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November 4, 2010

How to take action shots with the Nokia N8

It’s great to have our good friend Ari Partinen, design engineer at Nokia, back on the page. In October Ari showed us How to take a professional portrait picture with a Nokia N8, and we’re more than happy to have him back here to share some tips & tricks on capturing those perfect action shots! So whether you’re a fan of extreme sports and want to learn about photographing your high speed moments, or you’re just someone with a camera wanting to learn more, we hope you enjoy Ari’s post as much as we did.

Over to you Ari:

A few weeks back I talked about portrait photography, focusing specifically on considerations when taking portrait images with new Nokia N8. The feedback we received from the article was extremely positive and I was asked to extend that into a series of articles covering various kinds of photography styles and explaining how to achieve the best results with the Nokia N8´s great camera. This time we chose action shots for our topic ( although this later proved to be a bit of a challenge, which I’ll cover later on in the article).

We got started by considering what kind of action shots to shoot. It didn’t take me long to conclude that something high adrenaline would capture peoples imagination, and so I gave a call to two of my childhood friends, Joonas and Janne, who are super talented, and some might say slightly crazy, downhill bike racers.

The plan was to meet up at a local hill at 9am on Saturday morning. In Finland. in October however, the weather can have a big say in proceedings, and as the challenge I mentioned earlier, we were greeted with sleet pouring down from an ominously grey sky, which is pretty much the worst conditions you can have for an outdoor action photoshoot. -but we went for it anyway. I figured that if the Nokia N8 can handle these conditions it could capture pretty much anything.

So what are the key elements one should consider in an action shoot? Personally, I think the most important factor is that your images reflect the essence of the sport in question. If the sport you are shooting is fast, then try to mirror this. If you are shooting figure skating or dancing then try to express the finesse and smoothness of the moves.

Action shots are also technically the most demanding ones to shoot and require a lot from your camera gear, especially in dark or dim conditions, as in our case.

We arrived at our location, a local hill with plenty of steep and narrow bicycle paths. I knew immediately that it was speed that I wanted to bring out in the pictures. Dim conditions and speed don’t go well together in photography since you need very short exposure times to freeze the fast movements, but since it was the speed I wanted to capture and highlight I decided to go on a completely different route. Instead of automode or a more natural choice – sports mode, I chose to use night mode setting with light sensitivity set to low, allowing the camera to use long exposure time. My reason for doing this was that when using long exposure time to shoot fast moving objects, you can really emphasize the speed with a blurred background. This type of blurring is called motion blur and it’s caused by the movement of the camera together with long exposure time. The trick here is to follow the subject and move the camera at exactly the same speed as your target. Mastering this requires some training and you are still bound to get some blurry images, but digital pictures don’t cost anything so just keep on shooting and you’ll eventually land some impressive photos. One of my objectives was to empahasize the target with colours so I used vivid color settings and increased the contrast a little to really bring out the target from the grey background. Of course no photoshop was used in this or any other image in this article.

Another thing to consider in an action photoshoot (well this actually applies to all photography, but especially when shooting extreme sports) is to move away from the traditional and experiment with creative angles and image framings. Some say that in photography you have to first know the general rules about the golden ratios -and then start to break those. This makes a lot of sense to me. In portrait images the general rule is that you should shoot from the height of your subjects eyes, but in extreme sports you can and should experiment. I chose two images here to demonstrate alternative shooting angles. One is a fairly common way to shoot extreme sports – from a very low angle to emphasize height and create more drama.

The other image demonstrates a more unusual shooting angle, directly above the subject. In the image shot from below I used the same vivid colour settings with a little bit added to the contrast. I also incorporated fill-in flash to prevent the target being completely black against the sky. Just remember to turn off the red-eye removal. Remember the delay between pre-flash and the real flash means it is easy to misstime your shot.

The last image I chose for this article is my personal favorite and demanded a little more work compared to the previous images, purely because in this image we used some external light sources. This time we went for pretty large scale external lights, with a combined weight of over 2000kg and a power output of about 120 horsepower. If I remember correctly the manufacturer was Volkswagen and it was a five seater.

What I really like about this image is how the natural environment is used to frame the target and together with the lights from the car the target immediately jumps out, even though it’s relatively small. In practice there were three elements used to draw attention to the target. The same vivid color settings were used to really punch out that red shirt, the car was parked behind that construction booth to bring more light to the subject, and the environment is utilized to steer the viewer’s attention to the rider.

Overall I was again stunned by the quality delivered by this amazing little device. It was great fun to really push it and experiment with different settings. On normal settings it delivers very natural and pleasing tones and colours, but play around with the settings a little and the outcome is very dramatic colours with an extremely cool feel.

One final word – I would like to mention the biggest lesson learned during this photo shoot. If you are travelling to Finland for an outdoor photo shoot in late October, don’t forget to take your gloves!