Action photography tips

Action photography

The world is full of movement. How can you capture this in a single image with your camera? There are two ways; either record a blurred image to convey the impression of motion, or ‘freeze’ the image to capture a moment in time.

Successful action photography requires a mixture of understanding your camera, technique and practice. This tutorial will look at the following areas:

  • Exposure time
  • The impact of aperture and ISO
  • Panning your camera
  • Sports photography
  • Image stabilization
  • Experiment and discover

Exposure time

To understand how to take action photos, it is important to understand movement in terms of exposure times.

If your subject is absolutely still and your camera is on a solid tripod, the shutter speed you use is not that important. 1 second or 1/1000 second will give similar results – at least as far as the sharpness of the subject is concerned.

Now imagine there is a dog running across in front of the camera, typically at 16 km an hour. In 1 second it will cover almost 5 metres. If you use an exposure time of 1 second, the dog will appear as a very blurred image.

This can be quite effective, giving a strong impression of movement. An exposure time of 1 second might be a little extreme in this situation, but shutter speeds around 1/15 second are worth trying (the dog will move about 30cm). If, on the other hand, you want the dog to appear motionless, you could try a shutter speed of 1/1000 second. In this brief moment, the dog will cover less than 0.5cm

The impact of aperture and ISO

If you set a shorter shutter speed, less light gets to the digital sensor on your camera and the image will be underexposed. To compensate you need a wider lens aperture and/or a higher ISO speed setting.

A lens with a wide maximum aperture allows you to set a faster shutter speed and expose correctly. Many prime lenses (non-zoom) available for Canon EOS cameras have maximum apertures of f/2.8 or wider and are popular with sports photographers. Learn more about Canon lenses at the new Canon lens site.

If you don’t have one of these lenses you can set a higher ISO value, making the sensor more sensitive to light. The downside to this can be an increase in ‘noise’ – coloured speckles across the image. The latest Canon compact digital cameras feature the HS System which lowers noise levels by up to 60%.

Panning your camera

It is possible to obtain quite a sharp image of a moving subject even at slow shutter speeds. This is done by ‘panning’ the camera; move the camera so that the subject remains in the same position on the sensor during the exposure. It works best with a subject moving at a constant speed in one direction, such as a bird in flight or a car on a racetrack.

A good pan shot reverses the normal situation – the subject is sharp, but the background is blurred. Some subjects can be sharp and blurred at the same time. The body of a bird in flight, for example, will be sharp, but the wings moving up and down at right angles to the movement of the camera will be blurred. It is important to find the right position for panning; your subject should be the same distance from you throughout your shot.

Good panning takes practice and more practice. One trick is to keep panning after pressing the shutter release, so that the pan becomes a smooth movement.

Sports photography

One subject where there is usually a lot of movement and action is sport.

Track events are predictable; you know where the athletes are going to run. If you are at right angles to the track you can use panning to keep them sharp as they move across your field-of-view. If you get close to the track and aim your camera down the lanes as the athletes run towards you, a slower shutter speed is acceptable.

Football, rugby and other events played on a pitch are more difficult to cover because the action moves quickly around a large area. If you are close to a touchline, the players might be very close at one moment and in a far corner of the pitch a few seconds later. Use a faster shutter speed for close shots, as movement appears faster when nearby.

You don’t need to be at major sports events to shoot good pictures. Search out local games where the spectators stand on the touchlines and shout encouragement. The action can be just as strong and your viewpoints will be better.

Image stabilization

Image stabilization is particularly useful when shooting with telephoto lenses as it reduces the effects of camera shake that are more noticeable when using longer focal lengths.

Canon’s Optical Image Stabilizer (IS) works by having a ‘floating’ element in the lens. Gyros in the system detect camera movement. This is analyzed by the onboard processor and instructions are sent which move the floating element up and down or from side to side. This keeps the image of the subject in one place on the sensor, even though the camera is moving. The system is so responsive that it can overcome the vibration of an engine if you are shooting from a car or helicopter.

Experiment and discover

Most photographers shoot action pictures at some time or another, whether it is their children at play, a local sports event or busy street scenes while on holiday. It is possible to calculate the shutter speed needed to ‘freeze’ action by estimating the speed of the action, the direction in relation to the camera, the distance from the camera and the focal length of the lens. By which time you will have missed the shot.

It is much better to take lots of pictures, ideally with different exposures, and review the results when you have the time. Digital images record the shutter speed at the time of the exposure and most imaging software will show you this information (along with aperture, ISO setting and other data). Learn from what works so that setting your camera correctly comes naturally.