Shooting Action with the Powershot

The G1 and Pro 90 share what is currently one of the very fastest shutter mechanisms to be found on a consumer digicam — by "fast," I don't mean that they can freeze action at 1/1000th of a second or 1/4000th of a second, but that the time between thinking "I want to take this photo" and the time the shutter opens are relatively short.

Relative to other digicams, anyway. At its best, the Powershot seems to have a delay of around one-tenth of a second — slightly less or more depending upon who has done the testing. This is slower than most 35mm cameras at their best, but faster than most point-and-shoots, and even faster than some AF SLRs (Canon's rated delay — 0.07 seconds — places it very close to the range of the EOS A2 and Elan II). It's about equivalent to the Fuji S1, and appears to be slightly faster than the D30 — but slower than the current champ of digicams, the pricey Nikon D1 (rated at 0.058 secs).

At its worst, the G1 can have a delay of close to a second before the shutter opens — the Pro 90 slightly longer yet. This is still less than many digital cameras (some go as long as two seconds), but a hard thing to deal with for many photographers — myself included.

The single biggest change that drives shooting delay from 0.1 to 0.8 is the autofocus, and behind that the automatic exposure meter. If you have preset the focus and exposure, there will be that 0.07 seconds between your finger descending and the shutter moving. If you're not ready, if you leave the camera in auto and only reach for the shutter when it's time to shoot, then... you'll wait, and you may lose the shot.

The 8-to-1 difference makes all the difference for so many subjects! Not just the traditional "action" subjects like sport or wildlife photography, but the far more ephemeral and harder-to-anticipate changes in expression, gaze, and relationship in the faces of the people we photograph.

In one-tenth of a second, an coin released from rest will have fallen about two inches. A car (or a baseball) travelling at 50mph will have travelled about five feet. Eyes can close, mouths open, heads tilt, and more. In 0.8 seconds these things can happen eight times over times, and that accelerating dropped coin will have travelled a dozen feet.

There's only one way to get the maximum use of that 0.07 seconds — practice.

W. Eugene Smith, the great Life photo-essayist, said that he learned the rhythm of shooting from the newspaper sports photos he used to take as a teenager. The shots below are from a morning exercise, getting a sense of delay so that i could consistently shoot with the ball framed as part of the composition. I set the exposure and focus manually.

(According to some people who should know, I made it easy on myself, as did Smith — basketball is reputedly one of the easiest sports to shoot.)

The great thing about a digicam, of course, is that you can practice endlessly, with your only expense a new battery charge. The world is full of natural rhythms, and it's only through practice that you'll get the feel of how they mesh with the mechanical rhythm of your camera.

For the first several shots above, I started in "P" mode, read the exposure, then dialed-in an equivalent (with an extra 1/3 stop for backlighting) for "M" mode. I then let the AF focus on a line on the ground, held the focus, and pressed the "MF" button locking the manual focus at that point. I was shooting 1/500 at f/8, so the depth of field afforded by this focus would assure me of pretty well-focused photos.

Pro sports shooters often consume a lot of film — one autobiography of a Sports Illustrated shooter described his first job for the magazine, a horse race where he burned through ten or fifteen 36-exposure rolls. When he returned to the office, his editor angrily asked, before the film had even been processed: "that's it????" He had expected three times the coverage! (With a digicam, of course, this is a lot less expensive to provide yourself a lot of choices than if yuou were buying a block of Ektachrome every day...)

I don't use the continuous-shot mode — too slow for my tastes, the delay between shots never suits my "one bullet" philosophy. I have 35mm cameras that can shoot at 6fps, but I rarely use that power for anything other than winding a single shot at a time. Of course, there will be times when a series of shots speak eloquently. Maybe it's a mental failing on my part, but I rarely encounter those situations.

I also shot almost exclusively through the optical viewfinder. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the camera close to my eye whenever possible. Part of this, I think, is also to avoid having to adjust my own eye's "autofocus." If I have an eye to the viewfinder, I can keep the other eye on the unfolding action — by adjusting the eyepiece diopter, the differences in focus distance can be minimized. Such "two eyed" shooting is next to impossible with the LCD, since both your eyes will be focused on the little screen — and shifting your focus from the LCD (8 inches) to the action (30 feet) and back can take a very long time (as much as a second) when that action is unfolding (a similar problem is why race drivers and fighter pilots use "heads up" displays — in the time spent glancing at the speedometer, a Formula-One car might have travelled the length of a football field...).

One "gotcha" with the two-eyed shooting method, at least with the G1 — you'll get nose oil on the LCD. Annoyingly (at least to me), the G1's designers chose that if the LCD panel is closed, manual focus turns off. So to shoot with manual prefocus through the viewfinder, you'll need to wipe off the LCD later (maybe I just have a greasy nose?), and deal with a very warm camera back pressed to your face. I don't mind this — your mileage may vary.

Finally, using the optical finder lets you avoid LCD blackout — the camera fires, the CF card does its business, but your view is uninterupted. In such situations (once you're confident in your shooting) you may just want to set the image review duration to "None."

The last basketball photo was taken with the G1 set in "pan-focus" mode. In this mode, the AF is set to the hyperfocal distance (a focus distance that will give the greatest depth of field, using infinity as the far part of that range. See here for more details), according to f/stop, the lens zoomed out to maximum, so that the AF can just be ignored. A slight delay will still be present, since the exposure will still be automated. With practice you'll come to feel the difference, but again, if the exposure is locked by a finger half-press before the exposure, you'll be in good shape. That shot was also made using the Canon WC-DC58 wide-angle auxiliary lens.

An almost-identical method was used for the photo at right, with the addition of the built-in flash. This boy held the dragon up for only a split second, but by anticipating the shot and being used to the rhythm of the moment, I could manage to get the shot I wanted.

Below are more examples using the same method, and all shot with mixed light (strobe + fading daylight). If you are having a hard time getting knowing just when the shutter is really firing, try adding a little bit of flash, since the flash is guaranteed to go off when the exposure is really happening — not before or after like the built-in "shutter" noise.

In a crowded environment like a New Year's parade, the little bit of flash gives you one more benfit — it can help isolate your subject among the throng.

Tips for Minimizing Delay

As the aphorism goes, "life is change." Photos give us a chance to freeze at least one moment of that change and hold fast to it. Practice and attention to craft give us the best ways to select those moments we cherish most, whether they be a skateboarder's maximum "air" or the moment of clarity in a portrait.


"Above all, it's hard learning to live with vivid mental images of scenes I cared for and failed to photograph. It is the edgy existence within me of these unmade images that is the only assurance that the best photographs are yet to be made."

    - longtime National Geographic shooter Sam Abell, in the introduction to his book Stay This Moment


©2001 Kevin Bjorke
Rev 20 Jan 2001, 29 May 2001

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