Friday, September 28, 2012

High Speed Photography Tutorial (Including a Video Version)

Space Shuttle Endeavour Flyover at NASA Moffett Field near Mountain View, CA.
See more photos of the event here.

How would you guys like to learn high speed photography and be able to take a photo like the one I did above? Pretty sure all of you do. I am here to offer some tips and tricks on the method I use for high speed photography. Let's get started!

In order to take the photo, you need to have the correct settings on your camera. Here are some of the settings I use on my camera. I'll explain them in more detail under the image. These were just screenshots pulled out of my video. If this text version tutorial don't make that much sense to you, I recommend you want the video at the end of this blog post.

  1. In a high speed shot, you always want to control the speed of the shot. Always use Shutter Priority Mode (Tv or S) on your camera. In this mode, you can set the camera's shutter speed, and have your camera decide the rest of the values (ISO, Aperture) automatically to reach the correct exposure. You do this by using the mode dial on the top of your camera. 
  2. Secondly, make sure you have a shutter speed fast enough for your moving object. However, you should not drive this speed up too much as your camera may not be able to get the right exposure! Generally if the camera can not reach the correct exposure, the values in the camera will flash. Generally when this happens, it means your photo will turn out too dark, however under some circumstances, it may mean your photo will turn out too bright. This is generally a trial and error process. The tip here is to get it at the "right" exposure, one that is neither too short or too long. I can not give you a specific shutter speed as it will depend on how fast your subject is moving. 
  3. Set your camera in AI SERVO mode (Canon) or in the special focus tracking mode in your camera. This mode is generally under different names in other brands of cameras. I only know the name for Canon cameras as I have never used other brands before. AI SERVO will insure that your subject will be continuously focused on as long as you are pressing down the shutter button half way or in between shots when it is fully pressed down. 
  4. Set your camera on High-Speed Continuous Burst so it will take as many shots as fast as it can when the shutter button is pressed down. This will make it more likely you will get the shot you are looking for. 
  5. Zone-AF is what I use for these kinds of photos. The center focus points of ANY camera is the fastest and is great for focusing on fast moving objects. Most likely, your subject will be in the center anyways, so why not just limit the focusing to those points! 
  6. Setting the metering mode to center weighted average will help you get the correct exposure. Sometimes when you try to take a photo of a bird in flight, the sky behind will be extremely bright compared to the under side of the bird. If you left it on evaluative metering, your camera will most likely expose for the sky instead of your subject. Again, your subject will be in the center most likely, so this will even out the exposure a bit and help you get the right image. 

Some people may disagree with the tips I provide below. Again, this is just my way of doing things. Whether or not you want to follow these is completely up to you. 

Another thing I like to do is setting my camera on RAW + Small JPEG. I love shooting RAW as I have more work room in post processing, and I also shoot a small JPEG because RAW photos can not be previewed with out special softwares like Photoshop. Generally people look down at this for high speed photography as it will fill the buffer (temporary storage) of your camera as it writes the data to memory card. When this limit is reached, your speed will slow down significantly and your camera will refuse to take any more photos. How fast you hit this limit depends completely on the camera you have and the write speed of your memory card. If you want to see how fast before the Canon EOS 7D hits its buffer, check out my video below. The Canon EOS 7D has a pretty fast processor and a fairly large buffer inside so I shoot in RAW as the buffer limit don't bother me as much. 

If your camera hits the buffer too soon and it starts bothering you, you can try these few things:
  • Turn off the JPEG "preview".
  • Choose a lower resolution RAW format.
  • Switch to JPEG format (you usually can't fill your buffer in JPEG mode).
  • Buy a faster memory card or camera. 

The other thing you see in my above image is that I have my camera set on ISO Auto. If you are a bit more experienced with photography, you might be thinking, "That is not very professional!". Usually I'd agree with you, but however, the recently Canon EOS 7D firmware upgrade added the option for me to set a max in ISO Auto. If you want to read more about the firmware update, you can read about it here. You want to use as low of an ISO as you want, but with fast moving objects, there is no telling what you need to use. It is best to let your camera automatically pick between a limited range. I usually don't like to go over ISO 800, but in the Space Shuttle Endeavour Flyover case, I know ISO 400 should be enough to properly expose the shots. In photography, everything is about experience. You should be able to get a rough estimate of the settings you need for a particular image with out even seeing it first. Only tip I can offer you on that is keep taking photos and soon you will get the hang of it. To configure the maximum ISO on a Canon EOS 7D, press (Menu), and scroll to the 3rd menu. You should see this option. If you don't, you probably didn't update your camera yet, and again, you get get more details on that here.


