For you antsy folks, there is a contest at the bottom, but you’ll have to have read the post to have a fighting chance!
Image 1: Julian Carr skis fresh Utah powder at Alta Ski Area
Earlier this week we were blessed with a bounty of blower (read: ridiculously light Utah powder) here in the Wasatch. It was the first day of shooting skiing for me this season, and it did not disappoint. There are some days where most everything goes right, and this just happened to be one of those days.
Image 2: Jen Hudak skis fresh Utah powder at Alta Ski Area
Anyone that has ever attempted to shoot fast and unpredictable action knows well the challenges of coming away with a sharp image. It’s hard enough to frame it up exactly as you’d like, let alone focus. Any athlete that has ever shot with me knows my typical response when I see something I like on my camera LCD display–“that will be killer if it’s sharp”. IF IT’S SHARP….
Nowadays, the auto focus systems on pro (and even some prosumer) cameras are so advanced that it’s tough to screw things up. That said, it still happens, and it always seems to happen to the shot or frame that you wanted the most. There are a few things we can do as photographers to nail the shot every time. When shooting skiing, there are essentially two techniques I use to focus. I will use a focus tracking method where I’m utilizing the auto focus in my camera throughout the image sequence and at other times I may pre-focus on a specific spot where I’ve directed the athlete to go. Both techniques work well in certain situations–some better than others.
Image 3: Carlo Travarelli skis fresh Utah powder at Alta Ski Area
Focus tracking works well when:
a) the athlete is moving towards or away from you at a rapid pace
b) you’re not sure where the climactic action will occur OR there are a number of images throughout the action sequence that you may want as keepers
c) there could be confusion between you and the athlete as to where exactly it is you’d like them to turn, air, etc.
d) generally speaking, the athlete will not remain parallel to the focal plane throughout the sequence
*Note: As a Canon shooter, I focus with my AF-On button instead of my shutter button. This allows the camera to continue micro-adjusting focus as the shutter clicks away.
*Note #2: It is best to manually select a focus zone in your camera. Place that focus zone over the part of the athlete you’d like in focus (most often the face). I typically start “tracking” focus about two seconds or so before I start clicking the shutter.
Image 4: Julian Carr skis fresh Utah powder at Alta Ski Area
Pre focus works well when:
a) you have a specific, mutually understood spot (between you and the athlete) where the climactic action will occur
b) the athlete is maintaining approximate equal distance from the focal plane throughout the action sequence
c) you’re shooting at infinity focus–in particular, this pertains to long lens, big line shots where the athlete is a great distance away OR wide angle shots where you’re shooting at infinity
d) there may be anything present (obstacles, weird lighting, atmospheric conditions) that would confuse your auto focus (there are ways to tweak your AF system so it doesn’t get thrown off as easily with things like this)
* Note that pre-focusing requires precise explanation and understanding on the part of the photographer and athlete as to where the action should occur. Generally speaking, the longer you have worked with an athlete, the better you will understand each other, and the more confident you will feel that the athlete can nail the spot on which you’ve pre-focused. Additionally, it’s wise to use larger apertures when possible, thus giving yourself and the athlete a margin for error across the focal plane if for some reason they are a bit closer or further away than the spot you mentioned.
Image 5: Julian Carr skis fresh Utah powder at Alta Ski Area
So. Contest time. I’ve included images throughout this post from shooting at Alta Ski Area on New Year’s Eve Day. I have a super cool Clik Elite medium lens pouch (great for wide angle zooms or moderate primes) and t-shirt for the first person that can correctly state which focusing technique was used on each image in this post. The contest will end on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Good luck!
Image 6: Julian Carr skis fresh Utah powder at Alta Ski Area