To get cool action shots you need to know a few simple tricks
Taking a lovely fish portrait can be fun, but let’s be honest—it lacks the “wow” factor. A side profile of an ornate ghost pipefish is pretty cool, but that same shot right after it grabbed a tiny goby is a contest winner. The problem with action shots is that they can be hard to plan, in that they tend to be spontaneous, and things happen very quickly.
If you’ve been down in the muck shooting slow-moving nudibranchs maybe it’s time to try something new. Or perhaps you’re heading to Palau and want to make sure you are ready for those epic shots at Blue Corner. So if you are prepared to take the plunge into fast-moving subjects, here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you plan your shots.
You need a little patience, and a lot of luck, to capture incredible images
Put Yourself in Position
The number one thing you need to do in action photography is to put yourself in a place where action can happen. Here then is the flip-side to this rule: Action does not always occur! My best personal example is the Mola mola. I have tried many times to get a shot of one being cleaned, but every time they didn’t show up. If it were easy to get the shot, then they wouldn’t be worth shooting.
Ironically, the biggest virtue of an action photographer is patience. You need to be willing to have dives where absolutely nothing happens, or you might have to spend all day out in small boats for weeks at a time looking for whales. If you need immediate satisfaction, then you may want to look elsewhere.
There are some places you can go that will give you some remarkable subjects. If you are in North America, you can hit the sharks in the Bahamas, or dive off piers in California to play with the sea lions. In Asia, check out Palau, and in Europe, your best bet is the Red Sea. Go somewhere like this, and you at least have a good chance of getting your shot.
If you want to get action shots, you need to go where your subjects are
Wide-Angle Lens? Maybe Not!
I was on a boat in Palau, and we were headed to Blue Corner to shoot sharks and big fish. During our long ride out, we were talking about what gear we had brought. My new friends all had super-wide lenses and big domes; then they saw my camera, and the look on their faces was priceless. I was shooting my 60mm macro lens!
The lesson here is don’t assume just because the scene is in a place with big visibility that you automatically need to shoot a wide lens. Their shark pics were good, but the subjects were microscopic. Mine were more challenging to shoot, but they filled vastly more of the frame. Excellent visibility means you can bring bigger zoom lenses. My 60mm was the biggest I had with me; I would have happily shot a 100mm if I could have.
Sometimes you need to think out of the box when it comes to what gear to bring
Set Everything Up Before You Shoot
Action shots are by their nature very fast moving. You won’t have time to carefully consider things like camera settings, strobe position, or flash power. Before the dive, or very early on, you need to get your rig set up in what will generally be the best configuration. In most cases when you are shooting, you want to move your lights, change strobe power, and get your camera setting perfect—well, when the action is fast and furious, you won’t have the luxury of time.
So just put those strobes in the 10 and 2 positions, turn your lights to TTL and set your manual camera settings (more on that below). Don’t try and fiddle too much during the dive. You may have the chance to make changes, and by all means, use it, but don’t count on it. Often the animals, current or other divers will ruin your best-laid plans.
This turtle and its buddies passed by with no notice in a strong current. Be ready!
Camera Settings—Keep It Simple
The power of manual camera control is your ability to adapt to any situation and be flexible. However, when starting in action photography, you may want to throw that advice right out the window. I’ve missed amazing shots while fiddling with my ISO settings; don’t make that mistake if you don’t have to. At the start of the dive, you will need to make some necessary observations about the conditions, and from these, you will set your camera.
As a starting place, you can set your ISO to 100, your f-stop to somewhere around f/6, and your shutter speed to no less than 1/200s. The shutter speed is all important in action photography, so you need to set that up as high as conditions will permit. You will even want to push your ISO higher if it allows you to get that shutter speed up. The action will be moving fast and you need to compensate for that.
You don’t want to be adjusting your ISO while these beauties swim past!
At the start of your dive, use the settings above, but then start tweaking them—with faster shutter speeds being your goal. You may find that you can take your strobes off TTL and just set them to full power, but careful with backscatter if you do that. Use those first early dives of a trip to figure out what works for you and then stick to that in future dives. This will let you keep your head on a swivel and find that fantastic subject, instead of looking down at your camera’s LCD while fiddling with settings.
You don’t need big animals to capture the action, but you do need to freeze your subjects
Hopefully, these quick tips gave you some ideas and inspiration. Action photography is incredible, and it can deliver images that have an impact. Be patient, be adaptable, and keep your setup simple—then hope and pray the action comes to you.
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