I love these settings, and I wish to use them more often! What should I do? You can easily set it to one of your custom function modes on your camera (may not be present on some cameras and the number of modes you have vary between different bodies too). The method I show you here is for the Canon EOS 7D as this is the only camera I have and know how to use. Different cameras may have different methods of setting this up, or you may not have custom functions entirely. I recommend you consult your camera's instruction manual for more details on this subject.

If you have a Canon EOS 7D like me, you are in luck! Ever wondered what the C1, C2, or C3 on your mode dial is for? It stands for Custom Function 1, Custom Function 2, and Custom Function 3. On your Canon EOS 7D, you can set up a total of 3 custom functions. For me, I my C1 set on the settings for HDR photography. For my C2, I have it set up on landscape shot without a remote shutter release (in other words 2 second delay). For my C3, you have been looking at it all this time and it is my high speed photography settings.

The settings can be any mode you want (expect Auto and Creative Auto). The button can be P, Tv, Av, M, or B and any custom settings you dial in will be saved. Custom settings includes your menu options, your metering modes, your shutter speed (in Tv or M mode), and all the other things displayed on your LCD. Every time you turn to the Custom Function, all those options will be there set up for you the same way you did the first time. To do this, turn your mode dial to the mode you want (P, Tv, Av, M, or B) and dial in the settings. Then just press (Menu), scroll to the 9th menu, and go down to Camera user setting (as demonstrated in the photo above). Then it will ask you to either Register, or Clear Settings. You will want Register (obviously). Then you just pick which mode dial you want to set it on. Doing so will reset what ever you have set on that mode previously, so make sure you don't pick the wrong one!


Now that we are done with camera settings, let's move on to some methods I use in the field when I'm actually taking photos.

The first tip I offer you may not be practical in all situations. Sometimes you maybe wondering if the shutter speed you set is fast enough, or if the tracking modes is correct. In planned events, like the Space Shuttle Endeavour Flyover, I know the subject will be a Boeing 747 (airplane). Before the main target flew over, I saw some other airplanes flying over the area and I took some test shots with those planes. You can see the test shots I took below.


Generally this is not practical with wildlife photography because those things are not planned and the speed they move at varies too greatly. However, in these planned events, I know those airplanes flying overhead is traveling at about the same speed as the Boeing 747 later, so I was able to use them as test targets. If you expecting the subject to fly over sometime, and it is totally planned, I recommend you find some test objects traveling at about the same speed before the real deal comes.

If you are in the field getting wildlife photos, it is a process of trial and error. Again, like I said above, The more photos you take, the easier it is for you to judge the correct shutter speed.

Remember how I said above with your buffer filling up? One way I try to avoid that is by shooting 2-3 shots, and then taking a break. I still keep the shutter button half way pressed, and I still track the subject, but I take a break from taking any shots. If you think about it, later on your computer, you only need 1 or 2 good shots. You don't need several hundred trashy shots (even if they are all in focus). So when I take a break between the shots, it gives the camera more time to write the data to the memory card, it gives me time to reframe the shot (You can't see anything when the mirror is up!), and it also gives AI SERVO some time to refocus accurately. Technically AI SERVO is still focusing between the shots, however it will be much more accurate when it doesn't have the mirror flipping up and down.

If you looked at my Endeavour photos, you will know I left some margins in every photo. I recommend you do the same just incase you have to crop and reframe a photo. This will also give you some error space as well. As I mentioned above, you can't see through your view finder when the mirror is up! Sometimes I will find myself not panning my camera when the mirror is up! I am not the only one who make this mistake, so make sure you leave some margins when you frame up the shot. Also remember to continue panning even when the viewfinder goes dark.

Alright, I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial! I hope this tutorial can help you out with your future photos. Please don't forget to share my blog posts with your friends! If you would like to get notifications next time I post, you can "Like" me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter and Google+. These links can also be found on the top of the right sidebar. Alright, and below is a video version of this tutorial which may further clarify somethings if you didn't get it in writing.


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