How to Take Action Photos

Whether you're photographing professional sports, your children's antics or wildlife, adventure photography is about storytelling. How better to communicate a surfer's victory than to show him or her riding a wave rather than standing by a board? Think how much more you'll have captured your family's skiing adventures by showing them on the slopes -- kicking up snow -- instead of having them line up for a standard family shot. Sound great? Then you need to hone your action photography skills.

In this article, we'll do just that. You'll learn the basics of how to take action photos, as well as tips for taking photos in the snow, from a boat and in low light.

In addition, you'll also learn about your equipment needs. In general, it's possible to capture action with a standard point-and-shoot camera, which we'll touch upon. However, to really step up your photos, an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera and special lenses, such as a wide-angle lens to expand perspective or midrange telephoto zoom to give you longer range, can really help. Watch throughout for details on stability equipment and camera protection, as they'll vary by location.

Before we jump in, though, let's get started with some preliminaries: three questions to always ask yourself, along with immediate considerations.

First, when heading out to shoot, you should ask yourself the following. By being thoughtful, you have a better chance of achieving your goals:

  • What's my subject?
  • How can I emphasize my subject?
  • What do I need to cut or move to decrease distracting elements?

Second, become familiar with your camera so you can move quickly. Also, every camera has its own lag time; become accustomed to yours so you can time your actions. And, perhaps most importantly, watch for safety hazards.

Now, let's get down to the fun details of action photography, such as freezing and blurring motion. Be careful, though. If you proceed, your days of asking your subjects to stay still could be numbered.

Helpful Definitions

Shutter speed refers to exposure time, meaning how long the shutter stays open. It's measured in fractions of a second. A borderline shutter speed for a still image is 1/30, as that's about as long as you can hold a camera steady without external assistance.

The f/stop (also known as aperture) refers to the size of the opening in the lens that allows light through when taking photos. Aperture readings go from widest (f/smaller number) to narrowest (f/larger number). Think in terms of fractions. An f/4 aperture is wider than f/16. With control over the amount of light in an exposure, the f/stop helps determine how sharp different things in the photo appear, especially when it comes to distance.

An ISO setting measures the light sensitivity of film or a digital sensor. It is measured in numbers, such as 100, 200, 300, etc. Lower ISOs are less sensitive to light, while higher ISOs are more sensitive. Higher ISOs are referred to as "fast," as they allow you to use faster shutter speeds and narrower f/stops to still get enough light. The reverse is true for slower ISOs.

Taking Action Photos

Taking action photos begins with knowing your camera's mechanics. Action photography requires you to be quick. Therefore, you likely can't compose your shot as usual, but that doesn't mean you can't do some preplanning. For example:

  • Check out your location and set up in a safe, action-packed area.
  • Check your background and lighting.
  • If you're photographing a sport, learn about its objectives and rules. This will help you anticipate the action and position yourself appropriately.
  • If possible, talk to your subjects to see if they'll pre-plan some shots. Don't be shy when it comes to strangers. For example, for a digital file or print, an amateur athlete may be more than willing to help.

After doing your homework, there are great ways to capture the action. It all comes down to your personal preference and what type of adventure photography story you're aiming to tell. Below, you'll find three photography tips for taking action photos. If needed, refer to the sidebar on this page for helpful definitions.

  • Freezing action -- If you want to freeze action in time without blurring your image, you need a fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000 (or a sports or active mode on a point-and-shoot). Depending on the lighting in your photo environment, you may need to adjust your f/stop to a wider setting because you'll be cutting down on the light let in through your shutter. Experiment to see which combinations work.
  • Blurring action -- Use slower shutter speeds (or the landscape setting on a point-and-shoot) to blur your photo and illustrate speed. To keep your subject sharp while blurring everything around it, pan with a slow shutter speed. To pan, move the camera with the subject. First, start tracking your subject. Press the shutter button halfway down to start the autofocus. Then, keep moving with your subject and push the button all the way down when you want to take the photo. Track through the photo to ensure you don't stop before the exposure is complete.
  • Catching action at its peak -- In some action sequences, such as when a basketball player goes up for a slam dunk, there's a moment of peak action when everything seems to momentarily freeze. If you shoot at the peak of action, it's possible to catch that stopped motion.

Ready to try these techniques? Why not get bundled up and head out for some photos in the snow? Snowshoe to the next section to learn more.

Keeping Steady

Are you having a hard time keeping the camera steady? In some instances, you can rely on a tripod or monopod. Tripods are great when you have a lot of room, and monopods can be helpful in tighter spots. But staying stable in action photography requires using yourself for stability. First, bring your elbows in close to your body. Press your camera to your face. Hold the camera in your right hand, and use your left hand to control zoom and manual focusing and provide support.

Taking Action Photos in the Snow

Using the previous techniques, you can freeze a skier or blur the background to show speed. However, capturing these shots in the snow combines extreme weather, difficult lighting and movement. With that said, if you have the proper gear, practice your exposure skills and follow snow photography tips, your photos can shine.

Besides dressing warmly and considering a hand-warmer (since you'll need to remove your gloves), consider your equipment. For water protection, look for a sealed camera or a rain and snow cover. Keep your batteries and camera warm while it's not in use -- inside your jacket next to your body, for instance. For stability, use a wrist strap. A neck strap is too dangerous to you and your camera if you fall in the snow; a tripod will get in the way of your mobility and subject's safety.

