Follow The Action

Sequence created using frames at 1/3200 sec., ƒ/9, ISO 400, Nikon D4, 14-24mm F2.8.

“Wow, I just missed most of that jump,” I tell Chance as I review images on my camera LCD. This is not one of my best moments. How could I miss that jump? In this case, Chance flew so high off the jump that I only see the lower half of his bike tires in my frame.

“No problem, I can do it as many times as you need,” Chance replies, and pedals back up the hill for another run. Chance is a local BMX rider I’ve brought out to be a subject for an action shoot.

I’m still cursing under my breath. I had no idea just how far Chance would fly through the air. This guy can do amazing aerials, or, in BMX bike terms, tailwhips, supermans and backflips. I need to use a wide-angle lens and start capturing the action instead of missing it.

Chance blasts down the hill and launches off the lip. For what seems like a minute, but in reality is about 1 second, Chance flies over my head, spinning his bike around the handlebars. It is a sublime moment. My Nikon D4 blazes away while my Elinchrom strobes pop off like an August thunderstorm. This time I know my camera was pointed in the right direction. And I am not trying to capture a single frame on this shoot. Instead, I am creating an action sequence of the entire jump.

Action sequences allow the viewer to see every move your subject makes. You might photograph a skier catching air, your dog jumping into a lake, or maybe a bear chasing salmon. With the right gear, technique and a little help from Photoshop, anyone can create an action sequence. And seeing all the action from start to finish in one frame is a powerful concept.

Sequence created using frames at 1/2000 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 200, Nikon D3, 14-24mm F2.8
Sequence created using frames at 1/2000 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 200, Nikon D3, 14-24mm F2.8.

Equipment

You can’t create an action sequence without a camera that can shoot at a high frame rate. Today, that couldn’t be easier. Blazing frame rates used to be reserved for high-end pro cameras that were very expensive. Now, almost any mirrorless camera can shoot plenty fast, and even moderately priced DSLRs are up to the task. How fast do you need? While my D500 can shoot at 10 FPS, I find that seven frames per second captures enough frames for most of the action I photograph. Subject speed, focal length and shooting distant all affect how many frames you need to create a compelling action sequence.

Lens choice will be determined by how close you are to the action. I have shot action sequences using my telephoto lens as well as my wide angle. Whenever possible, I like to be really close to the action to create dramatic punchy sequences. My favorite lens for this is my Nikon NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8. Photographing sports games will keep you on the sidelines, so you might need a telephoto to get the right composition.

Another important item I use is a solid tripod. Photographing a sequence from a tripod does two things. First, it keeps the camera tightly fixed in position as your subject moves through the frame. This eliminates any perspective problems when blending the images together in Photoshop. And second, using a tripod keeps your camera steady, eliminating any chance of blurry photos caused by camera shake. You can shoot an action sequence without a tripod; just hold your camera in the same position and as steady as you can. Since you are only merging frames with the subject in the center, you shouldn’t have to worry about perfect frame edge alignment.

Another item that is handy is a two-way radio to talk to distant subjects. Sometimes when I am below a jump, I can’t see the athlete approach. I rely on him calling on the radio to let me know when he is starting his run to the jump. Inexpensive radios can be purchased at hunting and department stores.

Sequence created using frames at 1/250 sec., ƒ/5, ISO 100, Nikon D4, 14-24mm F2.8.
Sequence created using frames at 1/250 sec., ƒ/5, ISO 100, Nikon D4, 14-24mm F2.8.

Technique

The first thing I do to create an action sequence is visualize where my subject will be in the frame. If they are moving along the ground, this won’t be difficult. But if they are flying off a large ski jump and traveling hundreds of feet through the air, you need to compose the shot with this in mind. I like to include both takeoff and landing spots to show the entire sequence, but stunning sequences can be made with four to six frames of the athlete in the air.

Next, I pre-focus the shot. Since an action sequence happens so fast, the last thing I want to happen is for my camera to start hunting for focus. I use back button focus, which eliminates focus when I depress the shutter. As long as I hold the shutter button down, my camera will take images with no autofocus engaged. I use my back button to focus on a point in the plane of travel my subject will take. Often this is the edge of a jump or a place on a trail. As long as I am parallel to this point and my subject travels in a straight line, my focus should be tack sharp.

