Whether you want to get better photos of your kids playing soccer or you’re interested in photographing professional athletes on their field of sport, action photography is a fun and challenging way to enjoy activities and learn more about photography.
But like many genres of photography, taking photos of sports and activities presents a unique set of challenges that must be overcome if quality results are to be had. In this guide, we offer six quick and easy techniques that will help you find success in the world of action photography.
Know Your Game
Whether it’s motorcycle racing or basketball, understanding how the sport or activity unfolds will give you the ability to be at the right place, at the right time, to get the action shots you desire. If you’re photographing a sport or activity with which you are completely unfamiliar, watch videos of it in preparation for your photo shoot. You will find that with a little bit of knowledge, your rate of successful shots will dramatically increase.
Understand Shutter Speed
Obviously, action photography requires the use of a fast shutter speed. However, the specific type of activity you wish to photograph will determine precisely what shutter speed is needed to freeze movement. Working an air show will necessitate much faster shutter speeds than, say, a track meet. As a rule of thumb, start with a shutter speed of 1/500 seconds and work from there. You might find that you need to speed it up significantly, or you might even be able to slow it down a little bit if the action you’re photographing is on the slower side. Adjust aperture and ISO as needed to maintain a good exposure.
Many action-based activities have repetitive elements that inform you as to where the action will take place. In a car race, the vehicles will appear in generally the same spot as they exit a corner. In swimming, you can get a feel for where individual swimmers will come up for air in a given length of the pool. In baseball, the basepaths are a good place to focus on for bang-bang action.
Use these repetitious events to your advantage. For example, at a car race, position yourself such that you can pre-focus on a specific curve in the racetrack. Doing so means that you have sharp focus on a particular spot, and when cars enter that specific spot, they too will be in focus. Rather than trying to keep up with a moving object, you’ll find it’s much easier to pick a spot and fire off a sequence of images when your subject enters the frame.
It’s All About Location
Of course, to prefocus on a specific spot, you have to be able to find a good location from which to shoot. At a football game, along the end zone is an ideal location, but unfortunately, that’s not always an option. The same goes for other sports and activities - without credentials, you might be relegated to the stands.
Nevertheless, with an appropriately sized zoom lens, you can still get great action shots, even from afar. When selecting a vantage point, ensure that the background from your point of view will complement, and not detract from, your composition. The more nondescript the background is, the better off your image will be. A relatively featureless background will allow your primary subject to take center stage in the photo, as it should.
Continuous Shooting Mode Isn’t Cheating
As awesome as it is to get “the shot” with just one exposure, the likelihood of that happening is a long shot. There is just too much that has to go right to get a perfect exposure with a single press of the shutter button. Increase your chances of success by shooting in continuous mode. Different cameras have different burst speeds, but at the very least you’ll get several images in under a second. The hope is that at least one of them is what you want or has promise to be a great photo with some post-processing.
Get the Needed Gear and Get to Know It Well
All too often, photographers get caught up in having the “right” gear or the “best” gear. In many cases, an old camera with a good used lens can still get you great results. But in action photography, good gear really is a must. You can’t capture rapid movement with a point-and-shoot or an old, slow DSLR with an old, slow lens.
The next time you watch a sporting event, look closely at what the photographers in the press area are equipped with. By and large they have large lenses, and you will need a large lens too. Telephoto lenses can be incredibly expensive though, so if you don’t already have one, think about renting one for a few days. Trying a few different lenses might be advisable as well, so you’re sure what you’re getting yourself into before plunking down a big lump of cash.
Whatever gear you use, you need to be intimately familiar with it. Action photography requires you to make split-second decisions, and you can only do that if you know every knob, dial, and setting on your camera. Learn how to operate it without thinking, without removing your eye from the viewfinder. Once you can do that, you’ll be in much better shape to get the shots you need, regardless of the sport or activity.