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Your RC-car:
Spectacularily staged!

Due to quite a lot positive comments on my reviews (thanks!) and requests about how I shot the pictures and which equipment was used, I've compiled a small three part "how-to" that covers anything from photographic basics up to some studio- and sports-photographing techniques.

Again, I want to emphasize, that this has nothing to do with "professional photography" - it's just to show which kind of results can be expected from a rather low budget (compact-)camera if used the right way. And these can get quite impressive sometimes!

Deutsche Fassung: hier klicken!

 Part 3: Outdoor and action photography

Once again, on your knees!
No, that has nothing to do with my likings ;) but when our offroad racers battle themselves around the track, with slipping tyres and mudtrails behind (or at least pose that way), you'd better be in the thick of it instead of remotely standing by, taking your pictures from above... don't you?


Don't forget to cover your front-lens as you do some ground acrobatics! If your camera has an adaptor or a threaded lens barrel, you can use a cheap UV-filter that keeps your front lens safe from debris, scratches or worse.

Got a cam with more than say 350 Millimetres of focal length with a lens speed (aperture) greater than around f/4? Good, then you're able to create an effect, the DSLR-guys call "bokeh": it's about blurring the background (almost) beyond recognition while keeping your photographed subject sharp and in focus.
Doing so with a compact camera is usually difficult because of their large depth of field. But it can be done, and here's how:
Set you camera to it's maximum focal length and keep the f-stop as low as possible (that means lowest aperture number). Now place your subject to you cameras minimum focus distance so it can just get it's focus locked. (See your manual for this distance, it's usually between 1 and 2 metres for superzoom cameras on their tele end)
Between your subject and the background, there should be at least a distance of two times the minimum focus distance. Better even three or four times! This gap is sufficient to create a DSLR-like bokeh that makes the scene look very vivid.

"Kyosho Inferno ST US Sports", December 2006:
1/15sec (exposure), f/3.7 (aperture), 420mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 80. 50% crop: click here


"Ultima Ratio Piranha P2", December 2006:
1/10sec (exposure), f/3.7 (aperture), 420mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 80. 50% crop: click here


"Stadium Trucks", February 2007:
1/10sec (exposure), f/3.7 (aperture), 420mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 80. 50% crop: click here


A tilting/flip down monitor comes in handy in these situation and it spares you from crawling around. ;-)

But when it comes to action photography with a compact camera, our main question is: "What's easy to shoot and nevertheless looks good?"

Two suggestions:


 Freezing motion

As stated in our first part, quick motions can be frozen with a high shutter speed, assumed, there is enough light available.
This is good, because we can display our main subject reasonably sharp, but we've got a problem there: we need something that suggests motion or otherwise, our action photo will just look posed!

As offroaders, we have an easy job, because there's always something going to be thrown around! ;-)

From my experience, the ideal moment to freeze the action would be, when a car enters or leaves a corner, because:

  • The car is slow enough, so that there's no motion blur (even at 1/2000 sec. exposure, 50 kilometres per hour translate into 7 millimetres - quite a lot given the cars themselves are no more than 400-500 millimetres in length!)

  • The suspension gets loaded or relaxes - either way, the buggy will look like it struggles. You don't want the car "standing" on the track in an unmotivated way...

  • Finally, when entering a turn, brakes are applied, and after the apex, the car is often accellerated as hard as traction allows. There's a good chance that you get some nice roost tails for your action shot.

"HPI Firestorm 10T", April 2007:
1/250sec (exposure), f/7.1 (aperture), 320mm (focal length), JPG (original picture format)
ISO 80. 100% crop: click here


"XTM-Racing X-Cellerator", February 2007:
1/1300sec (exposure), f/4 (aperture), 200mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 200, no noise reduction. 100% crop: click here


Most tracks have some good reference points throughout the turns (curbs, poles...)
Prefocus on such an object, and when car passes your reference point, fully press the shutter. Shutter lag is kept to a minimum this way.



As you sway your camera while taking a picture, it gets blurred. If you pan along with a car on a straight, the subject will be sharp but everything around it gets smeared (the more, the lower your shutter speed or the higher the car's speed) which suggests a great sense of speed.
Be careful though, you have to pan at the exact speed of your subject or everything gets blurred!

To make panning easier, higher focal lengths (and more distance to your subject) are better in my experience, since you can pan at a slower pace (angular velocity!) and therefore steadier. Keep your arms and upper body locked when panning. It helps to minimize camera shake.
With a reasonably quick autofocus, you don't need to prefocus as a quick focus lock is usually less important in panning situations than when freezing motion.

I've achieved good results with approximately these settings:

  • focal length: around 200-400 Millimetres (full frame equivalent)
  • shutter speed: 1/320 up to 1/1000 sec. (even higher at times, see below!)
  • aperture and ISO sensitivity as the available light permits

The faster your subject is moving, the higher you can set your shutter speed and still maintain the sense of speed. But a higher shutter speed helps in keeping the subject sharp around it's vertical axis. Plain-talking: we're racing offroaders and their suspensions get a real workout around the track.

