Emotion in Motion-Ideas for Mastering Action Portraits, Part Two

An Action Portrait Shows Being & Doing

Thumbnail photos by Jim Austin

Hi. Jim here, back with more ideas for your action portraits. To briefly recap, an action portrait captures what a person is doing, and who they are. Action portraits attempt to affirm a person’s being and what they are doing.

Each person is unique, and it takes time and photographic skills to show their individual emotions, personality, and expressions.

Children Kayaking

Photo of children kayaking on clear blue water in a yellow kayak by Jim Austin.

Four children launched their “yacht” into the water and shoved off the beach, leaving the colorful town of Governor’s Harbor behind them as they paddled, laughing, out for an adventure.

They were soon working as a team. A wide angle lens could not have grouped the children together, so a telephoto was a natural choice to show them as a unit. As they paddled past me, I chose a fast focusing 70-200 lens, an optic that I know well. I used it to create depth and to separate the foreground from the bright and distracting background. Why? How you treat the background makes or breaks a successful action portrait.

Two ideas about action portraits surface with this picture of the children kayaking. First, there is the importance of the background. Second, when you make pictures of children, you must go with their flow and paddle along with them.

The most challenging part of any action portrait is to keep the background simple and relevant to your subject.

Go with the flow when you photograph children. Get on their eye level. Let their fun energy be your guide. You’ll improve your portraits when you let go of trying to overly pose or direct the children. Get to know the children. Find out what interests them. Even if you know the children, compliment them repeatedly― unless they hired you specifically, being photographed might not have been first on their list that day.

Sculptor and Her Mermaid

Photo of woman sculpting a mermaid against a red brick background by Jim Austin.

Photographing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia was a foggy experience —its fog enveloped the town for a week. Fog is often so thick in Lunenburg that incoming ships have missed the border between sea and land. Residents painted their homes and businesses a vivid red to help sailors see the shore and town, so red structures were all over the city.

Walking about town through a typical morning fog, I saw Trudi, an artist, putting finishing touches on her 14-foot-tall sculpture. As she climbed up a ladder to reach the mermaid’s face, I realized the building behind her would be a good background. While the contrast between the mermaid and the background compelled me to make the image, it took a few tries to get a satisfying image of the action. One image worked well because the position of Trudi’s hands and face made the viewer’s eye scan them with a circular motion. This particular composition seemed to balance the artist with her creation.

Cowboy Family: “The Missing Why”

Photo of cowboys holding whips near Evergreen, Colorado by Jim Austin.

Photographing near Evergreen, Colorado, I walked along a forested road and met these three cowboys, and asked them if I could take their picture. They naturally squatted down to the boy’s height which made him appear taller. I lowered my camera’s height to their eye level and framed the portrait so that road, grass, and trees each took up about 1/3 of the frame from bottom to top.

As I photographed his family, the grandfather told me that his son and grandson helped him work his ranch. Looking back on the day I made this photograph, I realized why I took it. The photograph for me is about honoring the values of family and hard work. As time passes, our silent visual subconscious tells us more about the personal impact of our portraits on our own life.

Knowing who, where and when we took an action portrait does not tell us why. Often the “why” is not at all that apparent. This is called “the missing why.” Over the years, figuring out why we make portraits helps us refine our action portraiture. Answering the “missing why” question means trying to clarify the reasons for making a portrait. I work harder at making photographs when I understand, at some level, what I share with the people in them.

Fish Meets Man: Surprise and Serendipity

Photo of a man and fish looking at each other by Jim Austin.

Who was the most open-mouthed with astonishment: the fish, the man, or the photographer?

Perhaps they all were astonished when a fishing adventure wrapped up with a spotted hind fish coming aboard at the end of the line. Bottom line: a successful catch inspired a serendipitous action portrait. I did not set out to make this picture. Directing my subject, I merely said: “look the fish right in the eye.” For unusual offbeat portraits like this one, visual elements can come your way spontaneously. As photographers, the only thing required of us is an open mind and an attitude of ready anticipation when unprompted events surprise us.

As we close, I hope these ideas are helpful. Emotion in Motion explores many ideas for successful action portraits; for now we’ll wrap up here with 5 top ideas. Here are the TOP 5 most- requested ideas for making successful action portraits.

TOP 5 Ideas for Successful Action Portraits

1. Try a wide-angle lens.It makes you move closer to your subject, inviting a conversation.

2. Keep your background simple. Make its hue, blur and mood compliment the portrait subject.

3. For children action portraits, go with their flow. Photograph at their eye level. Work with their attention span.

4.  Know from where the light comes and adjust your shooting angle to fit. Think about the quality of light (hard, soft, sunlight, overcast, tinted by morning or evening hues).

5. Make portraits with a warm enthusiasm for the person you are photographing.


Go to: Emotion in Motion-Ideas for Mastering Action Portraits, Part One


Photo of ebook cover Emotion in Motion by Jim Austin
eBOOK–Click Here

This article was taken from the 55-page full color .pdf eBook Emotion in Motion: Ideas for Mastering Action Portraits.

Who is this eBook for? It is for any photographer who wants to learn ways to take successful portraits. You’ll find effective techniques, tips and suggestions for making all kinds of action portraits. Practical ideas for photographing kids, exploring gesture, choosing optics, getting to know your subject, preventing eyeglasses reflections, using strobe to balance light, subject rapport, keeping a sense of humor–you’ll find all these topics in this eBook. Illuminated with 20 superbly crafted images, you can purchase Jim’s colorful book easily through Google Checkout for only $5, and it works with Mac, PC, and any .pdf reader.

by Jim Austin
All text and photos: © 2011 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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