Shooting Fast Moving Subjects – How to Stop the Blur

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In this article you will see how to deal with fast moving objects. For me shooting action is the most fun you can have with your photography. You can freeze that instant split second that the human eye couldn’t even comprehend, and capture it in an image for all time.

Image 4

1/6400, f/6.3. ISO 800

Last weekend I was lucky enough to shoot a bicycle charity event in the countryside. The sun was out, the birds were singing and there was enough cyclists, kids activities, and local celebrities to keep me shooting non-stop for the day.

As I was shooting fast moving road cyclists I had two lenses that I used. One which is the bread and butter lens of most photographers, the 70-200mm f/2.8. On a full frame body it has a good focal length that can capture subjects at a medium distances and the fast aperture allows for shooting in quite low light conditions. The second lens was a wide angle, for capturing some different looking shots. You don’t want to have a memory card with all the same style of shots, boring for you, and if this is for work, definitely not what the client wants to see.

image 7

Shutter speed: 1/50th, f/16, ISO 200

Although I just listed pro lenses, honestly you can do this with any kit zoom lens, a 55-200mm variable aperture or a 70-300mm like the Nikon VR which is a great value for money zoom lens.

As with most shoots I make sure I get the classic shots that I KNOW I can nail first. For me this is frozen action, nice background, and the subject at approximately a 45 degree angle.

Image 1

1/2500, f/3.2, ISO 200

As you can see in this image, it’s not mind blowing, however it has all the ingredients for a nice photograph that meets the criteria of what you are trying to capture. To create this type image, shoot with your zoom lens using the following settings as a rough starting point:

  • Camera mode: Aperture Priority (Av in Canon, A in Nikon and most other brands)
  • Aperture: As you want to freeze the action you need as much light entering the camera as possible, so choose a large aperture setting. With most kit lenses go down as low as possible, at this focal length that may be f/5.6.
  • Shutter speed: No need to worry about this as the camera will adjust this automatically in this mode.
  • ISO: If it is a sunny day like above, then ISO 100 or 200 is fine. However, if it is a little bit gloomy you may have to increase your ISO, I’ll talk about this in a minute.
  • Focus: Set your camera for on Continuous or Servo focus depending on your brand. This means that while your shutter button is held halfway down, or your AF on button is pressed, the camera will continue to adjust its focus, which is what you need when tracking moving objects.

Your camera is now setup and ready to go. Get yourself in a position where the subject, in this case the cyclist, will be at approximately 45 degrees to you. Full side-on image and straight-on images can seem a bit odd unless it’s the style you are going for; at this angle you can see most of the rider and it’s more flattering.

Smoothly follow the rider with your camera; this might be easier in a crouch or if you have a monopod, utilize it. Once they are in a good position click off a shot or two. With any luck you have a nice photo of the rider, somewhat frozen in time.

Image 2

1/1600, f/3.2, ISO 200

It didn’t work? Okay, there are two main things that could trip you up here,firstly the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough and the rider is blurry, secondly your focus isn’t quite right. As you are using Aperture Priority (which means you set how much light is allowed in the camera and the camera adjusts the amount of time the shutter is open automatically) it’s possible that there just isn’t enough light. So the camera has slowed the shutter speed way down to let more light in to exposure your photo properly, which has caused blurring of the subject.

When looking through your viewfinder. check your shutter speed down the bottom. You should be aiming for at least around 1/500th of a second. If it is slower than that, it’s time to bump your ISO up to compensate. Your ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. As a general rule you always want to keep this as low as possible to guarantee grain and noise-free images. However, it is a tool to be used, and on modern DSLRs shooting at ISO 800 yields incredible results over the older generation digital.

image 6

1/4000, f/3.2, ISO 400

Adjust your ISO up to 400 and try again. If you are still experiencing motion blur bump it up to 800. Unless it’s a very dark and gloomy day this should give you a crisp clear image with a fast shutter speed.

