Great action photography can bring a dynamic scene to life—exploding the boundaries of the frame and making the viewer feel part of the action. It’s also hard to master—for every poignant shot of bear cubs tumbling across a gulley there will be dozens of expressionistic blurs that might go down well at the Tate Modern, but not in National Geographic. Still, for all its undoubted difficulty, action photography is an important, fun technique to learn, and one that can elevate your photography from ‘inspired amateur’ to ‘semi-pro’. Here, we tell you how to do just that:
Crank Up Your Shutter Speed
Let’s say you’re photographing race cars. What sort of image do you think you’ll get on a low shutter speed? That’s right—a near-unidentifiable one. One of the most oft-cited accomplishments of action photography is its ability to magically create a crisp, detailed image from what—to our eyeballs—remains invisible. Above all else, capturing this effect involves cranking your shutter speed waaay up. For race cars, you’ll be looking at around 1/4000 of a second, while something like horseracing may only require 1/1000. A skateboard trick may be as low as 1/250. The important thing is to experiment and get used to the speeds required for different sports, while also remembering the next tip.
|© Ed Callow|
Adjust Your F-Stop
At high shutter speeds you’ll need to start playing with f-stop and ISO, unless you want your pictures to be lost in a haze of atmospheric darkness. Again, this is mostly trial and error and depends entirely on the conditions around you—but as a rule of thumb, it’s wise to set your ISO to highest and then try widening the aperture for those dynamic 1/4000 speed shots. Try f2.8 and if you’re still struggling, consider taking it all the way up to f4. As you get used to snapping dramatic action pictures, this will become second nature, allowing you to concentrate on the more important aspects, like the next tip.
Know What You Want
No two action shots are the same, but they can be divided into a couple of catch-all categories. ‘Frozen’ shots seem to hold the moment suspended in time—a great technique when capturing something the eye wouldn’t normally be able to register,say, the moment a diver hits the water. ‘Blurred’ shots are best used to give a sensation of movement—shots of cars or bikes that will benefit from the added energy. While frozen shots are best caught using the techniques described above coupled with a ton of patience, ‘blurred’ shots are a little harder. Because you’ll want the focal point of the photo to remain sharp, you can’t simply drop to a lower shutter speed and wait. No, the trick is to pan with your subject—track them as they come toward and pass you and then snap as both of you are moving. This will create a blurring sensation in the background of the photo, conveying to your audience the sheer speed at which your subject is moving.
As with all photography, the trick to action shooting is in discovering the best angle to take your shot from. Only this time, you’ll have to do it without your subject available. It sounds hard, but only takes a bit of practice. Identify a spot on the course (or ring, or pitch or whatever) where you know your subject will go and look dramatic doing so. Set up for the shot as usual, getting a sharp focus on where you intend them to be, then simply wait for your subject to reach this spot and start snapping. This allows you to create great effects with focal depth, rather than simply going universal in the hopes of capturing some part of the action.
Finally, and most importantly, make sure you squeeze off as many shots as humanly possible during those few precious seconds. Most professional sports photographers take literally hundreds of pictures at any given event—the trick is in sorting through afterwards to identify the ones with resale value. Follow these steps, set up and then shoot like your life depended on it, and you’ll eventually get something usable. After that, it’s only a matter of practicing until your good photos outweigh your bad.