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9 Easy Steps For Taking Great Action Shots


Jo Plumridge

This article is an extract from Issue 5 of Photography Masterclass Magazine
Action shot of horses racing in snow
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Taking fantastic action shots is not necessarily something that is intuitive to photographers. Most people need to practice a little bit in order to get great results. It’s easy to be put off the idea of action shots, as they can seem fairly daunting to achieve. Fortunately, by following these easy steps, you can ensure that you get perfect results every time.

1. Freezing the action

Probably the most important factor when shooting action is your shutter speed. To successfully shoot action, you will need to use a fast shutter speed to ‘freeze’ your subject. As a general rule of thumb, I tend to aim for a shutter speed of 1/500 and above for action. How fast a shutter speed you should use depends on a variety of factors, such as how fast your subject is moving and how much light is available. In general though, the faster shutter speed you can use, the better. The exception is if you’re trying to photograph moving vehicles. If you’re photographing moving cars, try and use a slightly slower shutter speed, one which is fast enough to freeze the car but leaves a little motion blur in the wheels. This will convey the fact that the car is moving!

When you start experimenting with faster shutter speeds, I’d recommend using the shutter priority mode on your DSLR. This will allow you to set the shutter speed yourself, whilst the camera sets everything else for you. It’s great as it means that you can just focus on one thing. Of course, your results may not always be perfect this way, and eventually you might want to progress to using full manual mode

Action sot of mountain bike wheel through muddy water

2. Anticipation and pre-focusing

When shooting action, it’s important to have your camera set up (as far as is possible) beforehand. For instance, as discussed above, you should already have your camera set to a fast shutter speed. In addition, particularly when you’re starting out, you can try to pre-focus your camera. Sports lend themselves well to this – you can try focusing on the wicket in cricket, for example, and then wait for the action to happen and unfold around you.

3. Choosing an autofocus mode

To shoot sharp action photos, you need to choose the correct autofocus mode. There are two main autofocus modes: Single / One Shot Autofocus, or Continuous Autofocus.

In most general photography situations your camera you’d set up your camera to use the Single or One Shot Autofocus mode. Single Autofocus locks onto the object when you half press down the shutter release button and keeps that focus fixed until you fully press the shutter button all the way down to take your shot. Single Autofocus works well in action shots where you are pre-focussing your shot as suggested above (such as focussing on the wicket in cricket).

However for most action shots you’ll want to take the action has its happening without having to pre-focus your camera. For this you should switch your camera’s autofocus mode to continuous mode. Continuous mode is better for shooting moving objects as the camera constantly tracks the moving subject and adjusts its focus of it. Continuous mode is also a predictive mode, as it sets the focus on where it believes the subject will be after the split-second delay caused by the mirror rising and the shutter opening in the camera. This mode makes shooting action shots considerably easier

4. Panning

Panning shot of scooter moving with blurred background

In conjunction with using the continuous ‘tracking’ focusing mode, as mentioned above, one of the most useful photographic techniques you can employ for action photography is panning. Panning can give you some amazing results in action photography. The idea behind the panning is that you move your camera along in time with the moving object, to end up with a relatively sharp object but a blurred background. This is one of the most popular ways to convey a sense of motion in an image. To achieve a successful panning shot, remember that you’ll need to use a slightly slower shutter speed – otherwise the entire shot will be sharp. Depending upon the light and the speed of your subject, I suggest using a shutter speed between 1/60 and 1/8 for panning.

If you own a wide-angle lens use this with panning to exaggerate the effect. If the moving object is coming towards you, it will create the illusion of exploding action.

5. Use fill-in flash

Your camera’s pop-up flash can be put to good use in action photography. Firstly, it can be used to help illuminate your subject and to give you a wider range of apertures to play with.

Secondly, it can be used to create a technique called “flash and blur”. Flash and blur works by combining a slow shutter speed to blur the background motion, while the flash being fired freezes and sharpens your subject.

The best time to use flash and blur is in low light conditions, such as at sunrise or sunset. Try to make sure that your subject is either front-lit or side-lit from the existing ambient light. The darker background will help to make your subject really pop in the photo.

There are two techniques you can use to create a flash and blur image. The first is achieved by holding your camera steady and taking your shot as the action moves in front of the camera. The second option is to use panning to follow the subject as you shoot the shot. This option produces the best effect in my opinion as the panning creates a great blurred background, while the subject is frozen in the flash. For the best results with flash and blur avoid having the subject in front of a brightly lit background, or having a background that is too close to the subject as your flash may illuminate the background as well as the subject.

Motion image showing person's legs above dirt road

6. Experiment with depth of field

Another way to help with blurring the background is to choose a large aperture, thus creating a small depth of field. This also has the added benefit of helping your moving object to ‘pop’ out of the image. In addition, using a large aperture means that you’ll have more light coming into the image through the lens’ iris, which in turn means that you can use a faster shutter speed.

7. Angle of view

One of the most important factors in capturing great action shots is to ensure that you have the correct view of the action, and that you are in the right vantage point. You need to have a clear view of the action, without any obstructions (that should be fairly obvious!). But, in addition, it’s important that you are at the right level for whatever it is that you’re photographing. Don’t be afraid to lie down or climb ladders in order to achieve the perfect shot!

8. Action doesn’t just cover the obvious

When you mention action photography, most people think of things such as sports and cars. But if you’ve ever tried to photograph children or pets, you’ll know that the word action can just as appropriately be applied to those photographic situations! It’s worth applying most of the above tips when you’re photographing children and pets, as both tend to not be very good at sitting still. In addition, using things such as a fast shutter speed allows for far more naturalistic shots, whereby the child or animal is captured ad-hoc.

Action shot of person jumping into water with a sunset and reflection

9. And finally…

Much of action photography is about experimentation. Because photography is always dependent on light and its availability, it’s likely that the settings you need will always be changing slightly. But, by following these tips, you will achieve far better results and will hopefully enjoy the process.

VIDEO TUTORIAL: Action Photography

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