There’s nothing quite as thrilling as capturing the perfect action shot. Being an action photographer is like being a matador in a photographic bullring – you’re perpetually a split second away from a breathtaking masterpiece or a blurred disaster.
And the action and sports photography world is fast-paced and exciting – definitely not without challenges. It requires a sharp eye, a swift finger, and a dance with unpredictability.
Life comes at you fast, but you’ll be shooting even faster with these pointers. So let’s dive into what is an action shot and some tips I’ve gathered from the photographic trenches.
What Equipment Should You Use for Action Photography?
Photographing live-action photos, such as sports or wildlife, necessitates specialized gear to capture the excitement and movement of each moment in high resolution and with great detail.
High-quality telephoto lenses are an essential piece of kit for getting the perfect action photo.
When shooting dynamic scenarios, a lens with a broad focal length, such as 70-300mm, is often the go-to choice. This lens lets you stay far from the action while capturing close-up, detailed shots.
For instance, think of a photograph that captures a football player’s intense expression mid-kick, all the way from the sidelines.
Stable Camera Support
Equally important is a durable tripod or monopod. Large telephoto lenses can be heavy and hard to hold steady, especially over extended periods.
A good tripod will alleviate this issue, leading to sharper action photos. Imagine trying to photograph a fast-moving cheetah in the wild; without proper support, your shots could turn out blurry due to camera shake.
High-Speed Memory Card
A memory card with a quick write speed is essential for taking consecutive action shots without delay—a crucial factor in action photography.
A faster card can quickly save a picture you just took, allowing you to immediately move on to capturing the next exciting moment.
For instance, if you’re photographing a high-speed car race, a fast memory card would allow you to capture the car’s rapid motion without missing a beat.
Photography Tips for Action Shots
Did you really think capturing the perfect action photo is as easy as clicking a button? Not quite. These are some essential tips for shooting action photography
Play with Shutter Speed
First, I want to emphasize the importance of a fast shutter speed – the magic trick to freezing your subject mid-action, sharp as a blade. To freeze a subject, start with 1/500 of a second and crank it up as needed. Anything slower than 1/500 of a second may not completely freeze the action.
Another tip is to set your shutter speed according to your lens. This is called the “1/focal length rule,” which suggests that in order to avoid camera shake, the shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of the focal length of your lens.
So, if you’re using a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/50th of a second or faster to minimize the risk of image blur caused by your hand’s minor movements.
Exceptions to the rule: In some circumstances, you may use a longer exposure time to highlight the action of your subject with a blur effect.
For instance, if you’re photographing a moving car and want to give a sense of its speed, using a slow shutter speed can create a blur effect in the photo, illustrating the car’s motion in a visually engaging way.
QUICK TIP: I suggest setting your camera to Shutter Priority mode and adjusting as necessary.
Set the Right Aperture
A wide aperture also allows more light to hit the sensor, enabling faster shutter speeds to freeze the action. However, the depth of field will be narrow, so focusing must be precise. Autofocus systems in many modern cameras can help with this.
Conversely, a narrow aperture (larger f-number) will provide a larger depth of field, valuable when you want more of the scene in focus, such as capturing an entire team or a more significant part of the field.
So use depth of field creatively, according to your specific needs.
Using Flash to Freeze Action
In sports and action photography, flash can freeze a subject in motion, adding sharpness to the details. Flash can also be used creatively to produce motion blur effects, highlighting the subject while maintaining the sense of speed.
Using off-camera flash can provide more control over the direction and quality of light, but remember to check the regulations in the venue, as some places have restrictions on flash photography.
It’s essential to understand your camera’s flash sync speed to avoid any inconsistencies in lighting.
Rear-curtain sync, a function in many cameras, can make the flash fire right before the shutter closes. This can create a more natural light flow in the direction of the movement.
Anticipating the action and understanding the sport or activity you’re capturing can significantly enhance the results.
Pre-focusing is a technique where you focus your lens on a specific spot where the action will occur. This is particularly useful in situations where the action is predictable.
For example, in a football match, you can pre-focus on the goalpost area expecting a shot or a header.
TIP: It helps to use manual focus for pre-focusing since autofocus can shift focus when you don’t want it to.
Panning for Effect
Panning is a technique where you move your camera to follow the moving subject during the exposure. This results in a relatively sharp subject against a blurred background, conveying a sense of speed and dynamism. To begin with, I usually set my shutter speed between 1/60 to 1/125 of a second and change it accordingly.
The key to panning is practice. It would be best to experiment with different shutter speeds to find what works best for your subject. A good starting point could be between 1/30 and 1/125 of a second.