Exposure is extremely important with sequence images. Since you are going to be combining multiple images into one, you want your exposure to be consistent throughout the sequence. I use manual exposure mode and a consistent ISO (no auto-ISO) for the entire sequence. Choose a shutter speed that will freeze the action, often 1/1000 or faster, and an aperture that will have enough depth of field for the shot. When you combine the images later, each frame will have the exact same exposure, which will create seamless blending of the frames.

Sequence created using frames at 1/500 sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 100, Nikon D800, 24-120mm F4.
Sequence created using frames at 1/500 sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 100, Nikon D800, 24-120mm F4.

Now you are ready to go. Let the action begin! Make sure your camera is solid on your tripod, and hold the shutter button down as your subject moves through the frame. Remember, you are not panning with the subject. Changing the angle and perspective while panning will change the subject’s appearance, which will look strange in an action sequence.

Can you use flash for an action sequence? Yes, but it has to be a special fast-recycling strobe. Most strobes can’t recycle and keep up with seven frames a second, and the strobe output has to be consistent for each frame. I use my Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 strobes along with a 2000 watt generator on some shoots. This is a lot of gear to set up, but the results can be dramatic.

Combine Images

After so much fun in the field, now comes the post-production part of the shoot. There is sometimes confusion when discussing image sequence creation. Another way of creating an image sequence is using in-camera multiple exposure. You choose the number of frames, and the camera will automatically create the correct exposure and blend all the frames together in-camera. The result is one frame, but the subject is slightly transparent (ghosting) in each shot in the sequence. When you combine individual frames and brush in the subject from each frame, the subject is solid with no transparency, resulting in powerful, dramatic shots. Follow these steps to seam the images together in Photoshop:

Step 1: Starting with the initial frame at the beginning of the action.
Step 1: Starting with the initial frame at the beginning of the action.

Step one: 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 window will appear before you can go to the next step. If you make any adjustments in the raw window, you need to do the exact adjustment to every shot in the sequence for consistency. Once you have done any necessary raw adjustments, open the image.

Step 2: Getting ready to put one image on top of the first image in sequence.
Step 2: Getting ready to put one image on top of the first image in sequence.

Step two: With the first image open, open the second image. In Photoshop CC, the second image will be visible, and at the top of the image will be tabs showing both images. Using the move tool, grab the second shot on the tab at the top and move the image to separate the shot from the first. Now you should have the first two images of your sequence open and visible on the screen.

Step 3: First two images stacked and creating two separate layers.
Step 3: First two images stacked and creating two separate layers.

Step three: 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, Photoshop will automatically align the images. The layers window should show both images as layers at this point, with the second image on top of the first image.

Step 4: Here we add a mask and fill it with black.
Step 4: Here we add a mask and fill it with black.

Step four: 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.

Step 5: Adding a layer mask and brushing with a white brush in mask to reveal the subject in the next frame.
Step 5: Adding a layer mask and brushing with a white brush in mask to reveal the subject in the next frame.

Step five: Here is 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 else 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.

Step 6: Final image showing all the layers of individual images with masks.
Step 6: Final image showing all the layers of individual images with masks.

Step six: Repeat steps 2 to 5 again for the next image in the sequence. Do this again 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.

Step seven: 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 will flatten the layers (Layer-Flatten Image) to create a smaller file to work on and send to clients. I will do any other touch-up, like color, dust spotting and sharpening, on this image before I send it out.

Sequence created using frames at 1/250 sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 100, Nikon D4, 14-24mm F2.8.
Sequence created using frames at 1/250 sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 100, Nikon D4, 14-24mm F2.8.

My son is getting way into skateboarding. He’s ready to attempt a big jump at the local skatepark. I’m not sure how this is going to end up, but I am going to follow the action. Whether he sticks the landing, or hits the pavement, I’m going to capture the entire action sequence. The next time you are photographing action, why not capture all of it? Just set your frame rate to maximum and blaze away. With a little processing in Photoshop, you will have stunning action sequences.

Leave a Comment

Menu