Photographs are single, still images, which capture a single moment in time, but sometimes we want to portray speed or motion. The best way to do this is control the exposure via the shutter speed.
It can be a fine line choosing the right shutter speed. Take the example above. If the shutter speed was too low then we would see plenty of blurred movement in the subject, but the parts that we want to remain sharp would also be blurred. If we choose too high a speed then everything will be frozen, giving us a clear, sharp image but not illustrating the speed and motion in the way that we want.
In this image the face, upper body and the bicycle are in sharp focus, but the wheels and feet of the cyclist are slightly blurred. I positioned myself on the inside of a corner, so that as the cyclist turned he was at a consistent distance from me – almost like me being in the centre of a circle and the cyclist being the circumference. This made focussing much easier and predictable, and also allowed me to pan horizontally, thus blurring the background.
The shutter speed chosen was 1/125th second at an aperture of f5.6, and as a result of this combination I think that the balance is just about right.
Photographing sports wasn’t part of the plan for me, but when you are asked to cover the ‘Revolution’ event at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester you don’t turn it down.
It’s one of the last competitive tests for some of the ‘Team GB’ athletes before the Olympics, and with names like Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Matt Crampton and Alex Dowset all out on the track that night it was always going to be something special.
Variety in what I shoot has always been important to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a way of making sure that you are always thinking about what you are doing, and it helps you ensure that you never find yourself stuck in a routine. There are far too many photographers out there who shoot the same subjects with the same lighting, same poses (if of a person), same situations and the same post production methods as they have for the last couple of years.
To me whether you are an amateur or a pro this simply isn’t good enough, as within a short space of time there is a danger that your work all begins to look the same, and ultimately dated. More importantly though is says something about you as a photographer. Are you constantly looking to innovate or are you stuck in your ways and afraid to break out of that comfort zone? By photographing different genres and styles you will find that you can use the techniques and processes from one with another, so you benefit across the whole range of your work.
Back on topic, this job was one that concerned me a little because quite uniquely it relies on the kit you use almost as much as the eye of the photographer. You need a high shutter speed even when panning (more on this later), but there’s not that much light in the velodrome so you need a fast lens. However you can’t use the lens wide open as you need more depth of field, so you need to get that ISO up as high as reasonably possible. You need a camera with a fast write speed, and a reliable continuous autofocus tracking system.
So the plan was to use a little on camera flash, a reasonably high shutter speed, as wide an aperture as I dared and a mid range ISO to keep the image noise down as low as reasonably possible.
When choosing the shutter speed you need to consider what the fastest part of the subject is. In this case it’s the spokes of the wheels, and I want them to be blurred rather than frozen. The next fastest part of the image are the cyclists feet on the pedals, and I want these to be reasonably (though not necessarily completely) sharp. Finally, I’m going to be panning the camera with the cyclists as they move around the track so that the cyclists stay sharp but the background has a motion blur. The shutter speed I select must give me the desired effect for each of these requirements.
I used my 85mm f1.8 lens as I was close enough to the action (courtesy of having media accreditation) to not need anything longer. An aperture of f4 should be enough to isolate my subject from the background, but also give me leeway if the focussing is a little out. Finally, the velodrome is generally quite light, but it all comes from the wrong place for photography (from above). A little fill in flash will resolve this, and it will also help add a little sharpness back into the image. When all of this is taken into account we’re looking at 1/250 sec at f4 with an ISO of 1600, with the flashgun on 1/4 power. The light is never going to change, so everything was set up in ‘manual’ mode on the camera.
Now comes the hardest part – and that’s photographing them! I’d never been to a velodrome before, and I was genuinely shocked at the speed that the cyclists get to. As the group come towards you there’s probably a window of around three seconds to grab the shot, and if you’re not ready for them then you don’t stand a chance. It literally is down to the fraction of a second, and you’ve got to be happy to write off the first fifteen minutes or so of shooting while you get the hang of how it all works. Once you’ve figured it out all you have to do is take lots and lots of photos.
I have a new admiration for dedicated sports photographers now. The reject rate on this shoot was quite high, but to be honest I expected that. For a shot to work it needs to be sharp enough, well composed, properly exposed for the ambient light and the flash, but also needs to capture the intensity and emotion of the race.