Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday photo

Swimmer. Adrian, Michigan, July 2011.

I took my camera to the Ohio-Michigan Summer Swim League meet in Adrian this week and this was my favorite shot of the day, with my brother's youngest daughter performing the breast butterfly stroke. It's a good action shot, one that manages to freeze the action without destroying the impression of motion.

I've done a modest amount of sports photography, mostly of amateur events, and it's amazing how many shots taken at the peak of the action don't make good action shots. Just freezing an instant (in this case, about 1/1000 of a second) usually catches the athlete in an awkward-looking moment, with an arm half-cocked, or the leg one-quarter lifted, or some such thing. If you read up about action photography, they'll tell you to look for the right moment, and give you some hints as to when that's likely to occur. For example, in basketball, the peak of a jump shot is likely to be the "right" moment.

But I haven't seen anyone discuss why, during the right moment, this instant looks right and the instant before just looks clumsy, awkward, and unnatural. I don't have the answer, either, but I suspect that there's something about finding a sort of peak of the motion while avoiding the middle. For example, a tennis player's serve would look good with the ball in the air and the player preparing for the smash, or on the follow-through. But the instant just before the ball is hit would likely appear clumsy and (paradoxically) more frozen, ruining the sense of action.

In the photo above, it seems to make all the difference that the swimmer is caught with arms fully extended and not, say, three-quarters extended. Just to throw out a hypothesis, I suspect that motion is generally seen as movement from point to point (or from position to position) and we like an image that conforms to the way we see it; that is, we want to see those destination points, not the instants in between. Arms fully extended, or arms swept all the way back, look good and action-packed -- but in between is less pleasing. What happens in between is too rapid for our eyes to see properly and looks unfamiliar when it's frozen at 1/1000 of a second.* Perhaps we just prefer those ever-so-slightly-slower moments that our eye can detect in real time, that remain recognizable when they're captured in a still photograph.

One more stroke of luck in this photo's favor: good sports photos need faces and emotion in them and the splash has just the proper break to show at least some of the face, the eyes especially. Even with the swim goggles, an impression of determination and concentration comes through.

* Bearing in mind that cinema needs only 24 frames per second to give a convincing illusion of motion.

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