Shooting Action Photography

action-photography-1Action can be described as any scene which incorporates movement. Action can be as slow-moving as a person walking, or as fast-moving as a race car barreling down a straightaway at 200 miles per hour. Capturing action’s peak moment is a combination of experience, artistic vision, and desired result.

Action photography requires preparedness and doesn’t wait for the photographer to ready her- or himself. Before leaving the house, I like to go through a mental checklist of the equipment I will need for an upcoming session. This might include items like a speedlight and portable light modifiers, polarizing and neutral density filters, lens hoods, a tripod or monopod, spare memory cards, and extra batteries for both camera and flash. Be prepared for any emergency. Do you need a second camera body or second flash in the event one fails? If you don’t own a spare, consider renting from a reputable company such as BorrowLenses. Be certain your gear is clean—particularly lens elements and view finder. Anticipate all the possible shooting conditions and adjust camera settings accordingly ahead of time—white balance, ISO, shutter speed, and aperture—then fine-tune as required once you’re at the event. Is the day clear and sunny? Is it overcast and threatening rain? Will you be shooting indoors or under stadium lights at night? This may seem obvious, but more than once I have begun a session with the incorrect white balance or shooting mode only to discover my error after the fact.

One of the big advantages to digital photography is the ability to take test shots and view the results immediately. Arrive early if possible to make any final exposure adjustments and select a vantage point. Use an 18% Gray Card to determine accurate exposure. If your subject is a high-speed race car or an Olympic diver, it is a good idea to position yourself so that the subject is entering the frame as opposed to exiting it. Apply the rule of thirds, and avoid placing your subject in the center of the frame. This accentuates the action, and is generally more visually appealing. If you want to freeze action, use fast shutter speeds (1/500 second or faster). If depth-of-field is critical, use small apertures (f/8 or smaller). Keep ISO settings as low as possible (ISO 100-800) to minimize unwanted noise. I always recommend shooting in RAW format, as this allows for the widest range of image optimization possibilities in post-production. The RAW file is your digital negative, and requires some kind of image-editing software such as Adobe Camera Raw. I shoot everything in RAW + Large Jpeg (See camera manual). This way, I have a workable image without having to expend the time required for processing RAW images.


Crisp, sharp images are not always the most desirable or aesthetically pleasing, nor do they necessarily best convey action and sense of motion. Slow, hand-held exposures are a very effective way to communicate motion. Experiment. Try very long exposures (1 second or more) while panning. If you are shooting in bright daylight, you may need to use a variable neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. I use a Tiffen Variable ND filter. This also allows you to use larger apertures, which enable you to isolate your subject while blurring the background. If you have a zoom lens, try zooming in or out during a long exposure. Using a flash in combination with slow shutter speeds at night offers a variety of interesting effects, and the results can be quite dramatic. Be sure to turn off image stabilization when panning or zooming. Most of all, get out and shoot as often as possible—anything and everything. You will become a far more competent photographer as a result.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please contact me. Until next time, happy image-making!


Leave a comment