Picture PerfectTips for getting your PR in trail-running photography
Runner: Russ Daniels. Location: Treasure Mountain, Colorado. Photo by Duane Raleigh.
>>Trail running is all about the environment. When you have a dramatic landscape, make the most of it by shooting wide and minimizing the runner. When the backdrop is drab, shoot tight and emphasize the runner and action.<<
Somewhere along one of our trail runs we’ve all crested a stony ridge and been smacked in the face by a Kodachrome moment: a breathtaking panorama of rolling green meadows, azure sky and screaming yellow wildflowers. To immortalize the moment, we snap a photo and a couple of weeks later, eager to relive the experience, load it onto a computer. They say that time changes things, and this time it sure did. That magical moment looks fuzzy, dim and as unappealing as a warm mayo sandwich. What happened?
Read on and glean the photography secrets of the pros—guys like David Clifford—tips culled from experimentation, mistakes, getting lucky and actual book schooling. Photography is too vast and tricky a subject to detail in a few thousand words, so think of this as a primer, the starting point for your trail-running photography ultra.
GEARING UP__You can trail run in army boots, and you can photograph trail running with a disposable camera. But, if you want to actually enjoy the experience and nail quality shots, specialized gear is a must. You need a camera with interchangeable lenses, manual adjustments for the shutter, aperture and ISO, and a continuous-firing or “burst” mode that will let you take multiple photos per second, increasing your chances of getting the shot where the runner’s stride is picture perfect. The higher a camera’s burst rate, the better: nine frames per second great; four per sec is just passable.
A few of the better point-and-shoots have most of the features you’ll need (see David Clifford’s top picks on page 34), and high-end point-and-shoots can be better than low-end digital-single-lens-reflex (DSLR) cameras. Lightweight, small, simple to use and relatively inexpensive, point-and-shoots are ideal for getting shots to post online, show at slideshows or make prints for mom. For pro photography, however, they fall short in too many areas.
If you want to sell your photos or do pro-caliber work, the lens-changing ability of a DSLR makes it a must. There are dozens of great models by companies such as Canon and Nikon, but, fundamentally, they are similar and have many of the same features. I shop by price and megapixels, the smallest bit of information a camera can capture—more megapixels equals better photos. To print a sharp photo in a classy mag like Trail Runner you need a camera that will take photos of 10 megapixels, minimum. This resolution allows us to print the photo as a full page and gives the art director cropping options. Most top-tier cameras deliver this resolution—some even double it. Images around eight megapixels are common for today’s point-and-shoots, although 10 megapixels is becoming more common.
Besides choosing a camera with as many megapixels as you can afford, get one that uses quality lenses such as those from Canon or Nikon. Middling lenses by Tamron, Tokina, Sigma and the ilk cost a fraction as much, but can have disappointing optical qualities. To be sure, some off-brand lenses are very good, but you won’t know until you buy one and test it out. At Trail Runner, we see thousands of photos a year. The sharpest, best ones are always taken with a top-shelf lens. The website www.kenrockwell.com is loaded with solid camera and lens reviews.
If money is tight, look at inexpensive prime (non-zoom-length) lenses. If you can just buy one lens, get a 50mm f/1.4. That versatile lens from Canon or Nikon will be in the $300 to $350 range. Next, get either a 12mm or 24mm. One of these wide angles will let you get close and personal with the runner, while including the sweeping landscape.
As budget allows, add a medium telephoto such as a 85mm or 105mm. With all lenses, buy the lowest aperture you can afford. For instance, choose the 50mm f/1.4 over the 50mm f/1.8. The “faster” f/1.4 will cost over twice as much, but because it can shoot in lower light, will occasionally let you get a pic that’s impossible with the f/1.8. More importantly, it has a much shallower depth of field when it is shot wide open, letting you blur out a distracting background or foreground (more on depth of field later).
RAW POWER__Digital cameras have a confusing display of settings that can make the cockpit of a passenger jet seem like a deprivation tank. Most vexing are the Image Quality options. Almost all DSLRs and some point-and-shoots give you the option of shooting JPEG (low quality), JPEG fine (medium quality) or RAW (maximum quality). RAW captures the most data and delivers an undoctored image, one that has not been adjusted in-camera for sharpness, contrast or other settings, hence the term “raw.” A RAW photo has to be processed for color, sharpness, etc., back at the house, and on your computer, which takes time. But since your computer is more powerful than the processor in your camera, your options for making adjustments are nearly unlimited. Disadvantages: RAW photos gobble up card space and are slow to load on a computer.
Most of that post-production work goes out the window if you take JPEGs. Then, your camera’s processor makes the adjustments to spiff up the image. Usually, your camera will do a good job of processing JPEGs, and if you don’t know what you are doing in Photoshop, a processed RAW file can actually look worse than a JPEG. Most of the better cameras let you shoot in RAW and JPEG format at the same time. If you are sending your images out for consideration in print, include the JPEGs—many photo editors prefer to preview photos in JPEG, but only accept hi-resolution RAW images for publication. Check before you send. Trail Runner prefers high-res tiffs converted from RAW with low-res JPEGs for previewing. If you don’t care to market your photos commercially, shooting JPEG is fine.
SHOOT SHARP__Running photography is an action sport—your subject is always moving, making it easy to miss the focus and get a blurry or “soft” image. Soft photos are caused by using a shutter speed that is too slow to freeze the action and/or blowing the focus.
To freeze action, a shutter speed of 1/320th of a second is the lowest you can go, and even then you’ll get more blurry than crisp shots. Eliminate motion blur by shooting with a shutter speed of 1/400th or faster.
GET FOCUSED__Focus problems are second only to shutter speed as the cause of blurred running shots. When someone is running, the point of focus relative to your camera constantly changes. What is in-focus one instant is out-of-focus the next. There are, however, tricks you can use to increase your chances of nailing a sharp pic. Having your runner run parallel to you instead of at you, for instance, will keep the runner in the focus plane longer. If the runner is going to be coming at you, pre-focus on a spot on the trail. Pick a pebble on the trail at a place where you like the composition, focus on that pebble, compose, then start shooting right before the runner arrives at the pebble. Continue shooting until the runner is past the pebble. Set the camera on burst so it will fire multiple frames per second, increasing your chances of getting an in-focus shot.
Another tip for nailing focus is to adjust your lens aperture to give you a deep depth of field, the invisible box inside which everything in your photo will be in-focus and everything not in the box is out-of-focus. If the light is bright enough, do this by adjusting your aperture, or “f-stop,” to a higher number (called “stopping down”), say f/16 instead of f/2.8. The larger the aperture number, the deeper the depth of field, and the more likely you’ll get your subject in-focus. The trade off is that when you shoot with a large aperture, much of what you see through the viewfinder will be in-focus and you lose that blurred painterly feel where those flowers in the foreground or peaks in the background are softly out-of-focus.
The lens you stick onto your camera will also affect sharpness. Wide-angle lenses, those from 10mm to 24mm, are very forgiving of focus error, and because they are small and lightweight, are easy to hold so you are less likely to get blur caused by camera shake. Big, heavy lenses such as a 200mm or 300mm, on the other hand, are unforgiving. They demand precise focusing when you shoot at the lower apertures and are tiring to hold, making it more likely you’ll jiggle the camera and blur the photo. A tripod or monopod will help you steady a camera with a big heavy lens, but setting up a tripod eliminates spontaneity and reduces your ability to change composition on the fly. When you are getting started, you’ll have the best luck shooting with lenses in the 12mm to 105mm range. Happily, these lenses are also usually the least expensive.