If you've been shooting for a while, you know exactly the best way to go about getting that photo of your dog, cat, son, daughter, friend or favorite relative. You've taken that shot or one like it hundreds of time.
But what about the really different shot one you've never attempted before?
Example: The closest I've ever knowingly been to a gymnast in action was one night two years ago while Nadia was doing her routine. I was adjusting the vertical hold.
Still, I wanted to photograph some gymnasts in action - to capture their amazing grace, beauty and form. So I went out to a school of gymnastics and, expecting the worst, encountered it. Here is my success vs. failure breakdown.
Success No. 1. Every frame was exposed.
Failure No. 1. Gymnasts move faster than you'd think. Even shooting at 1/250th, many of the shots I took were blurred. And catching the subjects at the "peak of action," where they're frozen for an instant at the height of a leap or whatever, wasn't easy when I hadn't the faintest idea of when the peak would occur.
Failure No. 2. Low light combined with fast action is a killer. Opening my lens aperture to the widest setting let me use a faster shutter speed to freeze the action, but the wide aperture created a narrow depth-of-field (area of relative sharpness) that made getting sharp focus very difficult. Closing the aperture to a narrower setting forced me to use a slower shutter speed to get a proper exposure. The slower speed spelled death.
Failure No. 3. Of the only two lenses I brought to the shooting, one, the 200-mm, was too long for most shots. The other, the 55-mm macro that focuses to infinity, was adequate but too slow. Both lenses had an aperture of f/3.5 - just not fast enough for my purposes.
Failure No. 4. I was continually caught turning left as the gymnasts turned right, looking up as they were coming down and breaking to reload as they performed their most spectacular leaps.
I know, I know. Don't say it. The failures outnumber the successes. Ahh, but the next day, armed with the knowledge of what went wrong, I returned to the scene and - like the jilted husband out for revenge - doggedly stalked my prey. This time the results were excellent. Here's what I did.
I stopped the action two different ways. First, using Kodak's new 400 ASA Ektachrome color slide film and a Vivitar 283 electronic flash unit, I pushed the film to 800 ASA. Then I informed my processor, and he adjusted processing to give me excellent results.
Second, I shot Kodak's Tri-X under available light (no flash) at 3200 ASA. This I processed myself in D-76 and a chemical additive called Factor 8, made expressly for pushing black-and-white films. At 3200 ASA, I was able to use an aperture of f/5.6 for adequate depth-of-field and a shutter speed of 1/500th for action-stopping crispness.
I changed lenses, using mostly a 135-mm telephoto backed up by a 35-mm wide-angle for closeups; the wide-angle lens produces excellent depth-of-field, making critical focus less crucial than with lenses of longer focal lengths.
Finally, the real key to improving the quality of shots at that second shooting proved to be my increased awareness of what those kids were going to do. That's something for you to remember whenever shooting an unfamiliar subject.
Take time to watch what's happening, to think about the best way of covering the action with a camera and lens. After you begin to feel capable of anticipating the action, you'll be ready to begin shooting. Even then, though, don't be surprised if it takes more than one time out to catch the best possible shots. Practice makes perfect, they say. So what are you waiting for?