Lessons in Action Photography at Tohickon Creek

March 19, 2018

I had the pleasure of co-hosting a photography hike with the wonderful staff from Delaware Canal State Park this past weekend.  The focus of the hike was around action photography with our subjects being boaters riding the whitewater released by the dam at Nockamixon State Park into the Tohickon Creek.  Read on to learn about:

  • How to get to a good location for photographing this event
  • Ideal camera settings for freezing motion and showing motion
  • Recommended camera placement, and composition considerations

Getting There
The hike started from the parking lot of Tohickon Valley Park, located in Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania.  Click here for a map to get directions.  The boaters all put in at Ralph Stover State Park, so the shorelines within Tohickon Valley Park are downstream and an easy access point for photographers.  From the parking lot, walk down the road to the cabins.  It is an easy walk and you'll find the creek easily from there.

Camera Placement and Composition Considerations
Getting on the same level as your subject is the best approach for most situations, and this event is no exception.  Find a spot along the creek that gives you a clear line of sight to the water (preferably one that juts out into the water) and get low.  Concerning composition, working with the rule of thirds works well here.  You can show where the paddler came from in landscape orientation (place them in the left third of the frame) or perhaps where they are going (place them in the right third of the frame).  Do not be afraid to try shots in portrait orientation either.
187mm, 1/8000 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800187mm, 1/8000 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800
Ideal Camera Settings
Before you decide on whether you want to freeze the action (with a quick shutter speed) or capture movement (with a slower shutter speed), these settings should be considered.  Your mileage may vary, but these settings have worked well for me.  Keep in mind, I shoot with a high-resolution Sony a7rIII camera body (and used to shoot with an a7rII).

  • Lens Selection: a 70-200 works well here, but a 100-400 zoom may prove useful as well
  • Program Mode: Shutter Priority or Manual ('S' on most cameras, but "Tv" on Canon)
  • Drive Mode: Continuous High Speed or sometimes known as Burst mode
  • Auto Focus Mode: Continuous (C-AF or AF-C on most cameras, but "AI Servo" on Canon)
  • Focus Area: Single Point or Zone
  • White Balance: Scene Specific (if the lighting is consistent), otherwise automatic
  • File Format: JPEG for speed or RAW for flexibility (and if doing so will not fill your buffer too quickly)
  • Aperture: wide open or pretty close to it
  • ISO: automatic or as high as necessary to achieve the desired shutter speed (be mindful of your camera's tendency to introduce noise at higher ISO values)

Shutter Speed Considerations
When it comes to freezing action, the key is selecting a very quick shutter speed.  The absolute minimum is 1/500 second.  Anything faster is certainly a welcomed option.
Freezing the Action, 200mm, 1/6400 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800Freezing the Action200mm, 1/6400 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800
When you want to show movement and pan with your subject to do so, selecting a slower shutter speed is the key to achieving that blurred look with your subject still in focus.  Start with 1/125 sec and work your way down to as low as 1/15 sec or slower (it largely depends on the speed of the object or person you're trying to capture).
Showing Motion, 178mm, 1/13 sec at f/22, ISO 50Showing Motion178mm, 1/13 sec at f/22, ISO 50