Alternative Composition Posts TECHNIQUES

Capturing the Moment – 3 Styles of Camerawork: The Fireman

In the kind of photography that works on timelines, there are basically three different strategies for catching the moment. These are divided as much by personality as by task. I call them Fireman, Builder, and Marksman. Why personality and task? Because these three working methods each definitely appeal to different personalities, but at the same time the circumstances on the ground also intervene.

The Fireman approach is to shoot as many frames as possible in the space of time available, and the name comes from the expression “hosing,” which describes it perfectly. The C for Continuous Drive mode on a camera is made just for this: hosing down the subject, taking no chances on missing anything, and waiting until later to edit the take and choose the best moment from many. The Builder approach also results in a number of images all trying to be The One, but it’s incremental, step-by-step. Typically, this is when you think you may have a good moment, but because the situation is still available, you wait for another moment that betters it, and continue like this, hopefully improving one frame at a time— building, in other words, on what you’ve already shot. The Marksman approach stands well apart from either of these, and involves resisting the temptation to shoot before the moment is right, putting all your energy into making one single shot that nails it precisely. As we’ll see, there are justifiable times for using each of these three, but regardless of practicality, one or the other will still suit different photographers’ styles.

The Fireman

The Fireman approach means hosing down the scene at however rapid a rate the camera will manage. The argument is that a high-performance camera can shoot at, say ten frames per second, so why not leave the timing to it entirely. You’ll end up with maybe a few dozen very closely spaced images—plenty to choose from. It guarantees a result and so, the argument goes, it is actually a more responsible and professional way of shooting. We’re a step away here from shooting full-frame video and simply cherry picking the best frames later, so it’s worth thinking about the implications. I realize that all this carries some criticism of hosing, but essentially it’s about deferment— deferring first to the camera for releasing the shutter, and second to the editing process, leaving your decision on the best moment until later. In terms of personality, the Fireman takes a kind of pride (perverse, some might say) in overkill, and by no means is it the child of digital photography. In the days of film, shooting a hundred rolls was not insignificant, but it happened quite frequently on assignments. I often came across the attitude that the client could afford it and, by association, the photographer was therefore worth it. It was a way of boasting, and maybe still is.

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Fast-approaching horses - A basic Fireman operation—camera on Continuous Drive, capturing as many images as possible in the time span. Here, two bursts, with the zoom control on a 70–200mm lens being racked slightly to keep the approaching horses in frame. Technicals: AF-C (the continuous autofocus setting), ISO 200, 1/1000 second at ƒ/8. Strong midday lighting did no favors for the image, but at least allowed a safely high shutter speed, reasonable depth of field for one horse, and low noise from a low ISO setting.

The arguments against Fireman are: first, it’s inelegant; second, it fails to concentrate on anticipation, decision, and fast reactions; third, it’s suspiciously indecisive; fourth, it runs very practical risk of actually losing the crucial moment because the firing rate is automatic. This last needs a little explanation. Let’s say that the shutter is firing at ten frames per second, and the movement is standard, such as a person walking normally, so you have the shutter speed set at 1/100 second. That means that the camera fires only 10% of the time, and you have no control over when. What would you lose? That depends partly on how finicky you are about the exact position of the figure and its limbs.

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Anatomy of movement - The rapid sequence at ten frames per second dissects the horse’s gallop in a way reminiscent of the very first use of a camera to analyze movement, by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878.

As you can tell, I’m not a great enthusiast for this approach, but that’s my personality. And yet, I sometimes do this myself, so what—personality apart—are the practical arguments for being a Fireman? The prime situation is a burst of very fast action, as in many athletic events or a key wildlife moment (such as a predator leaping). With someone walking, as above, you ought to be able to time the shot more precisely yourself than the camera’s continuous burst can, but with action this fast, it’s a lot less likely. It may be faster than you can see with any certainty, so a burst of continuous may even be revelatory. Nevertheless, consider that if you’ve upped the shutter speed to, say, 1/500 second because you’re tracking a galloping horse, that ten frames per second means that the shutter will fire only 2% of the time. If you were looking for a shot with all four legs off the ground, it’s not guaranteed. It’s also important to know the capacity of the camera’s frame buffer—how many frames you can shoot on a single burst. If the sequence of action lasts longer than the frame buffer can hold, you’ll lose the end of the sequence.

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Best moment from a sequence - The most special moment, certainly hoped for from this continuous sequence, was when all four legs were off the ground, with the man just reaching for the green cloth.

A second argument in favor is insurance against error, either yours or the equipment’s. The possibility of focus error alone makes this worth considering, and a top-level camera has, by default, the capacity to follow focus as the subject onto which it has locked approaches. In a situation like the horse race shown previously, it can actually be safer to leave the focus to the camera in Continuous mode than to run the risk of the focus system searching for a subject when the shutter is half-pressed. With a long lens, this can be disastrous and waste a few seconds—there is a lot of glass for the servomotors to move around. Insuring against loss of focus was exactly the reason for leaving everything to Continuous in that case.

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Old volcano, Mouandzaza Ambouani, Comoros Islands

And yet another argument in favor is that many shots in a sequence may be equally good, but subtly different, and all worth having. This is the reasoning behind the sequence shown here. It was a case of having no reason not to, prompted by the rare opportunity of having a helicopter in the first place.

Comoros aerials

Aerial photography is one genre that encourages heavy shooting, prompted by the cost and organizational effort needed to get in the air at the right time and in the right place. Helicopters are best, but always expensive. Once in the air over a good target, there are no good reasons not to keep shooting as the aircraft moves around the subject. This is an old volcanic cone in the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, and I had for one hour a Gendarmerie Nationale helicopter on loan. Shown here are nine out of several dozen frames shot with a wide-angle lens (20mm) covering a roughly 90-degree arc of a full circle. The helicopter made three similar circuits, and this is typical when you have an obvious large feature. The pilot circles counterclockwise at a distance that gives the framing you want (in a small helicopter, the shooting position is usually the left-front seat, with the window open), but only some of the 360-degree circuit is normally useful.

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Flight path - The basic, and typical, approach of the helicopter circling the volcano counterclockwise allows a sequence of images, each slightly different from the one before, and all useful, although only one will be selected.

Stay tuned for future posts examining “The Builder” and “The Marksman.”

Above is an excerpt from the second book in Michael Freeman’s new Capturing series:

Capturing the Moment: The Heart of Photography


Excerpted from Capturing The Moment by Michael Freeman © 2015 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved

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