Practicing fast action shooting

Around ten days ago, during the triennial Züri Fäscht, they organized once again the Freestyle Zurich. This time, obviously, without snow sports involved... I took the chance to go and practice a bit of action photography with MTB and BMX big air competition and Motocross Freestyle. I've posted here a few photos of the flying bikers. As you may notice, the light was coming from the wrong direction (hitting the riders almost straight on the back), so the pictures are not great, unfortunately, but I could nevertheless practice some fast action shooting.

I wanted to have the jumping bikes coming towards me and have a good viewing angle. I decided to stand in correspondence of the end of the landing, quite close to the track. This is an especially tricky situation for the auto-focus. You're positioned just on the side of the foot of the landing, meaning that your subject (the biker) is hidden from you until it jumps out of the kicker. So, you can't aim at it (the subject) and let the auto-focus in continuous mode keep track of it, because while it's on the up slope of the kicker itself you don't see it. Hence, the camera must be very fast to focus on it immediately after it pops out of the edge, in order to give you sharp shots on the few instants while it's in the air.

I have to admit my 80D performed even above my expectations. The auto-focus in 'Servo' mode is excellent. Once I properly set the camera, I could literally forget about any technical aspect, just be ready, point at the subject when it pops out of the kicker (you can easily anticipate the exact moment by following the biker down the ramp) and press the button. The photo burst begins, I move along with the flying bike and follow it to the landing. Most of the shots are in focus, I just have to pick the best pose. That's simply great when your gear just does exactly what you need. No headache. Just shoot.

At this point, it seems natural to tell a bit about those settings. I know they're obvious for whoever is somewhat familiar with action photography. Nevertheless, every camera brand is a bit peculiar, I'll describe here the detailed settings for Canon that I find magical.

Lens: Canon EF-S 55-250 F4-5.6 IS II (the "kit telezoom"), cheap and clearly on the lower end of performance, but it's amazing for the price (I'm thinking about a new tele, though...).

Autofocus: AI Servo
Focus area: AF zone, central area
Drive: high speed burst
Aperture priority with F:5.6 (most of the time)
In most light conditions, I keep the optical stabilization disabled: it's not useful, potentially harmful (especially to the battery life), if the rest is properly set. So, of course also this time the lens stabilizer was off.

Now, the key part concerns ISO and shutter speed. I want to make sure that the maximum exposure time is 1/500 sec, to avoid motion blur due either to the fast moving subject or to my shaking hand.
To achieve this I set the ISO to 'auto', then in the menu I go to the 'ISO speed settings' and set the minimum shutter speed to 1/500. In this way the camera will chose the minimum possible ISO, then shutter speed according to the exposure, increasing the ISO when the light is not enough to keep the exposure time below 1/500 sec.

Here you find a few of the shots. I hope you'll like them.

The gifts of the Lensbaby Spark tilt lens

When I saw it in an online shop I was immediately struck by curiosity. I knew it would have been an unconventional and unreliable photographic object. That's exactly why I bought it. The little price (~100 euro) helped in this decisin, as well. And now I love it.

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A sure thing is that this lens can't take the same picture twice. Not all your shots will come out nice, even the easy ones. This can be frustrating at the beginning. Sometimes you see, compose and shoot, following your automatism, with confidence, but the photo will not be good. I had to learn and make peace with this.

Now, just a few words about how it works, to clarify why it's impossible to take the same picture twice. Basically, the whole construction of the lens is based on a flexible rubbery arrangement. All the elements are mounted along a sort of spring and to focus (and tilt, of course) you have to squeeze the lens with your fingers. It goes without saying, there can't be any autofocus. Neither a way to reproduce the same position of the lenses twice. No references, no rulers, no clicks.

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I clearly recommend to try this lens. It gives absolutely inconsistent results, but that's exactly the reason why it's so cool. You have to rethink the whole taking picture process. You'll find a new and unfamiliar creative process (unfamiliar for most people, I mean).

My turning point was when I forced myself to use it. In a recent trip to Germany I carried it with me as the only lens. I soon realized that I had to make peace with the fact that some moments I captured were simply lost in a completely wrong shot.

So, a clear thing to keep in mind when using it, is that you can't take all the picrures you want. You may have to give up on some subjects, often realizing it only afterwards in post. But other pictures that were maybe taken as trial shots, turn out to be amazing. That's the great gift of this lens. Among the random and useless shots, you'll find rare pearls.

As with any tilt lens, the "blur distribution" can be really particular. The focus plane can be set not parallel to the sensor plane. You can create some really beautiful blur games.

Getting to experiment with this lens is a great way to enrich my creativity and skills. I didn't look for this unusual experience and I'm glad that it hit me.

Here are some of the pictures I took during the trip. Post editing is minimal, to show mainly the effect of the lens.

Stepping into street photography

It's hard to say why I feel so attracted by street photography shots. Maybe it's because Cartier-Bresson has always been one of my favorite photographer and one of my first entry points in the art.

However, I never considered myself any good in it. I actually never felt the courage to try and shoot out in the streets. That's why I was very limited in the knowledge of this type of photography by just considering the outcome, never looking into the detilas of the creation itself.

Luckily, I had the chance to take an introductory course about street photography with Swiss Photo Club. That was so interesting and I could finally get some understanding of it.

Our instructor (Matthias Gaberthüel, https://www.fjeril.com/) is a photographer based in Basel and was able to share with us his passion and some of his tricks. I recommend having a look at his great work.

I could realize a couple of things that I had all wrong. The most important, I think, is that taking some good street shots is not about walking around and just be ready to capture something that shortly takes place while you're roaming. I somehow thought that looking for a good moment to capture (the "decisive moment", if you want) was just a matter of getting costantly moving with your trigger ready and that maybe a good dose of luck was involved. Quite the opposite, I realized that good captures come from choosing an observation point and waiting. As Matthias put it, steet photography "is a bit like fishing". I found this principle so simple, but at the same time so effective. It felt like a sort of epiphany. I put it to work and had some nice shots, in the time we had to exercise during the course.

Here you'll find some of those shots. I've also made a short photo series with wheels as subject, that can be seen here.

To conclude, I'd like to thank Matthias and Swiss Photo Club for the opportunity and the fun. I absolutely recommened the Club and their courses.