Exposure in snow can be tricky. The snow's brightness makes your camera think it's lighter outside, resulting in underexposure. Your snow will look fantastic, but your subject won't. Here are some options for figuring out settings on a snow day:

  • Point the camera at the sky -- away from the sun. Set your exposure settings (combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO).
  • Before your subject heads out, point the camera at his or her face and set your exposure. Keep those settings in place while shooting.
  • If your skin is similar to your subject's, set the exposure using your hand in the same lighting and angle of your shot.

Conversely, if you are taking snow photos on an overcast day, compensate even more for the camera's tendency to underexpose. Try overexposing by two f/stops.

If you're having trouble determining which setting combinations work and have a digital camera, use your histogram (exposure guide) in the preview mode. With lots of snow around, you want the curve to be higher near the left edge. If that isn't the case, tweak your settings.

In addition to your gear and settings, consider the following photography tips for shooting in the snow:

  • Set up as close to the action as possible without getting in the way.
  • If you can get close, you can also show the expression on your subject's face or see interesting reflections in his or her sunglasses.
  • Get low and shoot up to highlight your subject.
  • If you want to emphasize sprays of snow, shoot toward the sun. Be careful not to shadow your subject.

Now that you know how to shoot action photos in the snow, advance to the next section to learn about adventure photography from a boat.

Taking Action Photos from a Boat

When taking action photos from a boat, chances are that not only is your subject moving, but you are also moving -- even if it's just with the current. This movement so close to potentially camera-damaging water calls for some specific techniques and the protection of both your camera and yourself.

First, use your camera settings and stability methods to get your shots off quickly and creatively. For example, to freeze action, compensate with a faster shutter speed and ISO of 300 or faster. Play with your settings and use the reflection of the water for visual interest. Provide a moving subject with lead time while it travels across the frame, and watch the direction of the sun to avoid shadowing your subject.

Second, to steady your camera while taking photos from a boat, try these tips:

  • If you're sitting (maybe when in a canoe), place your elbows on your knees for added stabilization.
  • While rafting or in other freshwater boats, find a spot to take photos while in still water.
  • If you're on a large boat and can use a tripod, go for it. However, a monopod can be a better option. Having just one leg cuts down on how much engine vibrations affect the monopod, and you can set it low in smaller boats.

Keep in mind that the above is worthwhile only if you and your equipment are safe. Watch the weather conditions and take appropriate action. In a canoe, raft or similar boat, use a wrist strap, not a neck strap. Should you capsize, having anything around your neck is dangerous.

To protect your camera, purchase a waterproof case or bag. Since salt is corrosive, clean your camera thoroughly after a saltwater shoot. If your camera falls in fresh water, dry it out and get it to a repair shop as soon as possible. If it falls in saltwater, immerse it in fresh water and get to that repair shop.

With what you've read so far, you might be thinking it's time to head out on an adventure photography trip. First, though, you should also pick up some tips on how to take action photos in low light -- whether it's in the dusk of the day while on your snow shoot, as the sun goes down on the open water or even inside. Swing by the next section to learn more before you grab your gear and jet.

Shooting an Action Sequence

Want to tell your story through a series of action shots taken one after the other? First, get yourself stable. If you're in a situation where you can use a tripod or monopod, go for it. Set your camera manually so the only thing that will vary from shot to shot is the location of the subject, not how you depict it. Try a narrow aperture so everything in the frame is in focus. However, your shutter speed will need to be quick enough to freeze the action -- at least 1/500. Kick up your ISO if needed. Set your camera to burst mode. Let your camera go and take those photos. When choosing photos from the sequence to display, select some with space between them so the images don't overlap too much.

Taking Action Photos in Low Light

When you venture out in the sun to take photos, light is helpful, but what if you're inside at a sporting event or dance show? Or what if that sun sneaks behind a cloud cover? In this case, you'll be facing a low light situation.

Here's the issue with low light for action photos. In low light, you need to adjust your camera to let enough light in. If you'll recall, that means you need to either use a slower shutter speed or a larger aperture. Well, if your goal is to freeze action, you've learned that you need a fast shutter speed. That leaves you with using your aperture setting for light -- but even at the largest aperture setting, you still might not be letting in enough light.

Don't worry, though. There are a few photo tips to help. Consider the following:

  • Try a fast lens, which allows for a fast shutter speed and very wide aperture. Some telephoto zoom lenses come as large as f/2.8. Even some fixed lenses come as large as f/1.2 to f/2.8.
  • Don't have enough light? Add your own. Keep in mind that indoor events may have strict rules about using a flash. Also, your onboard flash may not be powerful enough; you may need an external flash. If that isn't an option, and you're allowed to shoot with a flash, check the specs on your camera to see the range for your onboard flash and stay within it -- if you can get that close.
  • Increase your ISO to 400 or even 800. Note, though, that with higher ISOs, you'll sometimes see more of the grainy dots that make up an image. This is called noise. Higher-end SLR digital cameras have a noise-reduction option that can help cut down on those dots.
  • Try overexposing by one or two f/stops. This may work, but you'll increase your chances for noise.
  • Help your camera out when it comes to focusing in low-light situations. Focus on something the same distance away from you, but in better light. Lock the focus, return to your subject and take your photos.

You've learned a lot about techniques in this article, but the best way to refine your action photography skills is to practice. Soon, you'll be capturing action like a pro -- storing family memories, highlighting your favorite sports and pausing powerful moments for safe-keeping.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesSources
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