Quick Reaction Timing (QRT)
all photos & article by Rolando Gomez

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One of the ways to sharpen your shooting skills is to condition your mental confidence in your ability to press the shutter at the right moment of time. This moment lasts less than a second, and its end result is a great photograph. There are many ways to sharpen photographic skills, but without the ability to “see & feel” you have nothing but a picture. You have to “feel” confident during that moment of time in your exposure quality.

Great photographic opportunities happen in a fraction of time, a moment that you must learn to seize, as you “see” it happen, not after it happens. There is one sure way of tackling exposure and reaction—just practice quick reaction timing, or QRT. QRT will sharpen your shooting skills and help you develop a sense of knowing your exposures, and in the long run will build your shooting confidence, thus eliminating your hesitation and the loss of a great photograph.

The first step is to religiously dedicate at least one day every 30 to 90 days, and a few rolls of slide film to QRT. Make this day your day, a day where you will not be bothered. Make it a day were you set your mind in achieving nothing but great photographs. Forget about your real-world, forget about the clock, this is your time.

The day prior to your shooting day, get a good nights rest. Pack your camera bag the day prior to your shooting day. Pre-visualize what you may expect, great shots at the right moment of time—when your subject will be photographed in the most interesting colorful manner, sometimes even in the most funniest state. Make sure you have the right speed of film with you, preferably a mixture of 100 to 400 speed film. While I prefer the slower speed film at all times, higher speed fill will give you a wide range of latitude in the different lighting conditions and lens selections you will encounter, and for QRT practice, it's perfect.

The second step is to shoot images at your local zoo, or a local sporting event. Lets start with the zoo. The zoo is a place where you can find interesting subjects doing interesting things. Make sure you take a little cash to quench your thirst and hunger, so even your body’s most natural requirements won’t disturb your mental process. No one likes to work hungry or thirsty, and you will be working on your photographic abilities.

Be at the zoo early, right when they open. This is usually the best time, as the animals are eating breakfast and are usually more active after their good nights rest. Once at the zoo, spend at least an hour watching and observing the different subjects. Make a mental note of the ones that capture your emotions, they are the ones that will make for the best photographs. After studying the animals, go back to those subjects one at a time. If it helps, carry a small note pad and develop an itinerary of where you want to go shoot for the rest of the day. Focus in regional area at a time, this saves on footwork. Don’t worry about how much time you spend with each subject, if you run out time, you can always come back on your next shooting day and find those subjects again.

Set your frame of mind to “see” the right moment as you press the shutter. Study your subject, try and predict the subject’s next move. If you see a prairie dog roaming around its zoo environment, look at how it plays with other prairie dogs; watch for when the zookeeper feeds the animal. Animals do funny acts when playing and eating—it’s up to you see and feel those acts in your mind just before they happen. When things start to happen, don’t hesitate—snap that shutter. You can always edit your film to the best of all the shots you’ve taken at the comfort of your own home—don’t try to edit in the camera when doing QRT. QRT is designed to help eliminate your shooting hesitation, not to make you a photo editor during the shooting phase, however, shoot diligently.

While you’re roaming the zoo grounds, keep an eye out for children or people doing their own interesting acts. If you see people, don’t hesitate to ask them permission to take their photographs, before you shoot. If children are involved, identify yourself to the parents first, give them your business card, and even ask the parents if they would like copies of the images. This usually makes them feel more comfortable when shooting images of their loved ones. Offer them prints at a later date in exchange for their model release if the images appeal to you for future use—stock agencies are always looking for “lifestyle” images to sell in the photo stock market, and you must have a signed model’s release.

If you’re not comfortable shooting people, stick with the animals at the zoo. They normally don’t talk back to you, they normally don’t complain, they don’t need make-up, and there are many subjects found on the zoo grounds. Some zoos will actually buy your images or allow you to come back for free if you provide them images for their own use or display. This is a good way to develop a working relationship with the zoo and its personnel. Sometimes zoos
will even hire you for future photographic requirements they have, such as brochures, posters and advertising.

QRT at the zoo is not glamour photography, but it’s an essential training tool that can help you become one of the best glamour shooters by providing you a “practice bed” to hone your confidence and shooting skills. In all photography, knowing when to press the shutter is critical as well as proper exposure of the film. Shooting slides will hone your confidence in producing proper exposures, as slide film doesn’t lie—the images are either done right, or they are too dark or too light.

In essence, QRT with slide film produces confidence in pressing the shutter while developing your knowledge in proper exposure under different lighting conditions. Slide film is the optimal film of choice in shooting glamour. Slide film scans better than negative film, slide film reproduces skins tones more life-like, and slide film is what publishers prefer for publication. Slide film holds a better resolving power than negative film, and reproduces a truer tonal range than negative film. You will find your blacks black, and your whites white in slide film, whereas in negative film black tends to go milky-gray, and whites tend to go a light shade of gray.

If you don’t like animals, or visiting zoos, another method to practice QRT is shooting sporting events. High school sports, or even local, youth, sporting events are best. You may choose to shoot your children’s local Little League baseball game. Baseball is the easiest of all sports to shoot. The most important “shooting acts” are predictable. Set your lens to capture when the batter will swing at the right pitch. Practice getting the ball as it leaves the bat—at the swing, not after the batter has swung.

You can easily critique your images when shooting baseball. Your images should show the ball leaving the bat—normally the ball will be about a foot from the bat as it’s leaving. You should see a slight blur of the ball and bat, as you probably will be at a safe shooting distance, requiring the use of a zoom or telephoto lens. Most games are played in the evening or night hours, so light is poor and you will be forced to use higher speed films. Here again, an advantage of slide film is that it can be “pushed” to a higher speed much easier and with better results than color negative film.