The next issue you might encounter is that the focus isn’t right. Maybe the rear wheel of the bike is in focus, but the riders face isn’t. Or even worse, the background is sharp and the rider is way out of focus. This is a simple fix.

All DSLRs give you the ability to change focus points, the square which the autofocus uses to target the focal point. Move this point to where the riders head will be in your frame. You may have to change your focus mode to Single Point Focus, as many cameras have the ability to change which focus point they use automatically, depending on the situation. You will have to consult your manual to find out where this is located in your menu system.

image 5

1/3200, f/3.5, ISO 400

Now when your rider is in frame, and you are focusing, it will focus on the rider’s face. Honestly, as long as their face is in focus the rest could be a blur, it doesn’t matter, faces are the most import thing in nearly all photos.

These guide lines should give you most of the info you need to shoot this type of photo. However, as with all photography, it’s trial and error to get things right and to get it looking the way YOU want.

Practice this week. Get your kids out on their bikes, go to the park and try to get some photos of dogs running around (this is fantastic practice for tracking subjects) or head down your local racetrack and take photos of cars, motorbikes or horses!

Image 3

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 500

Once you get this dialled in. it can be moved to many other subjects and situations, the photos of a skier (above) and snowboarder (top of article) were shot using exactly the same technique.

Do not dismay if things aren’t working out straight away. A lot of learning photography is trial and error and practice. Any entry level, or higher DSLR setup, can do this. Learn your gear and practice, you will be surprised at the caliber of photos you can get from even the least expensive setup.

Thank you for reading, I hope this helps you on your photography quest this week. Please post up your photos and practice shots, if you have any questions I will try to answer them all and get you on the right track to photography perfection. Happy snapping!

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Matt Hull

is a freelance photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. Spending 10 years travelling between the Japanese and Australia ski fields, he made a name for himself as one of the top Aussie snow sports photographers, shooting for major Australian and International publications and brands. When not on the snow, Matt captures the beauty of his surroundings, specializing in landscape photography that is sold as canvases and prints through his online store; funding more trips and more adventures to shoot.

  • Why not use shutter priority?

  • Matt Hull

    G’day Vladimir, good question!
    You could use shutter priority however i actively avoid using it for most of my work as you lose control of your aperture.

    The look of your photos change significantly when changing your aperture, and with the bicycle example images there were a lot of ‘busy’ backgrounds. Setting my camera to shutter priority there is a chance that when the rider was in very sunny areas, the camera would stop down to F11 or maybe more, this would bring both the rider and the background into focus and the rider would be lost in frame. By shooting aperture priority i guaranteed that i was in a somewhat shallow depth of field and the rider was separated from the background.

    The same can be said for the ski photo, i wanted the background to be more in focus as it is a pretty amazing mountain range so i didn’t want to risk a shallow depth of field and the mountains being lost to focus blur.

    Having said that Shutter priority would definitely do the job and guarantee your shutter speed stayed at the faster end of things, but you just lose control over your aperture and in turn you may not end up with your photo looking the way you want, probably something i should have explained in the article!

    Cheers for the comment Vladimir, happy shooting!

  • I would also add that I find for many beginners that shutter priority can lead to really underexposed or even black images. They set the shutter speed high to freeze the action – so high that there is no corresponding aperture wide enough on their lens to make a good exposure. There would be a warning of this in the viewfinder before shooting but many do not know what that means. So like Matt said you certainly can – but be aware of exposure and watch for warnings in the viewfinder.

  • Thank you both for responding. I use Tv with auto ISO, so underexposing is not an issue. My 60D’s high ISO performance is. I try to keep it under 500 to avoid grain. If I shoot fast moving objects in relatively low light, I bump ISO manually to 800 or even 1600 and pray the quality will be decent and auto aperture will give me any DOF at all.
    When I upgrade to full frame with much better high ISO performance, I will have the luxury to control DOF in any conditions.

