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Slow-Shutter High-Speed Action Photography

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With so many ways to be creative in photography, I get really excited with many ideas for a photograph. One area I find very interesting is sports action photography, but with a twist. It’s great to capture that split-second moment and have that frame frozen, but I wanted to explore capturing the motion and freezing the action all in one go.

The 3-minute video above is of me using this technique with some karate students.

I have used the strobe effect/repeating flash in the past during a dance shoot, which also captures the movement but freezes the movement with each burst of flash. The image below was captured during a dance session with my good friend and fellow photographer Phil Punton.

I really like the repeating flash effect, but that’s 8 pops of the flashes that freeze each part of the movement. I wanted to capture more motion in my image. Using a couple of karate students, I decided to test out the idea using a continuous light source (the PixaPro 100D MkII LED) to capture the motion.

And using a fast flash duration strobe (the Citi 600 TTL) to freeze the action.

The fast flash duration of the strobe (t1 value displayed on the screen in the above image) allows me to freeze the action even though I am using a shutter speed of 1 second and my subject is moving. Basically, at a lower power level on the strobe, it outputs the flash at a higher speed, which is what freezes the action. And the combination of that and my aperture at f/13 produces a nice sharp end to the movement in the frame.

I booked a local theater stage. When I originally booked, it was for the full day as I really wanted to make the most of this setup and the karate students, but unfortunately, there was a mix-up and they had double-booked, which left me with 1 1/2 hours to set up, produce the images, and shoot the video! I do believe I have never run around as much as I did that day, and to add to all of this, when I scouted the theater only the week before, the stage was completely clear! As you can see from the image above, they had started to build a set.

I started to set up and quickly realized that I needed to use grids to control the light spill coming from the continuous light on the left in the above image and also place a strip box grid on the Citi 600.

I start with the continuous light and gauge a good exposure for the motion in the image (1-second exposure) and at the same time checking I have the black background with an aperture of f/13. Turning off every light in the theater and only having my LED light on was enough to focus on my subject and shoot some video.

I took a few frames using the Citi 600 light, standing the student at the end point of the 1 second of movement from the continuous light on the left. I set the power level of the light to suit my aperture of f/13, making sure I didn’t overexpose the karate girl. And I set the camera to fire the strobe on the second curtain so the karate student is frozen at the end of the movement.

Once I had the lights set up, we started shooting. Timing is key with this type of image, but with karate, timing is very much part of there training, which helped during this session. In the short span of time that we had to set up and shoot, we managed to capture some great images, with the one above being my favorite. In a couple of the shots I added a speedlight behind right of the subject to give a little rim light using a 580 MkII speed lite.

I would have loved to have had more time to incorporate colored gels and different movements, but that wasn’t to be on the day. I wanted to share this little bit of info as I think this technique could be very effective in many other sports (e.g. boxing, MMA, fencing, football, or even diving into a pool) and mixing all that up with colored gels are just some of the ideas I have in mind to try. So hopefully this might spur the imagination of others with ideas on how you can use this in your own photography.


About the author: Barry Mountford is a photographer based in Gateshead, England. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Mountford’s work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

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