Tips for Action Photography

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By Steve Russell

Before I get into the actual subject matter for this post there are a couple of things I want to mention.

First, I’ve just returned from a two week vacation and I want to publicly thank Tiffany Joyce for holding down the fort while I was away. I’m sure it’s going to cost me.

Second, I want to make it clear that I do not publicly criticize the photos of other photographers unless I’m asked by the photographer. This is particularly true with photographs that are included with Beyond Megapixels articles and posted on the Beyond Megapixels Facebook page. I also follow this personal rule on Flickr, other blogs, etc. That said, there are times where I need a photo to illustrate a “what not to do” point I’m making and I don’t have one of my own photographs to use. As a result, I grab an image from Flickr Commons and use that. However, any comments that may seem negative in nature are directed toward the process and procedures being discussed and not directly toward the image.

Photographing subjects in motion can be a lot of fun but successfully capturing the image you want can sometimes be a challenge. Focus, composition, exposure and available time each present a set of problems in action photography that are absent or minimized when photographing subjects that are still. From birds in flight to Little League Baseball to auto racing, getting a sharp image requires some forethought and attention. Here are a few tips that you may find helpful in improving your action photography.

Take advantage of the automatic functions – focus, exposure – of your camera. I remember the “old” days of film photography and manual cameras and the very mixed results with action photography. Today, the use of auto-focus and auto-exposure significantly increases your chances of success. While you have the choice of using the P (program) mode, I keep my camera set on Av (aperture priority) mode and let the camera set the shutter speed. If I need faster shutter speeds without changing the depth of field I increase the ISO setting.

If you’re photographing something in motion, in most cases you want some evidence of motion apparent in the image.


In this photo, it’s difficult to tell if the cars are moving or parked on the track because both the foreground, the background and the main subject(s) are all in focus. There is a clue in that the pace car is in the front and they’re not sitting at the start line, but there isn’t any motion suggested by the photograph.


However, in this one it’s very clear that the car is moving because the background is not only out of focus but the out of focus area is redered in a manner that indicates motion.

The way to achieve the blurring of the background is to aim the camera at the subject and pan or follow the subject until you release the shutter. The panning motion will blur the background. This approach is especially useful when photographing birds in flight.

Motion Blur Test 1/50 of a second

This image demonstrates how to show motion by holding the camera still and letting the subject move through the frame. To capture an image of this nature it’s important to use a shutter speed that’s slow enough to allow for the blur of the moving subject.

Medevac Helicopter

This shot of a helicopter I took last week shows what happens if you use a shutter speed that is so high it removes the appearance of motion. When a helicopter is in the air and its rotors aren’t turning as it’s captured in this image, the helicopter falls out of the sky. That’s a bad thing. If the background is a clear blue sky, panning won’t provide the sense of motion so it’s important that you use a slower shutter when photographing rotary wing and propeller driven aircraft so the blurred propellers will provide the sense of motion.

Horse Detachment Commander

When the subject in motion is moving directly toward you it’s necessary to find another way to suggest motion. Because you’re usually trying to keep the subject in focus, you can’t pan the camera if the subject is moving toward you. In this, and the following photos I was able to achieve the sense of motion by capturing the image with all four of the horse’s hooves and the hooves of one of the mules off the ground at the same time.

Horse Cavalry Detachment Supply Wagon

Canon Firing

Of course, the smoke from the firing of a 19th century cannon indicates motion as well.

I know the background really sucks on these three images but they demonstrate the point I was making. One of these days, I’ll try a little Photoshop magic on them and get rid of the power lines, automobiles, etc.

Consistently capturing really good images of subjects in motion takes practice. Remember that is far better to practice on subjects that you don’t care about than not practice and miss the shot of a lifetime because you didn’t practice. Besides, it’s a skill that can be fun to work on.

Photo Credits:

Turn 1 by mnapoleon on Flickr Creative Commons
IMG_4668-2 by crosathorian on Flickr Creative Commons
Motion Blur Test 1/50 of a second by by sporkwrapper on Flickr Creative Commons

All other photos by Steve Russell

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