Action Photography: 5 Tips for Capturing the Moment

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action photography.
Quick summary

A rewarding genre, action photography is also among the most challenging. From the motion and energy of athletes to the grace and beauty of dance to the raw power of wildlife in their natural habitat, great action photos capture a moment and tell a compelling story.

Action photography is a captivating and challenging niche. From sports to wildlife to the performing arts, capturing the motion and energy of a subject in a single frame is immensely rewarding but not so easily done.

In addition to camera settings and techniques, a sense of timing, plus an expect-the-unexpected approach, gives the photographer an advantage.

Action photos that you’ll cherish for years to come are possible with practice and proper technique.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss setting up your camera, choosing the right lens for the subject, and outlining some methods for capturing great action shots.

action photo of soccer player about to kick ball.
Action photos capture a moment, such as this soccer player about to make a kick.

1. Camera Settings for Photographing Action

Learn your camera’s settings and how to make the best use of available light, and you’ll be able to freeze the motion and capture the detail in the midst of fast-paced action.

Shutter Speed

For action photography, a fast shutter speed is essential to capture the motion and avoid blur. Start with a minimum setting of 1/500 sec and adjust based on the speed of the action. To photograph modern dance, 1/500 sec may work. For sports, set the minimum at 1/1000 sec. For fast wildlife like birds in flight or animals running, go with 1/2000 sec and up.

Aperture

While you want the subject in sharp focus, a soft background, or bokeh, gives that subject prominence, allowing it to stand out and enhancing the sense of motion. A wider aperture, such as f/1.8 or lower, creates a shallow depth of field and blurs the background. In addition, the wide aperture allows for faster shutter speeds.

ISO

Depending on the light, you may want to increase the ISO to compensate for the fast shutter speed and ensure proper exposure. However, be mindful that noise increases with higher ISO settings. So, find a balance that works for your specific camera and lighting conditions.

dog running in water action photo.
A fast shutter speed catches the dog in mid-stride and freezes the splashing water framing its face.

Continuous Focus and Burst Shooting Modes

For shooting action, set the camera to continuous autofocus mode, which is perfect for tracking action photos. On Canon cameras, continuous autofocusing is labeled AI Servo. With Nikon and Sony, select AF-C. With this setting, the camera will continue to track the subject as it moves around within the frame.

In addition, switch your camera to continuous shooting or burst mode. This allows you to capture a series of images in rapid succession, increasing your chances of getting that perfect shot. Also, high-capacity memory cards assist the camera’s buffer in processing that burst.

By mastering camera settings, you’re ready to capture the energy and excitement of the moment.

dancers man and woman on stage.
Burst mode gives the photographer choices of the graceful movements of these dance partners.

2. The Right Lens Choice for Action Photography

Choosing the right lens for action shots makes a significant difference in the quality and impact of your photographs. Factors to consider when selecting a lens for action photography are focal length, maximum aperture, and autofocus capabilities.

For sports photography, a 70-200 mm lens handles many situations. Some professional sports photographers opt for prime lenses with longer focal lengths and fixed apertures. These provide higher-quality images. But they’re a lot more expensive. The longer focal length takes you closer to the subject and compresses the background, making the body stand out even more.

telephoto lens used for action photography.
A telephoto lens puts the photographer close to the action.

If you’re close to the action, perhaps at an indoor event, a 50 mm lens works well. A prime 50 mm will have a wider maximum aperture, which is good for lower light and not as heavy as telephoto lenses. However, you’ll probably want a longer lens for most sports photos.

If you’re really close to the action and want to take advantage of the distortion it offers, select a wide-angle lens. This makes objects closest to the lens abnormally large, an interesting effect.

Also, consider the autofocus capability of the lens. Fast and accurate autofocus ensures that you can track and capture fast-moving subjects. Look for image stabilization, which is a great benefit when shooting handheld.

sports photographer at event venue.
A photographer waits for a moment at a sporting event venue.

3. Focus Techniques for Capturing Motion or Moving Subjects

Mastering focus techniques is essential for any type of photography. Capturing motion in an image brings its own set of challenges. Let’s go over some action photography tips.

In a previous section, we suggested continuous autofocus mode, which is particularly useful for fast-moving subjects like athletes running or wildlife. You’ll need to keep the shutter button half-pressed to maintain focus while tracking movement.

However, I recommend back button focus, which assigns a specific button to focus. Keep your thumb on the back focus button to track the subject and your forefinger on the button to snap the shutter. We have an article on back button focusing that goes into more detail.

In my research for this article, I read about pre-focusing. In this method, you focus on the scene, then switch to manual focus to stay locked on that spot. That may work if there is limited movement, but people and animals move. And today’s cameras are quite capable of tracking movement and staying locked on focus. So, I’d stay away from the pre-focusing.

hummingbird taking nectar from a flower.
Continuous auto-focus tracks unpredictable movements, such as this hummingbird.

Use a Flash to Freeze Motion

A camera’s flash helps to produce great action shots. This works best when you’re closer to the subject, and the light is poor. The flash freezes the action and usually leaves the background darker, which further highlights the subject.

