Sports photographer Little Shao on the streets as a playground, finding the right location, and how to capture dynamic action
The streets are an infinite playground. Within the street and urban environment, photographers are able to play around with shapes, lines and the landscape. Exploring and capturing a subject in these environments make everything more interesting and unique.
Usually I work with a full-frame camera, but today I challenged myself to use the Nikon Z 50, which is my first-time using an APS-C. In this article, I share my tips on how to capture urban sport.
Find the right subject
If you have a subject that doesn't make sense in the enviroment you're shooting in, the whole picture becomes awkward. For example, a volleyball player doing a smash in the middle of buildings without a net or opponents. Why would you have a volleyball player playing by himself in the street? You can be as creative as you want, but you have to establish a context.
Sports I often photograph are:
- Freestyle football
- Parkour and free running
The background of a photo — even if you are focused on the subject could enforce the beauty and the dynamics of your photography. Your background can give you even more lines thanks to the golden photography rule of thirds, or the lines of force. You can see on some of my pictures that I was trying to frame as much as possible with the golden photography rules using the rule of thirds. Lines from the floor, buildings, and stairs can also join the corners of your frame (lines of force).
The right location can make or break the photo
Finding an amazing location is one of the keys to an amazing picture. Try to have a location that could already look amazing even if you don’t have any subject in your picture. Adding action to this photo can only be a bonus and a strength for your picture.
On the picture below, you can see very clearly that the composition of this photo has the subject positioned at 1/3 on the left of this picture and the line made by the stairs join the right bottom corner. I’m using the lines from the urban environment to add more geometry. My goal was to create minimalism with only stairs and sky.
Gather the right gear
When you are shooting in an urban environment you are facing lots of random situations. Avoid heavy gear and ensure you are able to have a large diversity of frames. The weight, capacity and the portability of your equipment is something you need to optimize to avoid carrying a heavy bag.
I used the Nikon Z 50 which is really compact. It has a dual card slot which is a bonus in order to maximize your storage on the go without the need to change it on the location. When I had to climb to get on the roof on it was a real advantage having such a compact camera and lenses. The tilted touchscreen is perfect for low angle shots, especially for urban action shots as sometimes the floor is dirty and the angle could be so low that you won’t even be able to look through your viewfinder. What I usually do to frame is use the tilted touchscreen to do the focus or/and trigger on the subject.
Freeze the action with a high shutter speed
Shooting action requires you to have a pretty high shutter speed if you want to freeze the action. While shooting urban sport photography, I love to have the subject sharp in focus, without motion blur. The intention and your frame will tell the story and will bring the movement in your image but what I love is to have a clean and sharp image.
When shooting movement for a human in action I usually make sure that my shutter speed is higher that 1/1000 sec. The higher the shutter speed, the less risk of motion blur.
Choose your aperture
This will depend on what you want to do. If you want to have a blurry background with a nice bokeh, you can have your lens wide open, which means that the number of the aperture needs to be as low as possible. This can be an advantage for you if you don’t really like the background. It will give you a nice creative render on the background.
However, if you want to have more details on both the subject and the background, you just need to increase the aperture, and you will see more sharpness and details.
On the streets of Paris
When the subject is not moving back and forth but staying at the same distance between him and myself, I use the Auto Focus Single (AF-S). This requires me to have a half pressure on the subject to lock the AF, making sure I have the right framing, and keep half pressure while I’m framing and trigger when the action happens.
In the first picture below, the jump was vertical so I knew that as soon as I set my AF to where he was standing the distance between me and him wouldn't change during his action, so he will still be sharp in focus.
In the second photo, I asked him to put his hand where he will make the move in order to maintain the auto focus.
In the third photo, by keeping half pressure with your finger on the trigger, you will always have a constant auto focus, as soon as the AF pinpoint in your viewfinder is on your subject. For example, in the final photo I was following his whole path while he was running towards me.
AF-S or AF-C with an automatic auto focus selection with face/eye detection
This is an easy way to focus on what matters and not objects in the way. For the photo below, the ball was a real obstacle so I wanted to use the automatic auto focus feature on his face because he was juggling randomly and being very unpredictable. To make sure I was really in focus on the face I tried to shoot this one with the prime lens AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4 E ED.
Just a small mistake with autofocus would be visible, and bring his face out of focus. I used the burst mode here to see the reaction of the camera and it was very successful.
External flash light
I also like to create dramatic moods in my shots, and for this I use a Profoto B10 flash with the Profoto Connect Pro as a trigger that you plug on the flash shoe of your camera. You will be then able to control the flashlight from a distance.
For the first image, you need a flash — the more powerful, the more dramatic the image will be.
One of the reasons I started using flashlights is because I love clouds and I love to see details in the sky, which is not always possible, especially because the subject is under exposed, compared to the sky…
I usually start finding my settings being focused on the sky and as you can see on the second photo, the one without flash, the sky is very dark.
Once I found my set up that allows me to see the details in the sky, I add my light and adjust the power of the light until I have what I want as a render.
The Profoto B10 flash was moved over to the side in order to avoid a light coming from the front. This will help to bring shadows and more dramatic visuals.
Ready to push your photography further?
Use these tips and try to capture urban sports or dynamic action you spot in your neighbourhood.
I would highly recommend these types of lenses:
- One wide angle lens (I used the NIKKOR Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR and the NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S).
- Long focal lenses (I used the NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S and the AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED prime lens).
The wide-angle lens will help create distortion and strong dynamics. In a city where you have buildings and many details in the environment such as concrete, this will help you to add texture and buildings into the frame.
The long focal lens will allow you to have a subject from a very long distance which will make you feel that a scene is happening as if you are looking at a painting. If you are staying far away from your subject zooming as much as you can you will be able to have everything in the background visible as the photo below.
If you want to create a dramatic action shot, having a wide-angle lens will really help if you are shooting acrobatic moves — shooting with the wide lens, combined with a low angle shot will make the subject even more stunning.