Pro Tips for Great Action Photography

Arisa Kim/Demand Media

Overview

Great action photography is all about capturing a great moment. Whether it's a child scoring a winning goal or just playing in her backyard, a great action photo conveys a sense of movement and tells a story.

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Crowded Subjects

Perhaps the easiest adjustment to make for better action photos has to do with composition. This photo of a young girl playing superhero feels uncomfortable because it's too tight on the left and bottom. She's clearly running, but there isn't enough room for her to move, her foot is cut off, and there's nowhere for her to run.

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Room to Move

This image is much more pleasant to look at because the girl has enough room below her feet and she has enough room in front of her to give the sense that she has somewhere to run. It doesn't feel like she's about to run out of the picture. As a general rule, leave more room in front of your subject than behind.

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Position and Angle

The more you know about who or what you are shooting, the better you can position and prepare yourself to get the shot you want. For example, if you are at a park, shoot in a direction that won't frame your subject in front of a busy street. Also think about your point of view. Shooting from a lower angle can make your subject appear more important. Photographing children from above may be appropriate to accentuate the inherent childlike qualities of your subjects.

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Freezing Action

If your camera has manual controls, dial up your shutter speed in order to "freeze action." The faster your subject, the faster your shutter needs to be. Most cameras also have a setting to take several frames with one press of the shutter button. Because timing is often the key to getting the "money shot," this feature is a great tool for getting several shots of fast action. This camera is set on "S" (Shutter Priority) and on continuous burst mode, which shoots 3 frames per second.

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Angle the Subject Toward the Lens

This image was shot at 1/180th of a second. Really fast action would require faster shutter speeds; perhaps 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second. But this dog wasn't running too fast, and the camera was at an oblique angle to the dog. When the subject is running toward you, rather than at an angle parallel to your lens, you can get away with shooting at slower speeds.

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Blurry Subjects Might Need Panning

If your action shots are always blurry (like this one), you might need to try "panning with your subject." This is a technique that takes practice, but with patience and perseverance, it should improve your action photography. This image was taken at 1/180th of a second, but the cyclist was riding too fast to be captured at that speed. At times when lighting conditions won't allow you to increase your shutter speed, try panning with your subject to get them in focus.

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How to Pan with Your Subject

This image was also taken at 1/180th of a second, but because the camera moved with the action, the subject is not blurry. This panning technique requires you, the photographer, to move with your subject as you are shooting. Imagine you are the tripod and your upper body is the swivel. Focus on your subject, and then move the camera to follow the action as you press down the shutter button. Continue the movement even after the image is taken.

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Putting the Pieces Together

After you are comfortable panning with the action, you can play with slower shutter speeds to intentionally capture a sense of movement. Compare this image to the one previous. This image was shot at 1/60th of a second; much too slow to "freeze" the action without panning. The slower shutter speed creates a great blur in the background and with the spokes of the wheels, which gives a sense of the cyclist's speed. This image is also improved by the lower perspective. By "looking up" at the cyclist, he seems more important. The horizon line also drops below his shoulders resulting in a cleaner composition.

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