Monday, December 5, 2011

Necessary Roughness: Information vs. Emotion

When it comes to action shots, a shot that is clearer, sharper and shows more of what's going on is not necessarily what I look for.  Instead my priority is to capture the emotion, and I don't let the need for information get in the way.

More after the jump.

When I take photos, I don't see myself as a recordkeeper.  Preserving information is not my purpose although it may be an incidental benefit of my shots.  Rather, I take photos in the hope of moving another person, perhaps through beauty, emotion, or sometimes, unreasonableness.  To do that, I sometimes sacrifice elements of a photo that a nonphotographer might think as always being critical in photographs: clarity, sharpness, capturing everything for the viewer.

Recently, I took some shots of my Brazilian jiu-jitsu teammates.  I had seen a number of jiu-jitsu photos and most of them didn't stir my emotions.  Frankly, I found many of them to be emotionally flat.  I thought this was strange considering that Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an intense sport.  I noticed that most of the shots were very clean: sharp, clear, with plenty of information for the viewer.  I thought that this might be the problem.

While I'm sparring in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, things are usually anything but clear and smooth.  Matches between equally skilled players are very unpredictable, constantly going back and forth, neither person remaining dominant for long.  Sometimes, the players might appear very still, but that's only as true as a heavy spring is compressed to the maximum.  A split second later and the players explode into sudden and erratic movement.

I thought about capturing the same feeling in my shots.  Here are the tips I used to do that.

1.  Understand the sport. 
a Brazilian jiu-jitsu "pendulum sweep"
Because I understand the sport, I can not only understand what is going on, but also anticipate when a sudden movement is about to occur, and when a climactic moment is coming.  In the shot above, I saw that the dark-haired player was positioned to sweep the other player off his feet. So I took aim and sure enough... whoosh!

2. Get the player's perspective.
The player in white has trapped the other player in his "guard" and is about to apply a "palm up palm down" choke.
To bring the viewer closer to the experience of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I positioned myself at the same level as that of a player.  Brazilian jiu-jitsu is mostly groundfighting so I got down on my hands and knees to get most of the shots.

3. Freeze time.
A hip throw
For some of the shots, I did use a high shutter speed typically recommended for sports photos.  To avoid making the shot boring though, I used this to capture moments where the high shutter speed actually makes a difference in appearing to freeze time. The shutter speed for the shot above was 1/250.

4. Facial expressions.
The player in blue winces as the player in white tries to escape.
In trying to capture the decisive moment, it's easy enough to look at the player's actions.  However, I also paid attention to the facial expressions of the players.

5. Tele or wide.
Although the player in black is on the bottom, he is about to execute a choke that could win the fight.
I avoided using a normal focal length and instead either used a short focal length (and placed myself close to the players) or I used a long focal length.  I believe that shots that offer a literally different point of view can be more emotional than one shot with a normal focal length.

6. Very tight composition.
Players struggling
Another way I heightened the tension and drama in some shots is by using a very tight composition.  Naturally, this will mean missing much of the information in the scene.  However, that's exactly what I want here because this imperfect information mirrors the experience of grappling and fighting in close quarters.

7. Blur.  
The player in black breaks a hold by rotating his upper body and kicking out his leg.
Another way I charged the shots with more emotion was to use intentional blur.  I used motion blur from the subjects' movement, as distinguished from blur from being out of focus, or blur from camera movement.  The shot works when at least part of the image is sharp, because the viewer consciously or subconsciously understands that the shot was not out of focus and the photographer had a steady hand (or in the case of panning movements, skillfully moved the camera along the direction of movement).  I added motion blur by using a slow shutter (1/20 in the shot above, though most of the time I used 1/25).  Other possible options include Flash Blur and adding blur in post-processing.

Anyway, here are more samples.

The bottom player is about to execute a type of shoulder lock called an "omoplata"

The player in white struggles as the player on top pressures his neck.

The player in black rotates to prevent the player in white from gaining a superior position.