Analysis of a Kayaking Photo Shoot

Lisa from the wonderful blog Travelin’ Local was asking how many images I shot when I photographed the kayakers a few days ago on the Cowichan River. The number was 363 images shot in a time span of 45 minutes. While this may seem like quite a lot of photos I thought I would discuss the techniques I use for sports and other high speed events. This also explains why I can often shoot 1,000 plus photos per day easily when shooting sports or aerial photographs.

Canoeing on the Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Canoeing on the Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The cameras I use, a Nikon D300 and Nikon D2X are capable of 6 photos per second and 5 photos per second in their standard configuration. For high speed events it would seem like the logical approach would be to set the cameras for 5 or 6 frames per second, hold your finger on the release and figure out what to use later. Unfortunately there are a number of reasons this doesn’t work. Primary in this approach is that the cameras have to buffer the images as the data is piling up quicker than the camera can upload to the compact flash memory that is installed. Shooting RAW, my Nikon D300 can store a maximum of approximately 17 of these RAW images. My Nikon D2X can store somewhere around 15. What does this mean in a real life situation? With the D300 and D2X I can shoot for 3 seconds and my camera shuts down. At this point I basically have a paperweight until the camera manages to transfer the images to the storage card. Being a little of a cheapie, I tend to buy older cards that do not have really fast write speeds. I use Sandisk Ultra II cards in my D300 and these cards write (according to tests by Rob Galbraith) at 9.4mb per second. If I do the math correctly then, my blast of 17 RAW files (20mb each) in under 3 seconds will take 36 seconds to upload to the card. While I can shoot the odd image during this time it can be very frustrating to try and shoot and have the camera not react. With the Nikon D2X the situation is even worse as the write speed to the cards is somewhere around 3mb per second. What are the solutions to this problem?

There are a few. Purely from the camera and card end of the issue, the newer expensive cameras write quicker and have larger buffers but you pay for this. Professional sports shooters are using cameras like the Nikon D3 at a cool $6,000 for the body only. Want lenses, spend more money. The other factor is the write speeds of the memory cards. The latest state of the art cards will write at about 30mb per second with a modern high end camera. Next time you are at a football game you will know why the pros are using outrageously expensive cameras and cards. My SanDisk Ultra II 4 GB cards were on sale at Costco for $10 each, a state of the art card will run you $70.

As I don’t shoot sports professionally I have taken a different approach to this scenario. I typically will set my camera for around 3 photos per second. While it would be useful to have more than that it’s not worth an extra $4,000 for the amount of sports work I do. Rather than hold my finger down on the shutter and let it fly I take a blast of images for perhaps 1 second at the peak of the action. This can be followed by another blast if needed. Typically this will give me somewhere in the range of 6 or 8 photographs to work with. In the case of the kayaking slalom that I just photographed I can likely shoot about 40 images this way of each individual if I desire. This is without rendering the camera into a paperweight. Other techniques are to shoot with 2 cameras if possible or shoot JPEG images (at 6MB per image therefore tripling my D300 buffer to about 50 images), something that I don’t like to do.

In the real world does this really matter, do you need high speed memory cards or the latest high end cameras? Probably not unless you push them to the extremes. You need to look at your shooting style and buy accordingly. Expensive cards are a waste of money if you photograph landscapes or shoot 1,000 photos a year. Expensive cameras weigh tons and are built to shoot 6 plus photos per second with a life of about 300,000 images. Not many of us do that!

Here’s an example of a few short blasts shot within a 3 second time span and the final 2 images I pulled from the selection. I’m sure you may have a few questions from this discussion, I’ll answer any that are commented.

Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 1 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 2 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 3 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 4 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 5 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 6 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 7 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Image number 8 - Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Cowichan River Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan Valley, British Columbia

Cowichan River Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan Valley, British Columbia

Cowichan River Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan Valley, British Columbia

Cowichan River Whitewater Kayaking, Cowichan Valley, British Columbia

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4 Responses to “Analysis of a Kayaking Photo Shoot”

  1. LisaNewton says:

    Wow, thank you for the explanation. I had no idea so much as involved. I haven’t ventured into the realm of raw yet, most because of running out of storage. I have two 2gb disks, which I’m afraid will run out.

    Secondly, I’m not sure what I would do with them once I had them. I’m just now starting to learn Photoshop, plus I only have the first edition, so there are limits.

    One thing I have learned, which your post illustrates is that taking more shots gives you many more options. When I’m shooting at a location with crowds, you never know what you’ll get until you get home. Someone might be doing something you don’t like, sticking out their tongue, playing with a body part, or just looking away from the camera. Who knows. Depending on what you’re shooting, more shots might be necessary.

    I’ve never figured out how many shots I can take per second, because I haven’t shot too many sporting events. But that might be information I need in the future.

    Thanks for the great post, Kevin. It’s extremely useful………….:)

  2. kevin says:

    Hi Lisa,

    You owe it to yourself to slowly work into the world of RAW. I was very intimidated at first but once I started shooting RAW only I quickly became comfortable and was thinking that I wish I hadn’t shot the previous 20,000 photos in JPEG only. Mind you, this is when memory cards were in the range of $200 per GB! I wrote about some of these issues in a previous post Kevin’s Digital Photography History. I’m working on a series of articles that talk about many of these subjects.

    Your mention of shooting in crowds is an excellent use of burst photography; this is another area I shoot bursts of 4 to 6 images. It’s amazing how out of 4 photographs one image is just “better” than any of the others. A better smile, legs in a better position, two people separated not overlapping. This is also an excellent technique for theatre and live music, no wonder I have so many images!

    Having these “slightly” better photographs is often what gets me work and makes my photographs that “little bit better” than the competition. Hard drive space is cheap these days!

  3. Diane C. says:

    Hi Kevin, I enjoyed your analysis of your kayaking photo shoot. My camera is a very cheap Kodak point and shoot. I have a lot of fun with it but I plan to upgrade after I learn more about photography and cameras. Some of what you discuss is pretty advanced for me, but I know I have to learn these things. I can relate what it feels like when your camera turns into a “paperweight” while it transfers images to the storage card. :)

    I must say that you’ve got a beautiful website here. I’m going to take some time to look through your archives. Have a great day!

  4. kevin says:

    Thanks Diane,

    Hope you have some time to browse; there are lots of interesting images hidden away in the archives.

    I always find it wonderful when people head out to do photography without the best equipment in the world for the pure joy of photography. This is the way I started as well. As you learn you can upgrade by making good decisions based on your experience.

    What has always frustrated me the most is the odd student I used to teach that had far more equipment than I could ever dream of yet knew absolutely nothing and were too “over equipped” to really learn properly. Equipment doesn’t make the photographer although it can help if the knowledge is there.

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