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How to Take Better Action Photos

Updated on May 29, 2020
Photography Focus profile image

I am passionate about photography and love to teach what I've learned during my 30+ years of working as a professional photographer.

Knowing how to take better action photos is challenging for many photographers. Capturing the right moment and getting it sharp is not easy when you are photographing a moving subject.

There is one key technique that will help you take better action photos. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it is effective. You don’t need to rely on better camera equipment or faster auto-focus. You need to slow down!


How Do You Take Good Action Photos?

If you want to take better action photos the best thing you can learn to do is slow down. I am not kidding.

Many photographers think they need to be fast and have lightning reflexes. This is true. Working fast and reacting well will help you get better action photos. But to develop these skills you must first slow down.

Learning to use your camera so well you don’t need to think too much about it is key. Know what settings you need to use and how to adjust them without looking. This will help you take better action photos.

Slow down and practice until you build up your reflexes. Think of someone studying a martial art or learning to play lead guitar. At first they move painfully slowly. Sometimes literally. As they practice they will build up speed and reduce reflex time.

Photographers are not often good at routine practice. They like to pick up their camera and take great photos. Too often they rely on the camera technology to do this for them.

Take time to practice with your camera and you will learn to take better action photos. Action photography is not easy so you must slow down and take time to practice.


What Makes a Good Action Photo?

A good action photo capture the peak of the activity. The decisive moment when your subject is doing the most interesting action. Getting your action shots sharp and well exposed is also vital. The main subject should be in focus and without unintentional motion blur. (Keep reading. I’ll cover this more later in the article.)

Types of action photography are:

  • Sports
  • Your kids playing
  • Pets (maybe not turtles or snails)
  • Birds
  • Wildlife
  • Dance
  • Manual workers


What’s the Best Type of Camera Equipment for Shooting Better Action Photos?

Professional-grade DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras are often designed specifically for action photography.

In more recent generations of Nikon pro gear, some camera models cater to professional sports photographers. New models are even often released on the market just prior to major sports events such as the Olympic games.

Cameras that are good for action photography will have:

  • Fast highest shutter speeds
  • High burst rates
  • Great auto-focus
  • Good image quality at high ISO settings

You don’t need to purchase one of the top pro cameras to take better action photos, but they will give you an advantage. The problem is that most people cannot afford a camera like this. Generally, the more expensive camera model as better for action photography.

You can use any camera for action photography. You just need to practice with it more to become better. Taking time to practice will help you discover the best camera settings for the style of action photography you shoot. Don’t be distracted by thinking your camera is not good enough. If you are, your progress will be impeded.

Long lenses with wide aperture settings are also popular among action photographers. These are expensive and more difficult to use. They are often big and heavy making them difficult to hold.

When photographing sport with this type of lens I will use a good monopod to take the weight of the lens. A monopod is more portable than a tripod and it provides enough stability when using fast enough shutter speeds.


Shooting Action Photography

Finding a good subject in the right environment will help you shoot action photos with flare. The wrong background behind your subject can ruin a potentially great action shot. Choosing the best location to take your photos from will help you get better action photos.

Planning ahead is important. Being able to anticipate when the best action is likely to happen is important. If you know your subject well, you’ll be able to do this better

The best sports photographers only concentrate on one sport. They don’t only photograph it, they know it intimately. Photographers of team sports will know the rules of the game. They will know a lot about the teams they photograph. They will understand how each team plays. A lot of time is spent getting to know the game better because this allows the photographer to take better action shots.


How Do You Take Action Shots with a Digital Camera?

Slowing down is only part of the key to taking better action photos. Choosing the right action photography settings is also important.

What settings you use depends on what you are photographing and what the light is like. Photographing indoors or outside on a dull winter afternoon is challenging. In these situations the light is low, so optimal settings are more difficult to set.

With plenty of light, it’s easier to adjust your camera settings to help you get well exposed, sharp photos.

Ideal action photography settings are a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture. These settings will help you freeze the action and have well-focused photos.

The faster the action, the faster shutter speed setting you need to choose. The narrower aperture you use the more chance you’ll have of getting your subject in focus. A narrow aperture, using a high f-stop number, creates more depth of field. This is the area in your photo that is acceptably sharp. With a wide aperture, it’s more difficult to get your subject in focus.

The problem with using both a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture setting is that less light reaches the sensor. This can result in underexposed photos. With digital cameras, the best way to compensate this is by raising your ISO setting. With a higher ISO you’ll be able to use a faster shutter speed and narrower aperture.


Why are my action shots blurry?

The main two reasons action photography appears blurry is poor focus and/or motion blur.

Action photography is challenging because your subject is moving. This makes it more difficult to focus on. Finding just the right spot to focus on at the perfect time is very challenging. This is why it’s important to know your subject and be able to anticipate when the best action will happen. With some action photography, this is easier than others.

Photographing a pole vaulter or high jumper at an athletics event it’s easy to capture the peak of the action. You know when it will happen and where it will happen. Photographing football catching the peak action is much more difficult because it’s less predictable.

When you have a fast-moving subject the other challenge is avoiding motion blur. This type of blur happens when your shutter speed is too slow for the action you are photographing. How fast you set your shutter speed is related to how fast your subject is moving. The faster your subject moves, the faster your shutter speed must be to freeze the action.

At times you can use a slower shutter speed and pan with a moving subject. In this type of photo, your subject is sharp and the background is blurred. This happens because the camera is moved while the shutter is open.

Sometimes you may want your subject to appear blurred. Subject movement captured using a slow shutter speed can convey the sense of movement in an action photograph.


How Do You Get Action Shots in Focus?

Out of focus action photography is very common because it’s so challenging. Take your time and learn to anticipate when and where the best action happens. This will help you take better action photos.

Being ready and pre-focused on a certain location where you predict the action will be best will get you better action photos. Tracking a subject and relying on your camera’s auto-focus takes a lot of practice, but is also a good option in many action photography situations.

Setting your aperture to the narrowest possible will also help you get your action shots in focus. With more depth of field you have more wiggle room with your focus setting. If you’re using a wide aperture and are a little bit off with your focus the subject may not be sharp enough.


Slow Downs and Take Better Action Photos

Slow down if you want to learn to take better action photos.

Learn to use your camera well. Practice with it. Know where the settings are and how to adjust them. Know what shutter speed and aperture settings are best for the style of action photography you do. These may be different if you’re photographing your kids playing outside or they are inside on a rainy day.

Know your subject well and be able to predict when the best action will occur. This is more challenging with some subjects than with others. But even with kids and animals, you can learn to anticipate when the action best.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Photography Focus


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