  • Frode

    This guide is missing one of the most important tips – use manual zone focusing if you’re having problems with focus tracking. In most sports and action photography, the action is to a certain extent predictable; you’ll know the area where a bike rider for instance will pass through. You can then pre-focus and switch the camera over to manual focus (or use back button focusing to lock it) so you’re ready for the shot. Use burst mode (without AF tracking between shots) and hold down the shutter when the subject passes through the focal area you’ve set up, and you’re sure to get some keepers.

    This is especially important if you have something moving almost towards or away from you, as the auto-focus on the camera will probably not be able to keep up. Even if you use burst mode with auto-focus tracking, the subject will probably have gone past the focal area by the time you get a focus lock and the camera takes the picture. Manual pre-focus with burst also lets you focus (pun intended) on things like framing and composition rather than trying to move the camera so the single point focus is in the right spot to track your subject at first.

    This can in some cases also let you use a lower aperture value (smaller depth of field) than you otherwise safely would have, giving you a faster shutter speed and/or lower ISO. Figure out the limits of your camera’s focus tracking and when to switch to manual, as this can vary a lot between brands and systems.

  • Tony

    What about Manual mode? Set your desired Aperture to blur out the background, set the shutter speed to stop action as desired, and Auto ISO. I have found in sports photography it works well where half the field is shaded and the other half direct sun.

  • Yes auto ISO will solve that but has its own issues as you’ve mentioned.

  • Matt Hull

    Definitely Tony, always an option as long as the upper limit is set to something reasonable. I didn’t mention this in the write up as many basic and entry level cameras don’t have these features, but if you’ve got it, it can be a fantastic tool!

  • Matt Hull

    Good point Frode. I often use the method you just described in very low light situations or when i’m doing night photography with remote flashes as the camera has too much trouble locking focus or keeping up with a moving subject in this conditions (pretty much impossible at night).

    However in all the conditions of the pictures above (bar the skiier) i used constant autofocus and tracked the subject. With cyclists and snowboarders body position is super important, i’ve had some awesome shots rejected from mags because a snowboarders hand is in the wrong position when grabbing the board or their legs aren’t quite in the right position. I wouldn’t want to risk having the area i have manually pre focused be where they aren’t in the right position.

    Once again thought in poor lighting conditions, or if you are setup in the same spot and know that the athlete will be in a good position (banking for a corner for example) at a certain spot then manually focusing with AF ON and then preparing for when they enter that area and rattle off a bunch of shots in burst mode is definitely a solid method, however, this was a topic for another time, you beat me to it! 😉 haha

  • Matt Hull

    Definitely Vladimir!, When shooting i always keep in the back of my mind the potential for a shot to be published or used for print media, so i always try to keep my iso low and in a range that i know my camera has little to now issues with noise, even with my full frame’s excellent noise levels i still rarely shoot over 800 unless i’m forced to, just incase it’s that one shot that the editor wants!

  • Frode

    Yes, but you presumably have a camera with very good phase focus. 🙂

    Contrast based focus systems have a lot more trouble with focus tracking. The same goes for older and/or cheaper cameras with phase focus, or if the subject is moving fast enough relative to you.

    For the positions issue, if using zone focus, I’d try closing down the aperture for more DOF in that case to have more of a chance at getting the right shot, and adjusting the framing so the background isn’t as much of an issue. Worst case you can add more background blur in post to compensate if that’s the kind of look that’s required. It’s a question of trade-offs at that point really.

  • nice tips, thank you 🙂

  • Matt Hull

    I completely agree Frode, and everything you describe i use on a daily basis. However this post, like many others are aimed at beginner and low intermediate users so i just wanted to focus on a few key points that could be practiced and not pass on too many different methods or settings to try as i know when people are starting out too much info can be a bad thing.