We have an excellent article on flash compensation that details this technique.

skateboarder in action photo at skate park.
A flash illuminates the face of a skateboarder in a low-light setting.

Capturing Movement with Slow Shutter Speeds

slow shutter speed adds an artistic touch to your action photographs. That is, it blurs the subject’s movement and conveys a sense of motion.

Select a shutter speed between 1/15 sec and 1/2 sec to capture the desired amount of motion blur. This works best with subjects in continuous or repetitive movement, such as a moving car or a dancer in motion. By capturing these subjects with a slow shutter speed, you can create beautiful streaks or trails of motion, adding a sense of energy to your images.

Capturing movement with slow shutter speeds is a creative process. Be patient and embrace the artistic possibilities that come with it.

photo of dancer with motion blur.
A slow shutter speed creates a sense of movement in dance.

Panning to Create Dynamic Action Photos

Panning involves tracking a moving subject while keeping your camera’s focus on it, resulting in a sharp subject against a blurred background. This technique creates a sense of speed and motion, making your action photos come alive.

Start by selecting a relatively slow shutter speed, such as 1/30 sec or 1/60 sec. This allows you to capture the motion blur in the background while keeping your subject sharp.

If you’re shooting a speeding car or a runner, follow it with your camera as it moves across your frame. It’s important to keep your camera steady and follow the subject smoothly to achieve the best results.

Panning takes practice and patience to master. Experiment with different shutter speeds, subjects, and angles to find the effect that works best for you.

panning action photo of car showing blurred background.
Panning keeps the subject in focus and blurs the background, adding to the sense of motion.

4. Using Composition to Tell a Story in Action Photography

Action photography can be more than just capturing a moment; it’s about telling a story. Therefore, composition plays a major role in conveying the narrative and adding depth to your action photos. By carefully framing your subject and considering the elements within the frame, you create compelling images that draw the viewer in.

One of the key composition techniques to consider is the rule of thirds. Imagine your frame divided into a grid of nine equal parts with two horizontal and two vertical lines. Place your subject at one of the intersecting points of these lines to create a more balanced and visually appealing composition.

surfer on surfboard riding wave.
Leading lines and the rule of thirds accentuate the surfer in this image.

Another technique is leading lines, which guide the viewer’s eye and add a sense of motion to your image. Look for lines or shapes within the scene, such as roads, fences, or the curve of a runner’s body. Then, use them to lead the viewer’s gaze towards the main subject.

In addition, consider background and foreground elements in your frame. Make sure they enhance and support your subject rather than distract from it. Look for contrasting colors or textures that can add visual interest and help your subject stand out.

Experiment with different angles and perspectives to add variety to your action photography. Get down low or find a high vantage point to capture unique viewpoints that add a sense of drama and excitement.

Remember, composition allows you to convey the emotion and energy of the moment. Take your time, experiment, and trust your instincts. By using composition to tell a story in your action photographs, you can create images that are not only visually stunning but also emotionally captivating.

snow skier on downhill run.
A low angle puts the viewer at eye level with the skier.

5. Post-Processing Tips to Enhance Your Action Shots

Now that you’ve captured some stunning action shots, take your images to the next level with post-processing techniques. Careful post-processing enhances the impact and drama of your action photographs, giving them that extra wow factor. Here are some tips.

Adjust exposure and contrast to make your subject pop. You can increase the exposure slightly to bring out the details and add brightness to your image. Adjust the contrast to create more depth and enhance the overall dynamic range of your action shots.

Pay attention to the colors in your image. Use selective color adjustments or saturation sliders to make the colors more vibrant and intense, adding energy and excitement to your action photographs.

editing action photo in lightroom.
Post-processing is the final step in creating amazing action photos.

Adjust Sharpening and noise reduction to improve the overall clarity and detail of your action shots. But, apply these adjustments carefully to maintain the details in your subject while reducing any noise introduced during shooting.

Also, add a vignette to draw attention by framing your subject.

Post-processing is a personal and creative process. I recommend you use Luminar Neo or Adobe Lightroom. Experiment with different adjustments and settings to achieve the desired look and feel for your action shots. In the end, some creativity and practice take your action photographs to new heights with post-processing.

silhouette of woman running at sunset.
Action photography gives us many opportunities for artistic expression.

Conclusion

Capturing a moment in time is the essence of action photography. Whether it’s a child playing with a dog or a major athletic event, action photos capture an energy and motion that is unique to the genre.

An understanding and application of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO combine to freeze or blur motion. Anticipation of the action is a skill worth acquiring, so you’re ready to capture the subject at just the right moment.

People or animals in motion are tricky to photograph. Camera settings, experience, timing, the laws of physics, and a little luck combine to tell a story.

I hope this article gives you a better understanding of action photography and a little inspiration to give it a try. If you have any comments or questions, please submit them in the space below.

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Daniel is a professional photographer who has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on Pictorem.com, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.
Daniel is a professional photographer who has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on Pictorem.com, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.
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  1. Hi Daniel,

    Great article. I especially enjoyed how you mentioned to keep the scene balanced with proper placement of your subject. Thanks for the editing recommendations too. Keep up the good work 🙂

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