous position in the image below. I generally brush the top image subject over the earlier sequence shot.
Repeat steps 2-5 again for the next image in the sequence. Continue this process with all the frames in the sequence. After all the sequence images are merged, you should have a single image with your subject rendered multiple times moving through the action.
Since this process takes a lot of time, I save the layered version of the image as a PSD file I can go back to if necessary. For my final version, I’ll flatten the layers (Layer > Flatten Image) to create a smaller file to work on and send to clients. I’ll do any other touch-up like color, dust spotting and sharpening on this image before I send it out.
So the next time you’re photographing action, why not capture all of it? Wouldn’t it be great to see every little move that ski jumper performs in the air? All you have to do is sequence it.