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Know your gears to shoot fast

I'm currently on holidays and my wife and mum just went shopping... so 'm taking the opportunity to update this blog.

Today I thought I would go back to an old photograph I've taken in Trafalgar Square to just discuss a bit on how to shoot fast and the get the shot you want.

Why would you want to shoot fast, some would ask? Wouldn't it be better to take your time and get it right? The answer would obviously be 'yes, but...' there is always a 'but'... you don't always have that time. If you are shooting an important person, in a crowded place where you might be obstructing the pathway etc... the time frame available for you to get the shot might be very short. So how can you get good shots in short time?

Lately, for my 'Project S' about Espionage and Special Agents, I needed to be quick at getting the shot. Usually shooting people that are not models, so not used to be in front of a camera, you need to be fast in order to keep their interest and get the best out of them. Taking your time for technical details will make them loose interest and they will look bored. You need to be energetic, fast and human. By being human I mean you need to forget you are a photographer and be a person interacting with them, discussing, laughing... And at the same time take the pictures. Depending on the person and the location of the shoot, your time shooting them might last from couple of minutes to much more if you are lucky enough.

With models I usually try to have between 2 hours and 3 hours session but I had several shoots that only last between 10 and 30 minutes and ended up with shots I'm happy with.

One thing I find interesting with shooting fast is that it seems to boost my creativity (this is true for any kind of restriction you are imposed with). I need to get rid of all technical aspect and quickly visualize the shot and get it. Instinct or reflex? But I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to do this few years ago.

What made it possible?

Practice! Lot of practice. The more you shoot, the more you know your equipments, how light is behaving, what background suit what subject, what pose will work etc... And by shooting a lot, all the technical aspect will become your second nature, while a beginner will spend half an hour setting up the lights, getting the correct exposure, compose the shot etc... you will only spend few minutes. Having a camera with you, even if it is your mobile phone camera is also part of the practice. I'm shooting regulary with my iPhone camera and this is training me in looking for the right subject, composition and light.

Along with these preparation is also a key to shooting fast. Instead of getting test shots with your subject, get them with your assistant or take shots of your hand, then when your subject gets into place, you just need few snaps.

The picture above of Alba was taken in Trafalgar Square. From the moment I unfolded my lightstand, it took about 10 minutes, if not much less, for the security guards to came to me asking me politely to stop shooting as I look like a pro and thus need a license to shoot there... Here what helped me was that I was already used to shoot in bright daylight and also got ready before unfolding my lightstand. I was hand holding my flashgun and got the exposure right, then I just set my lightstand and my current position, from there on I could shoot at will without worrying about the exposure as long as the distance flash/subject is the same.

In situations where everything is moving, you might find TTL is better for you when shooting fast, you might need to adjust your flash exposure compensation in some situation. But the camera's brain can of great help and recent DSLR have very decent TTL system browsing tens of thousand pre-defined scenarii to match yours in order to calculate an exposure. Couple of tips with TTL, try to keep the focus point on the subject instead of using the center focus point and recompose, the TTL system is calcuting the flash exposure around the AF focus point. Also the flash exposure lock is also very helpful in very fast actions as this will suppress the pre-flash and thus the little time required to calculate the flash exposure.

If you find that TTL doesn't work for you using Manual mode can also be used in fast changing situations. What you have to keep in mind is:

  • try to keep the same distance between the flash and the subject. As long as this distance doesn't change, you don't need to change any settings.
  • if you can anticipate a change in the distance, instead of taking your eyes off the viewfinder and adjust the flash power, you can just adjust the aperture: a wider aperture will give more light, a narrower aperture will give less light. Then compensate the shutter speed for the ambient: you just opened the aperture, now compensate with a faster shutter speed.

Also remember that with digital photography you have more details in the highlights than in the shadows. So even if your pictures are a bit over exposed, as long as you shoot in RAW you will be able to recover a lot of details in the highlights. So the perfect exposure is not always required and don't delete a good photo if it is a bit over-exposed! This article from Luminous Landscape explains it well: Expose Right.

I hope you will find this post useful. I'm very interested in seeing how you guys are dealing with fast shooting situations so please share your experience in the comments.


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