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Action Photography Tips – Three

Learn Photography

Action Photography

Photographing action is quite challenging, but can also be very rewarding. The keys to success are knowing your camera, knowing your subject…and LOTS of practice. You have to be able to set focus and exposure quickly (or monitor them quickly, if using an automatic camera). In short, you can’t be fumbling around trying to figure out how to apply exposure compensation or switch from single-area AF to multiple-area AF or vice versa while the action is happening. Camera operation must become second-nature.

A fast shutter speed “freezes” motion. Here, 1/5000 even froze the water droplets.
All photos by Mike Stensvold unless otherwise indicated.

It’s also very helpful to know as much as possible about your subject, be it an animal or a sport. The more you know about your subject, the better you’ll be able to anticipate photo ops, and be ready when they occur. Learn as much as you can about your subjects from books, online, and other sources, and by watching them yourself.

There’s a lot of luck involved, too, of course. But you’ll find that the more you practice and the more you learn about your subjects, the more often you’ll get lucky.


TIP 1: Shutter Speed

There are two basic ways to deal with action subjects: freeze them sharply, or blur them. Using a fast shutter speed will sharply freeze the subject, while using a slow shutter speed will blur it. How fast a shutter speed it takes to freeze the subject, and how long a shutter speed you’ll need to blur it effectively, depend on the subject’s speed and distance from the camera, the focal length of the lens you’re using, and the effect you want. The faster the motion, the closer the subject, and the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need to “freeze” the motion.

With the foregoing in mind, it’s a good idea to try a variety of shutter speeds each time you encounter a new action subject, to see which one(s) produce the best results for that subject. You’ll soon learn what speeds will produce the effects you prefer.

A slow shutter speed blurs motion, which can be an interesting effect.

Tip 2: Panning Techniques

If you use a slow shutter speed and keep the camera still, the subject will move through the frame and come out blurred. This is fine for subjects like hovering hummingbirds, where the body will be sharp and the wings blurred, but subjects moving across the frame will just be blurred. A better way to deal with such subjects at slow shutter speeds is to pan the camera–track the subject with the camera, moving the camera to keep the subject in the same spot in the finder. The result will be a sharp subject and a very blurred background, emphasizing the subject’s speed.

Panning to track the subject while using a slow shutter speed will result in a blurred background but a relatively sharp subject.


Track your subject through the viewfinder, press the shutter button halfway down to activate the AF system, continue tracking the subject, press the shutter button all the way down to make exposure, and continue tracking the subject (follow-through is important: if you stop tracking the subject when you take the shot, the subject will blur and possibly even move out of frame by the time the camera makes the exposure). Like all action techniques, this one takes practice to master, but the results are worth the effort.

Shooting at the peak of the action, when an ascending subject briefly hangs motionless before starting back down, you can get sharp images even at slower shutter speeds.
Photo by Ron Leach 


TIP 3: Composing Action Shots

Most action happens too quickly to allow you to carefully compose each image and check the background for distractions. But you can check the background (and lighting) before the subject arrives, and move to a different spot if background or light aren’t good.

Check the background and lighting before the subject arrives. If the background is distracting, or the lighting unattractive, try to find a new spot to set up.
Photo by Karel Kramer/Dirt Rider Magazine


Focus Points

While it’s easier to keep a camera’s wide, multi-point AF area on a moving subject, most AF SLRs will respond more quickly if you use only the central focusing point. If your camera doesn’t seem to respond quickly enough with action subjects, try using single-point AF instead of multi-point AF.

Swallows are very tough subjects: Not only are they fast, they’re also erratic as they pursue tiny flying insects. This “mirror image” occurred when a swallow flew near the water surface, which glowed with sunrise color. Exposing for the color and letting the bird go silhouette also provided a faster shutter speed–all the better to catch a sharp image.



If you know the subject will pass a specific point, such as second base at a baseball game with an expert base-stealer on first, you can prefocus manually on that point, and thus be ready to shoot as the subject arrives. This eliminates the time consumed by (and possible inaccuracy of) autofocusing.

With moving subjects, it’s generally preferable to leave some room in the image ahead of the subject, so it appears to be moving into the picture rather than out of it.


Continuous Drive

Continuous advance (continuous drive with digital SLRs) lets you shoot a series of exposures at one touch of the shutter button. This can yield nice action sequences, but also use up lots of film rather quickly–a big advantage to digital cameras here. Bear in mind that with many AF SLRs, only the first image or two of a moving-subject sequence will be really sharp, so it’s probably best to stick to 2-5-frame bursts.


Camera Lag

There is a brief lag between the moment you fully depress the shutter button to take a shot, and the moment the camera actually makes the exposure. With pro action cameras, this lag is very brief, but it’s there nonetheless. You have to develop a feel for your camera’s lag if you want to get great action photos. And that just takes some practice.

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