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8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

In this article, we’ll give you 8 quick tips for photographing fast action and sports.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

But what if you don’t shoot sports?

There is a lot of value in learning how to make images that work across different genres. You might avoid sports or wildlife images. Perhaps you find landscapes boring. However, each genre requires a unique skill set that needs to be practiced in order to make images that work. When you practice photographic “cross-training” your work in your primary genre will benefit. In other words, get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

Regardless of what you like to shoot for personal projects or commercially (i.e. portraits, landscape, social documentary, wedding, wildlife, etc.) your reflexes and hand-eye coordination needs to be sharp and fast. When your observation skills are finely tuned, you can anticipate moments before they happen.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

How can you learn to anticipate action and synchronize your eyes with your right index finger?

A great way to practice this is to shoot sports. Live theatre or dance performances are also useful activities to shoot for this purpose, but sports (especially motorsports) is the fastest of fast. Moments come and go in rapid succession so you get more opportunities to respond than in other types of photography, relatively speaking. Consider that a vehicle traveling at 60 miles an hour is moving at 88 feet per second!

8 Tips for photographing fast action

In the eight points below, I aim to share technical settings that are useful when shooting action or sports. Follow these, and not only will you be closer to making images of action and sports that work but your overall technical capability as a photographer should improve as well.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

Granted, making images of this type is not easy but anything worth doing should never be easy.

1 – Use a long lens

Use a long telephoto lens such as the common 85-200mm focal length and try to get close to the action.

A telephoto lens will give you the flexibility to quickly adapt to the changing situation. Sports move quickly and so must you. On a football pitch, the action may go from one end of the field to the other within seconds.
Depending on where you are standing you need to move quickly as well. A twist of the wrist will get you there with a good telephoto zoom lens.

2 – Don’t go too long

You can go bigger such as 300-600mm focal length, but super long lenses are not necessary. They are also bulky, heavy, and expensive.

Super telephoto lens can be useful especially when shooting motorsports. A race car or motorcycle on a track moves way faster than a ballplayer on a field. Depending on how much you expect to shoot sports,
you might want to wait on the purchase of a super telephoto.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

3 – Minimum shutter speed

The shutter speed should be inversely proportional to your focal length to avoid camera shake. For example, a 200mm focal length lens should be shot at around 1/200 or 1/250 of a second while a 400mm lens should be shot at 1/400 of a second, handheld.

A tripod will basically negate this rule. However, some places forbid tripods or it may be unsafe to use one so be prepared to shoot without a tripod.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

4 – Practice panning

Panning is when you place a moving subject in your viewfinder and them by moving the camera from left to right or right to left, following the subject’s direction and speed.

The benefit of the technique is that you are afforded more time in which to compose the image. It is generally advisable to place your moving subject off to one side of the frame, and moving into the negative space on the other side of the frame. This gives your subject room to breathe and a place to go, so to speak.

Panning takes practice but it is one of the basic techniques in which all photographers should be proficient. It usually works around 1/60 of a second or faster for faster-moving subjects. Experiment until you feel proficient and happy with the results.

Go to the nearest street and shoot the cars until you get the car in the frame and mostly or entirely sharp.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

5 – Use a teleconverter

A teleconverter is a small device that fits in-between your camera body and your actual lens that increases the focal length by some factor. Increases of 1.4x or 2.0x are common. A 200mm lens can quickly become a 400mm using a teleconverter.

Teleconverters have the benefit of being small, compact, and relatively inexpensive (especially compared to 400mm or longer glass). Additionally, the teleconverter will normally communicate with your digital camera and retain metering, autofocus, EXIF data, and more.

Be sure to get the same brand for all your equipment so that it all works together. There are exceptions to this rule but you will need to do a bit of research to sort that out.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

The downside of using the teleconverter is that you will lose at least one stop of light. During broad daylight, you can probably afford to do that but at night, you need all of the light than you can get without having to sacrifice ISO. Teleconverters are great little devices, however, you will need to consider trading sharpness for that extra reach.

6 – Blur the motion

Consider if you want motion blur (and how much) or want to completely freeze motion. Some amount of motion blur can be desirable in your images so that the viewer can get a sense of the speed and action of the subject.

Alternatively, you might want to freeze motion and keep things tack sharp. It’s really a matter of taste, and how you intend to tell your story through your images and techniques.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

7 – Freeze the motion

To freeze motion you will need around 1/500th of a second, 1/1000th, or even faster depending on the speed of the subject.

My old Nikon FE SLR shoots at 1/4000th of a second and there are DSLRs that will shoot at 1/8000th. Dial in a number, test, and adjust as needed. When you shoot sports, It’s advantageous to use “S” Mode or Shutter Priority mode for best results.

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

8 Tips for Photographing Fast Action and Sports

8 – Use low ISO

Set your maximum ISO to about 100, 200, or 400. You can go to 800 (or higher) and get usable images but the odds fall considerably against you at this “end” of the ISO dial. Less is more ISO, especially with action and sports.

Using the lowest ISO possible will give you the sharpest images given the shutter speed that you are using. Sports and sporting events are usually colorful activities with lots of details in the frame. Therefore, when shooting sports, you ought to aim to use the lowest ISO possible.

If you are shooting with a really fast shutter speed such as 1/1000th or higher, given the amount of available light, you may need to use a higher ISO such as 800 or 1600 to compensate for the reduction in light hitting your camera’s sensor. You get to make this decision before pressing the shutter on every image. Do you want sharp or do you want to freeze motion or do you want both?

There are limits and you need to be mindful of these especially when shooting fast moving objects.


I hope you’ve found this tips helpful. Are their any others you’d added to this? Please share in the comments area below.

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Jeremy H. Greenberg
Jeremy H. Greenberg

is from New York where he received training from NYIP. He is a commercial photographer who also teaches film photography to primary and secondary students at The Harbour School in Hong Kong. Jeremy has various published works that include National Geographic. You can see more of his images on his website, or Instagram.

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