The world is alive with action. And ever since photographic materials became sensitive enough to record it, photographers have been trying to capture it in still prints.
But what's the best way of portraying action in an 8x10 glossy? Or is there a best way?
When somebody mentions action photography, nearly everyone who's been shooting more than a year or two thinks, "a fast shutter speed freezes the action." And nearly everyone is correct.
By selecting a fast shutter speed on a manually adjustable camera, you can shoot just about anything you can see with the naked eye. From a drag bunt down the third base line to a bullet bursting from the muzzle of a gun - they're yours to stop.
But "freezing" action doesn't actually show action. It doesn't usually give the illusion of motion, of speed. It does what the word implies - freezes both subject and surrounding scene so that we can observe what one split-second of an experience looked like.
But other techniques let a photographer not only show us that split-second in time but give us the illusion of speed, too. The first - and most often used - is a technique called "panning."
To pan your camera, first set the shutter speed on a fairly slow setting - say, 1/30th of a second. Then focus on the subject (or pre-focus on the spot where the subject will be moving past you, as in an auto race) and place the subject in the viewfinder, just as you would a stationary subject.
Then, as the subject continues to move from one side of you to the other, follow the action, keeping it in the same location within the viewfiner. In effect, you'll be panning with a still camera, just as you'd do if you were shooting movie film. When you feel that everything looks right, slowly press the shutter release button, continuing to pan as you do so and for a second or two afterward.
The results, if you didn't jar the camera around too much, will be a subject fairly much frozen and in focus and a background that is blurred because of the camera's movement during the panning.
This blurred background gives the impression of motion or speed. In addition, it helps isolate the subject from what might otherwise be a background cluttered with people, telephone poles, parked cars, etc.
Another motion-illusion technique accomplishes just the opposite: It places the background in sharp focus and the subject is blurred. To do this, decide which shutter speed would be necessary to freeze the action completely. Then set the camera's shutter speed to the next-slower setting.
For example, in a photograph of a skateboarder, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second might capture the boy against a sharp background. By shooting him at a speed of 1/25th, however, the boy creats an illusion of motion as his board carries him through mid-air. Too slow a shutter speed (say, 1/15th of a second) would completely obliterate the subject with motion blur.
There are other techniques for photographing moving subjects - and for creating the impression of movement. To find out which work best for you, experiment. Get out and photograph fast-moving subjects. Try various means of capturing them - and the aura of speed that surrounds them - on film. You could be pleasantly surprised with the results.