Try to match the speed of your subject with the speed of your camera movement for the best results. Panning also works best when your subject moves in a predictable straight line.
The thing you should focus on (get it?) most when panning is setting your focus right.
Continuous or Tracking Focus
Continuous focus is a mode where the camera continuously adjusts the focus as the subject moves – as long as the shutter button is half-pressed (or you’ve initiated focus in some other way, depending on your camera model and settings).
This camera mode is vital for sports action photos because it allows you to maintain focus on rapidly moving subjects. With the subject in focus, you can track the action through the viewfinder and be ready to take the shot at the decisive moment.
Understanding your camera’s autofocus system and AF point selection can also help track and maintain focus on your subject.
Using Burst Mode
Burst mode (or continuous shooting mode) allows you to take several photos in quick succession by holding down the shutter button.
This is particularly useful in capturing fast action as it will enable you to choose the best shot from a sequence of images – you might catch a moment of peak action that you may miss in single-shot mode.
The rate of burst mode can vary from camera to camera. Professional-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can shoot at very high frame rates, up to 20 frames per second or more.
TIP: Be aware that shooting in burst mode can fill up your memory card and buffer quickly, especially when shooting in RAW. You’ll need fast, high-capacity memory cards to handle it effectively.
Anticipation: The Sixth Sense
Anticipation in sports action photography is like a sixth sense. Get to know the game, learn the players, and you’ll find yourself capturing action before it even happens.
Let me explain. If you are unfamiliar with a sport’s rules, strategies, and rhythm, your photographs will likely reflect that lack of knowledge.
For instance, in soccer, knowing when a player is likely to shoot at a goal or make a critical pass can be the difference between capturing a stunning action shot and missing the moment completely.
Understanding the game helps you to position yourself in the right spot at the right time. You also need to know the players: each athlete has their style, strategy, and rhythm.
Anticipation also involves reading the overall game situation. In soccer, this could mean identifying when a team is setting up for a set piece, when a counterattack is likely, or when a player is about to attempt a particularly challenging maneuver, such as a bicycle kick. These moments often make for compelling photographs, but capturing them requires a keen sense of what’s happening on the field.
To exemplify further, let’s think of another sport: tennis. Tennis is a back-and-forth game, with players switching from defense to offense in a heartbeat. If you understand a player’s patterns, you can anticipate pivotal moments in the match.
If a player has a powerful serve, being ready for that moment can let you capture the intense focus on their face or the explosive power of their swing. Or, if a player is known for their agile net play, you can position yourself to capture the finesse and speed of their volleys.
Another example: In boxing – if you know that one boxer has a devastating right hook, you can position yourself to capture the exact moment of impact. Or, if a boxer is known for their quick footwork, you can aim to photograph the grace and speed of their movements in the ring.
So this ‘sixth sense’ of anticipation, informed by understanding the game and its players, can lead to captivating and dynamic sport action photos.
Using Composition in Action Photos
In action photography, space is not a final frontier but one of the most basic compositional rules.
It’s all about giving your subject room to move into. As a photographer, you need to consider how the elements in your image interact with each other and how they guide the viewer’s eye.
Imagine you’re capturing a cyclist racing down a path. Suppose you position the cyclist with more space in front of them than behind them. In that case, the viewer’s eye naturally follows the implied motion, creating a more engaging and satisfying visual experience. This technique is commonly referred to as the “rule of space.”
To illustrate further: think about a nature documentary where a cheetah is shown sprinting after its prey. The most compelling shot wouldn’t just freeze the cheetah mid-run.
Instead, it would frame the cheetah so we can see the vast expanse of the savannah in front of it, giving us a sense of its speed and the distance it has to cover. This use of the rule of space allows the viewer to experience the tension and drama of the hunt.
PRO TIP: Despite the technological advancements, some digital cameras, especially DSLRs, still have a noticeable lag. To overcome this, familiarize yourself with your camera’s specific delay. Start by taking a test shot and observing the time between pressing the button and the image being taken.
Capturing action shots requires a combination of the right equipment, an understanding of your subject, and lots of practice. Whether you’re shooting a local sports event or fast-moving wildlife, these tips will assist you in capturing the perfect action shot.
But don’t get stuck in the same over-used action shots that everyone delves into, but rather look for ways to level up your action shot and make it stand out in a creative way – by adding a unique perspective or conveying an intense emotion.
And remember: As in sports, in photography too, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So, grab your camera, step into the field, and may your photos always find their mark.
And if you’re ever in doubt, learn more by checking out our other articles here at OhMyCamera.