We’ve all shot impala, right? Whether at the zoo or in the field, their giant ears, Cleopatra-like eyes, long triangular faces and attractive coloring make them irresistible. I shot this small herd in the Sabi Sabi Private Game Preserve (on the edge of Kruger National Park) while on Austin-Lehman Adventures South Africa trip last year and the antelope alone in the acacias a half dozen years before in Kenya.
It will sound odd, but I’m always reminded of my times photographing butterflies with a macro lens when I’m glassing an antelope and composing the scene. Their similarity of habit is remarkable momentary, almost absolute stillness, lulling you into taking those dangerous extra seconds just to look at these beautiful creatures before taking your shot then WHOOSH, they’re gone. That’s what happened with the butterfly below (taken on ALA’s Costa Rica adventure trip in the butterfly house we visited). Had I waited a split second longer I’d have missed the shot!
The thrill of catching that first good snap of an animal or insect is palpable, and in truth I never tire of shooting the same things. But that same level of satisfaction does not extend to the resulting photographs. That is, after a while my shots of these immobile lovelies begin looking the same, even after altering the angle, the composition, the background colors and lighting‚ all the many variations we all make to a subject when we’re striving for a novel look or feel. What’s left to capture?
Ah, in my opinion this is one of the most creative moments in photography, the instant not of executing the photograph (usually an easy enough thing to do) but the more difficult job of deciding what it is that you want to capture long before the camera is in your hand. Most of us travel photographers (you and me, everyone who travels and takes a picture now and again) never even consider this question until the moment is upon us, until the antelope are staring back or the butterfly lights on a flower nearby. This is understandable. Without really thinking about it we buy a camera before a trip, toss it into our pack, and when something looks interesting we take a snap. We’ve recorded what we see. The trip is our subject and we’ve just preserved a bit of it for ourselves and for others back home. There’s not a thing wrong with that. Not a thing until you notice that all your pictures are looking somewhat the same.
That’s when you begin doing what I listed above changing compositions, backgrounds, colors, lighting. If you still are feeling that you’re missing something, maybe it’s time to work at putting motion into your shots. It’s not a static world out there, after all, especially if what you’re trying to record is an adventure tour.
Now, there are a number of ways to put motion into photographs, and due to space considerations I’ll discuss just one at present pan-blurs. But I’ll mention the easiest of all before we get to panning that of just keeping your camera still when the antelope or butterfly races off, but tripping the shutter as it does. The results most often aren’t worth keeping, and if you were (or still are) shooting film you’d hesitate at the waste. But if it’s only pixels you’re burning, why not?
Here’s a butterfly (also taken in the Costa Rica butterfly house) that fluttered past my lens while I was standing still, camera to my eye and trained on a leaf where I’d seen two others light for few seconds. I was hoping for a third, and was pre-focused and composed. Then, suddenly, this fellow comes fluttering past. He or rather, she, as I soon discovered was headed to the curled frond at the very bottom of the photo. As I watched, amazed, she laid an egg! I had snapped as she descended, holding the camera as still as I could (notice that some of the leaves are in focus). What I love about this lucky snap is that we get to see what the human eye cannot the fast-beating colorful wings and those delicate legs, poised for a landing like a NASA moon rover descending to the surface. I didn’t get the shot I was after, another immobile, in-focus snap that would have looked much like the others I’d already taken. But I did get something just as interesting as those which let us count the hairs on a butterfly’s back.
So that’s one way to put motion into your photos holding very still, pre-focused on a spot (or on the creature itself) and snapping as the action of entrance to the scene or exit from it occurs. This, of course, requires a quick trigger finger and luck, but if it was too easy it wouldn’t be any fun.
Pan-blurs, in comparison, are far more fun, for instead of just standing still and tripping a shutter you are going to swing your lens with your subject as it passes. How clearly and cleanly you smear the background colors across your resulting photograph while keeping your main subject in focus depends upon how fast and how smoothly you make that swing and what shutter speed you’ve chosen (Pan-blurs can be taken even with point-and-shoots which don’t allow you to change your shutter speed, though you will of course sacrifice that element of creativity). Faster shutter speeds will put the moving subject into greater focus, and blur the background less. Slower shutter speeds will reduce the focus of both, giving your canvas a more impressionistic look. Here are two examples from the cross-Iowa Ragbrai ride, attended that year by a mere 8500 or so riders. What a lotta lycra to photograph!
In the first shot, the cool-looking blue-shoed, red-jerseyed cyclist’s face, arms, and hands are in near-perfect focus, while everything else in the picture says exactly what I was seeing as I shot it action. My shutter setting was 1/100th, and I obviously lucked into a nice, even swing of the zoom-telephoto lens I was using (Note: Some internally stabilized lenses have a special setting to help steady your lens as you pivot with the subject). Though one can pan (rotate) with any moving object (cars, horses, joggers), I prefer bikers because of the feet, spokes, and tires which are moving at different speeds and directions from the cyclist, resulting in blurs all their own.
In contrast, the second biker has not a single in-focus point anywhere in the picture. I snapped this rider at a 1/60th shutter speed, but when shooting pan-blurs the speed of the subject is as determinative of the result as is your shutter setting. Part of the fun of pan-blurs is that you don’t know what you’ve captured until you look at the picture on your computer screen, for even the largest of back-of-the-camera screens are too small to provide the necessary overall view. Practice will of course give you a better guess at what you’ve shot, but if you’re after a mix of pan-blur effects you should employ multiple shutter settings and alter the speed of your pivot.
As you can see in the shots, the background of a pan-blur is of great importance. Trees, a picket fence, a row of tall bushes or a high cornfield, all will be interesting when blurred. Other riders are an especially good background, and if they’re in different colors and riding at somewhat different speeds you’re doubly blessed. Choose your background, decide upon the spot where you’ll trip the shutter as your moving subject comes along, and focus for that spot. Pre-set your exposure (both shutter and aperture) for the lighting conditions, or choose shutter-priority alone (as I prefer, thereby letting the camera select the aperture according to the lighting present when your subject appears). Plant your feet firmly and practice the swinging motion, rotating just your upper torso as you do.
Another option is to use auto-focus, so that you can shoot before or after your pre-determined spot if things look good to your eye. And don’t stop your panning action after you’ve clicked the shutter, especially if you’re shooting at 1/30th of a second or slower. Sticking with that long, smooth glide of the lens will increase your chances of getting what you want.
Your best pan-blurs will probably be those you get when planning ahead, as I’ve done on adventure tours when pedaling hard for a minute to break from my fellow riders, then jumping off my bike at what looks to be a good location and hurriedly setting up before the others pass. But this is a technique that can be employed on the fly with a momentarily still subject as well, if you’re ready for it.
Take your best still shot of whatever it is that you’re expecting to bolt (like that antelope herd above), then quickly change your shutter speed to something slow enough to blur the background, and wait for them to speed off. Their pretty heads and erect ears will be in focus, while their flying hooves and taut leg muscles as well as the grass and trees in view will show the motion you’re wanting to pan.
In future Photo Corners we’ll discuss other ways to put action into pictures. Until then, enjoy perfecting your panning technique!