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Monday, November 12, 2012

How To Shoot BMX Action

Tips from action sports photographer Justin Kosman

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Digital Photo Tip Of The Week

Action sports are bigger than ever these days, and nothing's more exciting than high-flying BMX. Whether it's racing or freestyle, on a half-pipe or on the street, if you've got friends who are into the sport—or maybe you're just curious about it—you might try taking pictures of it. Here's everything you need to know to try your hand at photographing fast BMX action, and making high-energy photos like the pros do. These tips and techniques come from professional BMX photographer Justin Kosman.

It's easy to think you can't shoot fast action sports if you don't have a high-end pro camera capable of fast 9-frame-per-second shooting. But according to Kosman, it's more important that you do a little bit of planning for your position and framing to be able to make a great shot at the perfect moment.

"A lot of people get caught up in frames per second," he says, "but I shoot maybe three or four sequences a year. Shooting racing is different—there you do want to shoot rapid fire—but for shooting freestyle there is usually one peak moment that really shows a trick best. You only need one shot for that. The first thing I do is frame up the photo and then have the rider stand at the spot where they'll be during the peak moment. From there I'll adjust to a high or low camera angle to get the rider against a clean background."

If a 50mm lens is considered "normal" on a full-frame camera, Kosman's suggestion is to use the most abnormal lenses you can. Being able to compress a scene with a long telephoto or expand it with a superwide will make for inherently more interesting compositions than any normal lens can. "I'd say go really wide or really tight," Kosman says. "Ninety percent of my stuff is shot with a 70-200mm lens or a 15mm fisheye on a full-frame camera. It's either really compressed or really wide. If you don't have a full-frame camera, an 8mm lens for a camera with a 1.6 crop factor is the same ratio."

Most photographers start shooting action with ambient light, and that means they're not limited to slow shutter speeds that will sync with flash under 1/250th of a second. Kosman says starting at 1/1000th or even 1/1250th of a second is a good start when working to freeze fast BMX tricks, which means a fairly wide aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 in normal daylight. Understanding the arc of action also means you can catch an aerial rider while he's momentarily "floating" at the peak of a jump, and less likely to be blurry.

For focus, instead of relying on your camera's autofocus Kosman suggests setting the lens to manual and taking care of it yourself. "Always prefocus," he says. "Frame the shot with the rider standing in the spot or holding their bike where they will be at during the peak action, and turn your lens to manual focus and focus in on that spot. You don't want to accidentally re-focus while shooting."

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Understanding how to balance a flash exposure with ambient light is a powerful tool in any photographer's arsenal—and nowhere more than when photographing action sports. A subtly underexposed sky in the background with a flash-lit subject in the foreground not only adds colorful punch to pictures, but it's an awesome way to really set your work apart. Just don't get ahead of yourself. "I'd recommend learning how to use a flash once you've got your composition dialed in," Kosman says. "You want to first frame up your image and then decided if you need to bring in extra light. Flash done right can help you freeze an image, create an illusion of depth, increase contrast and make colors pop off the page, but it's certainly tricky."

"I'm not a fan of on-camera flash because it flattens out the image," he adds. "In most cases I'd rather overexpose a backlit photo than use on camera flash. At the very least get a TTL cord, and if you have the cash get a couple of radio remotes and little hot shoe flashes. With a hot shoe flash, typically the lower the power, the faster the flash duration—and the more the flash will freeze the action. Each flash is different so you'll have to experiment, but 1/4 power or 1/8 power would be a good place to start. Half power might work for some things, but it's doubtful."

Storytelling is important to an image, even in sports photography. Rather than just shooting a rider frozen in midair, consider adding a bit of context to the scene so that the viewer understands the full story and can relate to the trick in relation to the environment. "It's really important to show the whole location," Kosman says, "because that helps tell the story of what's going on. The typical BMX stock photo you'll find is garbage: a rider up against a sky with no frame of reference. Sometimes you don't have a choice, but if you can freeze a rider in a frame and they are against a clean background like a building, sky or the ground (if you are above them) it's a good start. Including the right things in the photo—like the rail they are on, the ramp they are using or the gap they are jumping—serves to show just how great the action is."

To see more of Justin Kosman's work, visit his web site at www.justinkosman.com. Follow him on Twitter @justinkosman.

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