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6 Tips for Shooting Better Action Photos

by Dan Bailey on May 20, 2010 · 9 comments

Tips for Photographing Action

Shooting action usually means capturing your subjects in a moment of physical exertion, or in the middle of some athletic challenge or accomplishment. A great action photo compresses an entire event into a single instant frozen in time. It shows us in detail, a moment that, in reality, went by much too fast for us to fully comprehend. It allows us to study that one moment and thus see and understand just what the subject endured during the course of the entire event.

Action photography requires a degree of mental sharpness, so that you can quickly and successfully analyze the scene, as well as technical proficiency. Below is a list of some important elements to consider when shooting action.

1. Efficiency with your equipment. Waiting for the action to unfold is no time to be fumbling with your camera or lens, or scrolling through menus and options in the LCD panel. A solid working knowledge of how your camera operates is crucial to getting good action photos. You’ll want to set your exposure and focus — and any other camera parameter that the situation might require — as quickly as possible. Essentially, you want your technical skills with the camera to be second nature, and the way to achieve this is through practice, practice, and more practice.

2. Shutter speed — fast or slow? Often times you’ll want to freeze the action so that your subject is dead sharp in the image, while other times you may want to create a blurred image, which communicates motion. To freeze the action, you’ll want to use as fast a shutter speed as possible, preferably over 1/500 sec, while a slower shutter speed, usually under 1/30 sec and slower will give you a blurred subject. Which technique to use will depend on what kind of image you want to create.

3. Peak of the action. Action photography is all about being in the right place at the right time, and the best way to capture the peak of the action is to anticipate when and where it will occur. Studying your subject or having an understanding of how the scene will play out before you will allow you to put yourself in the right place, so that you can press the shutter at the right time. This might mean placing yourself somewhere, pointing the camera and waiting for the subject to come into the frame. Also, look for peaks in the subject’s expressions in addition to high points in the action.

4. Shoot in continuous mode. By shooting in continuous high-speed mode, you can capture an entire series of the action and have more images to choose from when looking for that single great image.

5. Pan with the subject. Sometimes you’ll want to follow the subject through the scene with your camera as you click off frames in continuous mode. Try to keep the subject in the same relative position in the frame as you pan. Using this technique with a slower shutter speed can produce some very strong results.

6. Get Close. Action photography lends itself well to shooting very tightly composed shots. Zooming in and filling the frame with your subjects can be a very effective way to make your pictures much more dramatic and eye catching.

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Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. Follow his own blog at danbaileyphoto.com/blog and see his daily updates at facebook.com/danbaileyphoto.

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