If you look at the examples in this post you will agree that these images were all captured at peak moments, but in reality in everyone of these examples the athlete is standing 100% motionless.
The added elements are what create the motion and “sell” the image as being an action shot.
Im going to show you three examples of using added elements to create a more dynamic action photo.
Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin
It was about 15º F outside so getting the photo quickly was very important not only for the athletes sake but also for the equipments and our crew. (my assistant almost got frostbyte for not wearing correct footwear).
Because of the shorter time frame we didn’t have the luxury of having her take a few runs up and down to get the perfect shot so we had to create a image that looked like she was moving quickly.
Before trying to dive into an action photo with an athlete, I like to speak with them first to find out what the apex of the movement is and how we can capture it best. After she showed me a few different movements and explained them to me I decided on a tight turn. I did this because when done in competition, it would send snow spraying behind her.
She laid sideways on the snow covered ground and I would give her a count of 3,2,1 then I would fire. This would give her time to get into the raised position and for our crew to throw snow behind her with shovels.
NFL player Robert Woods
This shot was an add on, I was photographing him at a local school and taking portraits and as we shot, I asked Robert if he had any unusual training methods. He went on to tell me that he wakes up every morning and runs up and down a sand dune hill.
I immediately thought this would make a great image, so we packed up our equipment and all headed over to the park where the sand dune was located. By the time we arrived the sun was almost set and we were losing light very quickly.
We had about 5 minutes on the hill so my assistant and I grabbed one light, a pack, and large octabank and quickly made our way up. After a few attempts to catch him in action I noticed that his feet would kick up sand each time and the harder he ran the more sand would come up.
So instead of running, I had Robert stand in a running position and rock back and forth while my assistant and I would threw sand in the front and behind him, creating the motion in the shot. (I actually kicked the sand up) We only have 5 shots before we headed down the hill, but luckily it fell exactly how I wanted it.
For the baseball image it was again at the end of the photoshoot and I was looking for another photo to go along with the standard portraits that were ordered by the magazine. (Tip: always give your clients more than they ask for and you will have that client for a long time)
I always carry random props or items that I could possibly use for various purposes. In this case, I had some gels and a container of baby powder I had leftover from another shoot. So instead of throwing up dirt to make this image, I realized that I could make the powder look like the dirt on the field by using a gel to backlight the powder. This seemed to work much better than the dirt because it was lighter and stayed in the air longer so it was easier to get the image the way I wanted it.
I placed a strobe with an orange gel behind him. This gave a nice warm glow to his back and also hit the powder, tinting it the same color as the ground. I then placed a large octabank in the front of him for the main light.
I directed the baseball player to hold his bat out as if he just hit the ball and told him to show struggle in his face to make it look as he was hitting the ball very hard. One of the other players I was photographing was kind enough to throw the ball in to make it look like he was hitting it.
In this photo, the added element is less realistic but it does add a nice sense of action and really makes the image stand out.
You can apply these techniques in many different ways. If you are not looking to add the sense of action, these elements definitely add a nice texture to the background when lit properly and I think makes ordinary photos “pop.