    I would love to do a more detailed post in the future on advanced focusing techniques in adverse conditions, night time, fog, snow, dust, situations like that. We could then go into detail like you have started to on using a broader depth of field to increase your success rate, zone focusing and everything else that goes with the horrible conditions we end up working in! 🙂

  • Frode

    Glad we’re on the same page. 🙂 I was also thinking about the beginners because they’re far more likely to have cheaper cameras that do have focus tracking issues. I started on a compact camera, and advanced to micro four thirds, which does have problems with this. That is, until I got the E-M1, which is the only camera currently in that system with a hybrid contrast/phase detection focus. Before I got that, I had to learn to pre-focus to get shots similar to the ones you show off, as even though the cameras did have a C-AF mode, it just didn’t work very well for movement towards or away from me. A lot of the lenses weren’t designed for it either. The only thing aside from manual that worked was single point auto-focus with a decent DOF, and just keep pressing the shutter button, hoping for a lucky break.

    I think an important lesson I learned from it all is that just because “I screwed up the shot”, doesn’t mean that the kind of shot I want is impossible. Modern digital cameras make things a lot easier, but they’re not perfect by any means – and when they’re not, that’s when me and you as photographers have to take up the slack. If photographers of old could take amazing pictures with film, a bit of experience and some simple math, we should be able to top them with modern gear and creativeness.

    TL;DR When your camera becomes the limitation for your photography, either your settings are wrong, or you’ll need to come up with a workaround of some sort. Sometimes that may involve buying new and better gear, but not always.

    PS. I would love to see some more advanced topics such as focusing techniques in adverse conditions.

  • Cheers Stunning photos 🙂

  • Perfectly put Frode!

    I think it’s the sort of persistence you described that separates joe blogs picking up a camera for fun, and the passionate enthusiast/pro. There is only so much reading and theory that can happen until you just have to go out there armed with knowledge from books, podcasts, videos and these blogs and give it a go yourself, try, fail, try again, fail again, until you start seeing improvements and your hard work pays off.

    One of my specialties is sports photography at night in adverse conditions, no one in my area was doing it, so i got a loan for the lighting equipment and i practiced and practiced until i started to figure out how to make the remotes work for me properly, the flashes to behave the way i wanted and to make the image look how i had in my head, persistence is key.
    All of this practice was with older cameras, older lenses, terrible tripods and frozen hands haha. Probably the best thing was that i didn’t know the limits of my gear, i just presumed it could do everything so i pushed it to do everything 🙂

  • Dave Straton

    What is the best choice of focus points to use? My Nikon D800 has 51 different focus points, and in the AF-C mode one can choose 1, 9, 21, 51 or 3D.

  • Gruntwarrior

    I would like to see some info on shooting indoor ice hockey. I have a T5i with a 70-200 mm f 2.8 and I shoot f 3.6 at 1600 ISO at 1/800 th with an EV +2/3.. I qppreciate any tips.

  • Gruntwarrier, that is definitely a tricky one to shoot! 2 things that make it really difficult, firstly you are restricted to being off the ice so distance is an issue and secondly every ice arena i have been to have large fluro style lights or at least lights that plague havoc with your white balance.

    From the settings you have listed you are definitely on the right track, make sure you are shooting in raw so you can fix up the white balance issues in post, lightroom has a fantastic white balance dropper tool, just select a white part of the frame and it will use that as a reference point, from there you can tweak your sliders to get the desired colour you want out of your images.

    Although this is not freezing the action i would definitely have a play around with slower shutters speeds, 1/60th, or 1/80th of a second. The beauty of ice hockey, similar to skating and skiing is once they get up to speed they are quite motionless in their upper body movements while still moving quickly accross the ice, that is until they are attacking the puck. At these shutter speeds, set your camera to shoot multiple frames a second and either use a tripod with a smooth panning action or if you don’t have one handy get yourself in a position where you can pan your camera smoothly leaning against the barrier or a chair. Track your subject smoothly matching their speed and with any luck you should get a nice frozen subject with a blurry high speed background.

    Because you are using a lower shutter speed you can afford to drop your ISO back down to a less potentially grainy level.