You will also be using a longer lens to fill the frame of the photograph, which requires a shutter speed of at least 1/125th or if on a monopod, maybe 1/60th, but the general rule, your shutter speed should be at least the equivalent to the size of the lens your using. If you have a 135mm lens, you should shoot no lower than 1/125th, or if you have a 200mm lens, you should shoot no less than 1/250th. The key here is to make sure your frame is filled with your subject and your subject’s face should be sharp, but the motion is evident with motion blur.

If you choose to shoot football or basketball, study the game and the team you’re covering. Go to the athletic department and see if they’ll give you a press pass. Give them your business card, and if it helps, offer to give the school or team free photos—you have to sometimes barter for access, but once you’ve done a few games, the team and coaches will eventually get used to you and probably become your friend if you provide them free images on occasion.

If your athletic department or the teams don’t give you approval, another avenue is to approach your local paper’s photo editor. If you have a large local paper, you may want to start with the smaller, regional paper that covers the teams in your area. Papers are always undermanned with staff, and they love it when “stringers” come along with images they didn’t get. Stringers, as they are known to news media, are people who newspapers don’t normally have on a payroll, but if they use any of your images, they will normally pay you a small fee to use your images. They fee is not relative here, and sometimes to get on board as stringer you may be better off waiving any fees as asking for just a by-line, or credit. Sell yourself to the photo editor.

Call the photo editor in advance, make an appointment, and show them your portfolio. Tell the photo editor the advantage is that you don’t mind working on a weekend or evening, when most sporting events take place—and they don’t have to pay anyone overtime. All you want is sideline access, or a press badge to get you that access. If you get turned down at first, no problem, just shoot what you can and keep going back over time with a “better portfolio” of images—the photo editor will probably give you a press badge at some point to give you a chance.

When shooting the games, look to see who gets the ball the majority of the time, and focus on that one or two players. You may have to wait for the shot, but regardless, have your camera focused on one subject all the time.

The key here is to reach a point where you press the shutter when the ball is a few inches from the player’s hands. You can train your eye and mind to anticipate the action and to press the shutter just as the ball arrives in the corner of the frame. This is the toughest it gets in QRT, but well worth the effort. You may not get this every time in every frame, but you can work yourself to achieving this shooting point over time. After five or six games, you should have this down, and be happy with your results.

Remember, your subject may not get the ball all the time, but following your subject with the camera while looking through the viewfinder is practice in itself. Be very careful in football and basketball of your shooting surroundings, and remember, it is a physical game and you can get run over if you’re not careful. It is not uncommon to get “caught-up” in the game and forget the player is coming right at you—especially with a long lens. Always be aware of your surroundings. Always have an escape path. Choose a spot where you can easily move, and always move around, don’t stay in the same spot. Action comes from all angles. Most important, be aware of the audience, they paid to come watch the players, not you. Don’t become a nuisance to anyone, in the stands or on the sidelines.

After you have shot your sports game or zoo outing, promptly have your film developed. It’s easier to capitalize on your own mental notes if the sooner you view your images. This step is a “self-critique” to your mind and builds on your confidence. You will quickly learn what you should have done to get that image or better image, and doing this conditions your memory to be better prepared for your next QRT shooting day. Your future shoots will call on your sub-conscience.

When you get your film back from the lab and back home, search through your slides, first taking out all your bad exposures. If the exposure is off, the image is blurred or out of focus, set those images aside. A good rule of thumb is to empty out one of the slide packaging boxes and label it bad slides. Save this box for later. Bad slides, or bad outtakes are great training tools for self-critique. They help you try to figure out why you have bad images—and everyone has bad outtakes. Learn to ask yourself why such a bad image? What can you do better next time? These questions and others are important for your self-inspection of your abilities and ability to properly use QRT.

Once you’ve removed the bad outtakes, start going through your leftover images, and pull those that follow good, basic, fundamental photography rules. These images you pull should have excellent and tight composition, excellent lighting and exposure, interesting subject matter, and most important, the subject, especially around the face area, must be sharp. The rule here is well “composed and exposed.”

If you have a great image, but the face or head area is not sharp, the image maybe a good image, but of poor quality—set is aside placing them in a box marked “culls.” You only want to use images of great quality. You can save your “good” images for playing with later in Adobe Photoshop, but don’t save them for your portfolio or website.

You should narrow down your great images into separate piles by subject. From these piles of great images, you should narrow your images down further, into the most interesting, properly exposed and composed images—perhaps one to three images. These few images are your keepers. Study these images; think on how to further improve them for the next time. Ask yourself, what can I do to improve these images the next time? You should also ask yourself, how did I achieve these best images? These best images are your photographs. They should not be pictures. Focus on how you achieved them, not on luck. There is no luck in achieving great images; luck comes from being at the right time at the right place—not when you squeeze the shutter. Knowing when to squeeze the shutter is your skill.

In essence, you’ve not only “edited” your images down to the best images, but you are now concentrating on your skill success with QRT and developing your own style of shooting—all this is an element of not only building confidence in what you can do with your ability to shoot, but becomes the foundation of improving your skills over time.

QRT sharpens your skills while fine-tuning your thoughts to create better images. QRT helps you discipline your photography to an art. Your images become photographs admired by others, not pictures appreciated by family. Remember that QRT produces great photographs over time, however, your success in photography with QRT is based on your commitment to yourself and your photography—the more you put into QRT, the more it shows in your work, the less you do QRT, the less it shows in your work—in any type of photography you practice.

Glamour photography is where you learn to apply your QRT skill. QRT is not glamour photography. QRT is the training tool that helps you become the best shooter you can be—and it will show in all your photographs.

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©2004 Rolando Gomez