Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with Simon Bruty who specializes in portrait, editorial, action, sports and travel photography.
Sports action photography is about freezing a fraction of a second when everything is moving very quickly in front of you. If you are really good, or really lucky, that fraction of a second you captured tells a larger story about the game you are photographing.
There is, however, one other way to interpret sport photographically and that is by capturing the speed of the game along with the moment by panning. Panning is the technique of using a slow shutter speed while simultaneously following your subject. The goal is to keep your subject sharp and the background a blur, thus giving your image a sense of movement and motion.
I was on assignment at the World Athletics Championship 2019 in Doha, Qatar for Sports Illustrated. On the second day of competition the Women’s 10,000M race was scheduled, an event where the athletes would pass by me more than 20 times on the track, so I decided to play with the panning technique. I shot the image at the top of this story using a Canon EOS 1D X Mark II with a 15-35mm lens set at 1/8th second at f/7.1 and ISO 100.
What lens should I use? What shutter speed? What is the light going to be like? The variables are limitless and connected all at once with panning, which is why there is only one rule: KEEP YOUR SUBJECT IN FOCUS. That’s all you have to master. Composition and a clean background are the finer points of a good photograph that come with experience and, of course, with trial and error.
You can use a tripod for panning and the few times I’ve used one I had a good ball head with a level to show the vertical and horizontal balances. Most of the time I like to use a monopod for the big telephoto lenses, or I hand hold for the shorter lenses. I generally tuck my elbows into my body and try to be as smooth as I can when following the subject. The shutter speed you choose is the variable that will make your image memorable, or that hated four letter word…NICE. The slower the shutter speed the better the image will look. However, it is much harder to keep your subject in focus with those slow shutter speeds.
The sport you choose for panning is also important. Where there is predictable movement in a constant line such as motor racing or track, your ability to pan will be relatively straightforward and the results will look good. If you are trying to pan a sport where there is movement but no constant such as soccer, your pan could be difficult and unpredictable.
The lens you use will also have an effect. Longer lenses will have the ability to compress and isolate the image making it easier for the motion pan effect. Wide lenses are more difficult to use when panning: you will need a much slower speed to create the effect of movement and the backgrounds become more important.
The 10,000M race I was photographing was twenty-five laps long. This is important because it gives you the ability to try different shutter speeds and work out which one works best. It also gives you time to create different images while presenting an opportunity to also photograph the winner crossing the finish line.
The biggest problem with panning athletic events is that the motion, while constant, is not always on the same plane. The longer the race went on, the more spread out the athletes became, and I wanted them together in the photograph. Using a wide lens such as the 15-35mm, I used a slow shutter speed to get the motion effect, which meant there was a chance I would not get the athletes as sharp as I wanted. I used the structure and the lighting of the stadium to help with composition. The mix of all these elements helped create the image you see above.
Motor racing is great for panning. The constant motion on the same plane and the fact that they go around and around and around gives you the chance to experiment and choose shutter speeds to suit your desire. Both images below were created using a 400mm f/2.8 lens on a monopod. The first image below was shot at 1/60th second and the second at 1/20th second. You can begin to see how the background changes with the different shutter speeds. I tend to pick the race car out early and follow, making sure my actions are fluid and then press the shutter at the spot I’ve decided on.
The horse racing and baseball images below are examples of when things get a little more difficult to get a good pan. When you have inconsistent horizontal and vertical movement, the long shutter speed will produce the movement effect but sharpness on the subject will be difficult.
The horse racing image is from the start of the 2014 Kentucky Derby. I knew I could blur the crowd in the foreground, but the tricky part was to try and keep the horses sharp. As there were a number of races before the main event, I played with different shutter speeds to find a shutter speed that would work. I handheld the camera and lens and your fluid motion following the subject helps to keep the subject in focus. Again, the image works because the horses are together and sharp.
The image of baseball pitcher Chris Sale below has the same problems as the horse racing image, but the pitcher is isolated and the horizontal and vertical movements are more exaggerated. You need to watch to see if a pitcher has some moment in his action that will enable a pan to work. If he does, you then have to work through trial and error to find that moment where the slow shutter speed will work. You need time and patience and when you’re covering a game for a client you might not have that luxury.
About Simon Bruty
Originally from the U.K., Simon Bruty now lives in Washington D.C.
During his career, Simon has traveled extensively to work on large sporting events such as World Cup Soccer, Super Bowls, and the Olympics. His feature stories are as diverse as golfers in Greenland, soccer in Zambia, and badminton in Indonesia. Somewhere along the way Simon learned how to make people sit still and has created portraits of some of today’s most memorable athletes.
His editorial and commercial clients include the International Olympic Committee, Sports Illustrated, the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, ESPN, and Canon. He received a Lucie Award in 2016 for Achievement in Sports Photography and has also received awards from the World Press Foundation, Pictures of the Year, and the International Olympic Committee. The London Observer chose one of Simon’s photographs to be included in their list of the World’s 50 Greatest Sports Photographs. Simon is also a Canon Explorer of Light.
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