    Obviously if the guys are skating flat out then their legs will be blurry and no doubt their heads will be moving too so really difficult to get their heads frozen in the shot. Doing this you will take a lot of shots and get a lot of blurry images but when you get that one clear one it’s all worth it! 🙂

    This shot was taken at an indoor rc car track, very dark for a camera just like your conditions, so i shot a lot of slower shutter speed to get the impression of speed and work with what i had!

  • Firstly great camera! For this sort of stuff I have a lot of faith in my autofocus on my D800. I use 51point, 3D, you still have your focus point in the viewfinder when on AF-C, now if your subject is moving from right to left, i will move my focus point over to the right hand side of the frame to allow ‘moving room’ or ‘talking room’ for my subject once you are focusing either using your half depressed shutter or your AF-ON button button unless it is really tricky conditions your camera will continue to track the subject and lock focus. If your camera is mucking around and not locking focus, switch to single focus point, and just keep your subject in your focus point 🙂

  • Zeyn Suliman

    I’ve used 3-5 shot burst bracketing at 1/3EV steps in continuous high mode (full manual mode, cross-hair focus selected, continuous servo AF selected) on my d810 and d300s with great success. It means the possibility of sorting through more photos but if you have the patience, it can mean you get the right exposure, whilst being able to fully dictate what the camera is doing. I’m not a fan of 3d 51 pt tracking but do use it when I’m feeling a little lazy!

  • Definitely a way to go, just so much sorting! haha, and with 14bit raw on these cameras it does give a margin of error anyway 🙂

    But as always ti’s finding what works for you 🙂

  • Zeyn Suliman

    Yeah, RAW is a bit of a drag in terms of fps. It’s very much a manual sorting affair. Great article by the way!

  • True, although i couldn’t go back to JPEG now. I had to shoot an event a few months back in JPEG for the client, it was horrible in post! 🙂

    Cheers for the kind words, it’s tricky to keep it simple, yet cater for more advanced shooters, a fine line to walk!

  • ColininOz

    With your first image of cyclists you have panned the shot. Surprising you did not cover panning in the

    article as it is eminently suitable to cycling events. Gives a great ‘speed’ effect with a clear frozen main subject. Provided that you can get a stance far enough back and not be blocked by spectators or walls.

  • Absolutely ColininOz, and i did use it a lot, unfortunately these blog posts are meant to focus on one specific technique for people to practice and leave techniques like this for a later post 🙂

    I almost need to do a post on ‘how to shoot this event’ unfortunately i’m limited to just the one technique 🙂

    On that topic though this is an image from the same event using a slower shutter speed 🙂

  • Jschneir

    Using aperture priority for an action shot? Bad advice, especially when you wrote 1/500 second. A bicycle rider pedaling at 20 miles per hour covers 3.5 feet in that 1/500 second. You need to use shutter priority, set the shutter to 1/2000 second and use auto ISO. At a reasonable distance the movement is not noticeable.

  • Jschneir, firstly thanks for your comment even if the tone was fairly negative.

    I wouldn’t call it bad advice, i’d call it a difference of opinion, one of the great things about photography is there is no fixed way of doing anything, so to reply to what you wrote.

    Firstly if you are shooting side on shots of a fast moving bike and you had the camera on the tripod or your arms are painted on and you can’t track the rider, yes 500th is slow, however not everyone has the joys of perfect lighting conditions and often have to work with what we are given, sometimes 500th is all we can squeeze out of available light.
    As mentioned in the article shooting at approximately 45 degrees to the rider, you will not see that sorts of high speed of 3.5feet in that 1/500th of a second, in fact the distance they travel will hardly be noticable. on that note the two pictures attached are at 500th and 650th of a second, both have no motion blur, once again i was working with the available light and i know that at that shutter speed it will work if that is all i have to work with.

