In 2002, Nike won an Emmy for Move, a campaign featuring gymnasts, joggers, basketballers, hockey players, footballers, and more in constant motion: skating, dribbling, sprinting, vaulting, and dunking. In 2003, Apple’s iPod Silhouettes campaign highlighted people mid-dance, capturing the energy of movement. And in 2012, Red Bull financed the skydiver Felix Baumgartner, as he broke the sound barrier as part of a 128,100-foot jump; millions witnessed the event—and got talking about the brand.
Some of the most powerful ad campaigns in recent memory, ranging from television commercials to still images and beyond, feature objects or people in motion. In advertising, action remains a powerful—if sometimes overlooked—tool for catching our attention and holding it. Here are our tips for using it to your advantage when shooting for your commercial Licensing portfolio.
The process: Mastering your shutter speed
“It seems obvious, but always spend some time adjusting your settings and reviewing your images,” the 500px team advises. While all your exposure settings are important, your shutter speed will be critical when shooting action.
There are a few ways to create the illusion of motion in still photographs. The first is through high-speed photography, which requires a fast shutter speed or, more likely, strobes with a short flash duration. This type of “freeze frame” shoot works well for products and still lives, as you can control your lighting in the studio with more precision (and using a tripod).
And then, of course, there’s sports photography, which requires a fast shutter speed to “freeze” an athlete mid-air. It also helps to shoot in burst mode (with a fast SD card). On the other end of the spectrum, you might also encounter sports photos that use motion blur intentionally. In these images, the athlete is sharp, but the background is blurred to create that sense of speed; this is done by setting a slower shutter speed and panning your camera.
Both approaches work, but whatever you choose, you want to make sure your subject—the athlete in a sports photo, a dog playing fetch, a kid running around the backyard—is in focus and not blurred. This might take some tweaking and fine-tuning of your shutter speed and other camera settings. “Watch out for unsightly blur or technical mistakes that will harm your Licensing potential,” the 500px team advises.
Note: Always shoot in RAW format so you can make the most of your photos and have more flexibility during post-production.
The subject: Embracing the possibilities, from sports to lifestyle
Sports might be the most straightforward place to start, though you can get creative with the types of activities you choose to capture. Maybe you gather friends and family for a backyard shoot embracing the pickleball trend (it was the fastest-growing sport in the US from 2019 to 2021), or perhaps your team up with a local college athlete for a session highlighting their talent.
A recent trend report from Getty Images reveals that over the past year, 38% of visuals illustrating the “wellness” theme featured sports scenes, but only 1% showed team sports, and just 15% portrayed older adults. When brainstorming and casting for your shoots, remember to be inclusive and capture a diversity of identities and experiences. Research from Getty Images further suggests that today’s customers are most engaged with visuals that show people of all ages.
Of course, action shots aren’t limited to sports alone, and you can easily add them to any commercial shot list, whether it’s a pet session or a family session. “Capturing animals in motion is a great way to elevate your pet photography,” the 500px team says. “Catching them when jumping and playing can give your images more energy and liveliness. Consider the moments when your pet is most active, such as playtime or bathtime.” For the image below, Iza Lyso? captured Gia, an 11-year-old dog, mid-air using a shutter speed of 1/1250s.
“Children are also great for photoshoots with energy, so allow your young models to be themselves and explore,” the 500px team continues. Play will look different depending on the family: for some, maybe it’s a soccer game in the park, while for others, it might be exploring an apple orchard. “Play can also mean board games, having fun in the kitchen, or hosting a living room dance party,” the 500px team adds.
Every lifestyle shoot can also provide genuine, unscripted moments, expressions, and gestures if you take a step back. “Any real, candid emotions and interactions are desirable for commercial or stock photography,” the 500px team explains. “Take advantage of the summer months; think parents flipping veggie burgers on the BBQ, kids splashing in the pool or camping outdoors, families at the park being active, or the action of a road trip.”
Finally, you can experiment with still lifes in the studio. Food and beverage sessions are great for capturing splashes of color and texture. Or you can try water droplet photography for an abstract view of ordinary liquids (you’ll need an external flash for this). This droplet by Flavien Bognet ranks among the most popular images in the 500px Collection on Getty Images.
“Enhance emotion with props that suggest action, like confetti,” the 500px team suggests. “Consider adding motion to your still lifes by freezing items in mid-air or capturing the moment of impact, such as a strawberry diving into a glass of water or paint hitting a canvas.” If you’re working in the studio with a model, you might even use fans (off-frame) to introduce some movement throughout your models’ hair or clothing.
The vision: Getting creative with angles and compositions
Even when you’re juggling moving parts, your composition is a determining factor in the success of your shot; clients look for photos that are aesthetically pleasing and also functional, and that means giving them enough space to add their own copy or crop according to their intended usage. Compose your shot with negative space in mind (preferably to the left of your subject); if your model is running from one side of the frame to another, you can add some “lead room” in the direction they’re heading. Anticipate where they’ll be at the moment you press the shutter. This can take a bit of trial and error (and lots of photos in burst mode), but it pays off in the long run.
The 500px team also suggests changing up your angles and getting low. When you shoot from this perspective, a moving athlete can look even more impressive. Another idea is to capture the scene from the athlete or model’s perspective, perhaps looking over their shoulder. Maybe you use an open aperture and shallow depth of field to isolate your subject from the background. Experiment to see what works with your concept.
And last but not least, remember the moments before and after the action itself: an athlete lacing up her cleats, a kid preparing the leap into the pool, a dog watching a ball in anticipation of that throw, or the joy and celebration after making a goal. While we don’t typically think of these “in-between” shots as action shots, they can be just as valuable in telling a compelling story.
Looking for more ideas for Licensing Contributors? Check out Five tips for celebrating sports in commercial photography.
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