"Ultima Ratio Piranha P2", December 2006:
(exposure), f/3.6 (aperture), 210mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 400 pushed to ISO 1600. 100% crop: click here


"Kyosho Inferno ST US Sports", December 2006:
(exposure), f/3.6 (aperture), 170mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 400 pushed to ISO 1600. 100% crop: click here


"XTM-Racing X-Cellerator", February 2007:
(exposure), f/5.6 (aperture), 385mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 200 pushed to ISO 400. 100% crop: click here


"XTM-Racing X-Cellerator", February 2007:
(exposure), f/5.6 (aperture), 165mm (focal length), RAW (original picture format)
ISO 400 pushed to ISO 800. (100% crop)


Good panning shots aren't that demanding on the equipment, but they require quite a lot of practice.
But under awkward lightning, the limits are pretty close. Take the last picture above for an example: The flat sunlight on a winter's noon reflected on the stadium truck's body leading to highlight clipping which could not even be recovered in RAW post-processing. (see below: the RAW format)
You can also see prominent sensor noise in the dark areas. (the used Panasonic FZ30 is quite prone to noise)
This however was the photographer's (my ;-) ) fault, as I could have choosen a lower f-stop number. At f/3,2 this picture would have been possible at ISO-200, with more dynamic range (maybe no highlight clipping) and less noise.
Also notice the focal length and the fact that this is already a 100% crop: One pixel on the camera's image translates into one pixel on your monitors image. For a distance of about 5-6 metres, 165 millimetres of focal length clearly is too little.

The size of your subject in action depends on your skill. It's easier to track a subject, that appears smaller in the viewfinder. In contrast, it should at least fill about one third of the viewfinder. On an 8 megapixel camera (image size approx. 3300x2500) this translates into width of around 1000-1500 pixels. Still good for a very high quality 6x4" print and perfect for PC or web use.
If you have the required focal length, you should always try to frame your subject as big as possible, since you could always scale it down afterwars which helps to cover possible focus inaccuracies or sensor noise.

Under good light conditions, panning shots at a low ISO setting and hence very good image quality are possible.


 At the limit - and beyond.

Compact cameras don't lend themselves particulary well to action photography: Their autofocus is usually much slower then the DSLR one and they don't have an optical (through the lens) viewfinder.

Both issues can be improved ... a bit.

Most cameras have the ability to lock aperture and exposure with a button (AE-lock)
Without AE-lock, the camera sets the chosen aperature only after pressing the shutter prior to focussing, which consumes precious time.
On my FZ-30, i could drop the lag (including full autofocus) down to ~ 0,3 seconds (from aboun 0,5 - 0,6 seconds) at 420 millimetres focal length and on its high speed focus mode.
Be aware though: don't let the camera meter the correct exposere and take your pictures in the shadow with AE-lock, the camera won't readjust.

Our next problem is the electronic viewfinder, that has a low framerate and always induces some lag (e.g. you see the car perfectly in frame when it has already passed)
The "real" (prefocused) shutter lag of most modern compact cameras is quite lower than that of many DSLRs (because they don't have a mirror to flip) but together with the electronic viewfinder, you get almost up to 0,1 seconds of lag.

If your cam is equipped with a hotshoe, you can build an excellent optical viewfinder from an old flash and a red dot sight used for sports shooting. Some pictures
You can even buy the complete unit at but I recommend a closed barrel type RDS (for about 30 Euros on ebay)

The RDS' red dot must be aligned with the camers center autofocus bracket - use a tripod and a far away object for calibrating the RDS.

Working with an RDS requires some practice since you can only guess the field of view, the camera records. On the other hand, your field of view isn't limited when you zoom in, which makes tracking far easier. Prefocussed, you can expect a much higher keeper rate than with the electronic viewfinder.


 The RAW-format

Some cameras can not only record a picture in the standard JPG format, but also provide a native RAW-option. These RAW pictures take up a lot of your card's memory, the burst mode probably won't work with RAW and saving them takes quite a while. So why care?
Easy as that: In RAW-mode, your camera records the sensor's data with no automatic post processing (noise reduction, sharpening) applied.
Additonally, the RAW-format contains about 4096 times the color information and 16 times the luminosity
information of a regular JPG picture.
Simply put, you can recover almost any picture to a perfect one as long as the frame and focus are correct.

Additionally, you can shoot at ISO-speeds, your camera would normally not support (e.g. to get the desired shutter speed)
Take a picture at ISO 400 in aperture priority mode, underexposing 2 full stops. You'll get quite a dark frame and it won't get any better in JPG, no matter what you do, because the luminosity data is lost.
It's a different story in RAW format: take the exposure compensation up to +2.0 EV and you have a quite natural looking ISO 1600 picture... with a lot of noise however, but this can be remedied with Neat image (shareware, very good) or similar programs.
To process RAW images, you need a dedicated programm like RAW-Shooter Essentials (freeware) that supports many different cameras.

Using RAW, I could take photos that would have otherwise been imposible to do with a compact camera, because most of the photos shown above were taken from autumn to winter.
During summer, ISO and noise are far less critical for high shutter speeds, with a reasonably fast lems. You can also see, that for the ISO 1600 pictures, a DSLR would have been the better choice by far. (less noise, more detail)
I'll add some low ISO, low noise and high quality action shots soon. :)

So the secluding question still stands: Is it worth it?
... and the answer (once more): it depends!

If you want to do ambitious action photos - possibly even indoors - then go DSLR. There's nothing to with a compact cam in a dimly lit hall.
On the other hand, when you're on a tight budget and you focus more on static scenes (like described in part 2), then there's nothing better than a "prosumer" range compact camera, with a good, fast lens with a broad focal range and optical image stabilisation (to compensate for lack of quality at higher ISOs).

Going the DSLR-route, don't forget that you'll need a big telezoom to get close to the action. With a 1,5x - 1,6x crop camera (like most amateur and semi professional models), a 200mm lens just reaches the critical 300-350mm mark. Above, it gets very expensive!

Back to part 1: A brief introduction to digital photography
Back to part 2: "Studio" - Photography
Special: Offroad-Action Photo-Thread (DSLR)

Text, pictures and translation by Aaron Banovics
This article was published on on 03-06-2007, updated on 30-04-2007