    As for shutter priority i rarely if ever use it (please see the other replies to this post). For me I don’t like my camera to take over control of my aperture, it is too important, it changes the entire look of the photo and i want to maintain control over it, using this with auto iso is also a confusing combination.

    Using full manual mode to set your shutter and aperture then setting up auto iso is a fantastic tool, but once again as i mentioned in a previous reply, this article is aimed at beginners and intermediates, many of which do not own cameras with auto iso features, however for those that do, go for it!.

    Thank you for your 2c though Jschneir, may i suggest in future putting forward your suggestions in a slightly less harsh manner, everyone is here to learn and pass on advice, nearly all of which are their own opinions or experience on the matter, cheers 🙂

  • Jschneir

    Matt
    I’m an instructor in digital photography. If you are panning then a shutter speed of even 1/30 second yields good results. Most every camera a beginning or even intermediate student uses has auto ISO. So does some pro equipment . I remember my old PENTAX K10 had a manual setting that allowed you to set shutter speed and aperture and would adjust ISO to obtain a good exposure. Many cameras have an auto ISO where it is possible to set a maximum ISO for use in AUTO ISO. Many of my students shoot at ISO levels as high as 6400 with acceptable results. A lot depends on sensor size and type! CCD,CMOS, or BSI CMOS.

    When the subject is moving towards you, even at a 45degree angle, motion is much less obvious. I know many pros use aperture as their primary shooting mode but using it when the subject is moving just doesn’t make sense to me unless you have a need to work with a tight control of depth of field.

  • Well good news that equipment is catching up and now has the auto iso function, i’ll be sure to include it from here on in, i was just writing it for people who may not have that function, and left it out for now as i’m not so much of a gear nut these days and i’m not aware of what features these level of cameras have.
    Personally i’d rather run with a slower shutter speed than a very high iso if at all possible as from experience it will give me better results.

    I’m sure shutter priority works for you, personally i like to maintain control over my depth of field and to a lesser extent the sweet spot of my lenses. I have my camera info in view finder that is telling me my shutter speed and i keep an eye on it, if need be i will adjust my iso accordingly.

    Obviously it sounds like you have a lot of experience in action photography being a digital photography instructor, so if you have found methods that work well for you then good for you!, keep running with it and have fun 🙂
    I have been using Aperture priority and manual modes for my sports shooting for a long time now and it is how i get results and my images looking the way i want.

    Use whatever method works for you, as i mentioned this is a beginner/intermediate post (i’m not sure why you are trolling this in the first place if you are a teacher?!) so i’m giving basic techniques and knowledge that i know works for ME, so there is no point getting into an argument over it.

    Happy shooting 🙂

  • Gruntwarrior

    This is one of the 2000 hockey shots I took with the camera at the indicated settings.

  • It looks like those settings are working well for you, making the most of a difficult situation, good stuff!

  • Three things: First, depending on your lens and your camera to subject distance, using hyperfocal distance focusing can work. Second, if using a mirrorless camera or a P&S camera remember that electronic viewfinders generally have lag (what you see on the ‘screen’ and what’s actually happening are time-delayed) and cheaper cameras can have a significant shutter lag (the time between when you click the shutter and when it fires). Finally, if you want to practice your action shots, find a boulevard or parkway and shoot cars going by. In most places in the world cars are ubiquitous and with digital you don’t ‘pay’ for images you don’t keep. It’s all about the practice.

  • Rob Gipman

    Had to use shutter speed for this shot with the desired effect. Horse short track races. Taken with my Tokina at 11mm and my 7d in servo mode with rapid fire. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/20370881622

  • Jim Wolff

    Good article for beginners. I would personally suggest telling beginners to set ISO manually unless they are going in and out of sun or shade. Likewise, I would suggest shutter priority and shoot at a faster shutter speed (>1/2000) to catch spokes). And most importantly, I would suggest to practice panning the subject to ensure good background blur. Personally, I’ve always shot all manually. I don’t feel I have control when the camera is set to make decisions for me.

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