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Best Guide to Creating composite action sequences in Photography

Updated on May 27, 2016
Comp action sequence
Comp action sequence

The beauty of comping a sports image is that it delivers the complete story of the sequence all in one image.

In the past, adventure and sports photographers have used a series of individual shots of the sequence to show the path that the athlete traveled. Comping the sequence together into one image can create a much more dramatic result

Capturing the Sequence

Step 1: Set the camera to manual so that you get a set of identical exposures; in an auto setting the movement of the athlete through the frame can change the exposure.

Step2: Work out with your athlete the takeoff and landing points. Compose the image so the action takes place within the frame without you moving the camera. Normally a couple of test runs with your athlete will sort this out. If it's a one-time cliff drop, or something similar.

Step 3: Pre-focus and switch to manual focus to make sure that the focus doesn't change. To make better this particular sequence use a tripod; it's much easier and makes the post –processing of the layers simpler as all the background layers stay aligned.

Step 4: Now you are ready to shoot; use a cable, wireless or trigger release to make your exposures.

Quick Guide to Action Sequence Photography
Quick Guide to Action Sequence Photography

Video Tutorial for creating Action Sequence Photography with Adobe Photoshop CS6

Post- Processing

You will be overlaying somewhere in the region of ten images, so the critical thing is to process all the frames identically. That includes cropping, but unless you can overlay an identical crop, then this is probably best done as the very last step.

Step 1: start working on a single image to get it to the style, then lift and stamp all the adjustment settings in Aperture.

Step 2: Select all the images that are going to make up the layers and open them in Photoshop or on One Perfect Layers. With Photoshop, you can auto align layers if you have shot handheld; Perfect Layers and Perfect Mask can help mask using colour if you need to make a difficult select ion. It's good to try both to see which you prefer. The next couple of steps are pretty similar for both.

Step 3: Make sure the layers all are in order. If you're in Photoshop you need to make an adjustment layer on each; Perfect Layers does this automatically. The idea is to then erase, layer by layer, most of the image, leaving just the athlete all the way down to the background layer. This is where having the camera on a tripod allows you to erase most of the layer, leaving the athlete, without having to make a tight selective mask as it doesn't matter if you leave a little of the background behind. This takes a little trial and error, but aft r a few goes you would normally produce a perfect composite image.

Step 4: Now you can either keep the image in a layered form or flatten it. The last stage can be either cropping the image or maybe applying a generic adjustment like a vignette.

Memory matters

If you are shooting Raw, make sure your memory buffer is not going to stop the motor drive before the act ion has stopped. Again, this can be worked out on the test runs with your athlete. If the buffer is stopping you short then your only option is to switch to JPEG setting, which will normally deliver more frames before the buffer fills up.

On the same note, make sure your card is fast enough to keep writing; this can have the same effect as the buffer filling up. Ideally, you want to be able to shoot about 15 frames in Raw before it starts to stall.


Choosing your subject

Having complete control over your subject is the best way to create a comp, but not essential. At a snowboarding event, for example, you may find that an athlete is attempting something repeatedly, which can enable you to shoot a sequence.

The right frame rate

Canon EOS 1D MkIV, which is known for its fast frame rate (10fps), but I 5DMkIII, which shoots up to six frames per second, gets the best results for most act ion sequences. Faster moving subjects, such as skydivers in free fall, work better at 10fps. Opposite Canon EOS 5DMkIII

Action Sequence Photography
Action Sequence Photography


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