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9 Tips for Breathtaking Action Photography

Tips for breathtaking action photography

Action photography is a lot of fun, but capturing heart-stopping shots of moving subjects can be intimidatingly difficult. Whether you’re photographing athletes, adventurers, or passersby, creating amazing action images requires intense concentration, not to mention real technical skills.

That said, it is possible to get great action photos, even if you’re just a beginner. You just have to know the right tips, tricks, and shortcuts – and that’s where this article comes in handy.

Below, I share my top tips to level up your images. I discuss:

  • The best camera settings for action photography
  • How to consistently freeze those split-second moments
  • How to choose the right equipment
  • Easy techniques to improve your compositions
  • Much more!

Ready to capture some shots you can be proud of? Let’s dive right in, starting with:

1. Choose the right camera and lens

Most cameras these days are capable of capturing amazing action shots, though I do recommend investing in a DSLR or mirrorless system. You can grab entry-level models for pretty cheap (especially if you’re willing to shop on the used market), and they’ll certainly get the job done.

That said, if you’re serious about action photography, it often makes sense to pay for an enhanced camera – one that offers rapid continuous shooting and blazing-fast autofocus. Fortunately, camera technology is improving all the time, and there are plenty of very impressive models available for reasonable prices.

You’ll also need to think about lens choice. Since most action subjects are off in the distance, I’d recommend grabbing a telephoto lens to start, such as a 70-200mm model. Over time, you can expand your kit and think about purchasing a wide-angle lens or even a super-telephoto lens for certain scenarios, but to start, standard telephoto glass will do just fine. The wider the maximum aperture, the better; here, you can often save money by purchasing equipment sold by third-party manufacturers.

2. Know your equipment

It doesn’t matter if you have the best camera and lens in the world; if you can’t use them well, you’ll end up with consistently subpar results. The reverse is also true – sure, a faster camera will make it easier to succeed, but if you have serious camera skills, you can get great action shots using the cheapest DSLR or mirrorless camera.

The key lesson here: If you want to create top-notch images, you must know your equipment. So grab your camera and spend some time familiarizing yourself with all of its settings, dials, and options. Understand how to:

  • Change the autofocus mode
  • Change the position of the autofocus point
  • Change the AF area mode
  • Change the continuous shooting speed
  • Adjust your camera mode, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO as needed

If you can learn to make these adjustments without looking, even better! That way, when you’re faced with a tricky situation or a once-in-a-lifetime moment, you won’t need to spend time slowly fiddling with your camera dials. You’ll be able to quickly spin the right controls and nail the shot.

3. Understand your subject

Most people don’t realize this, but a big part of action photography is actually understanding the subject that you’re photographing.

You see, the world moves in predictable ways, and if you can key into those patterns, you can be ready to capture a moment before it even happens.

Action photography tips

This is especially true in sports photography, where the rules are clear and players have a tendency to make the same moves again and again, but it’s also true in adventure-type photography that features mountain biking, climbing, skydiving, and so on.

So before you head out with your camera, make a real effort to learn about your subject. Know how the activity proceeds. You can research online, or you can talk to some of the participants – just do what you can to elevate your knowledge. (When you’re just getting started, it can be helpful to watch the activity in action on TV or YouTube!)

The goal here is to understand the activity in its entirety, but it’s especially important that you know where the action will occur and how it will proceed. With motorsports, for example, there may be a spot on the track where accidents often happen, or there might be a corner that will really show the skill level of the drivers. If you do your research in advance, you’ll be able to identify the perfect area to focus on – and when the action heats up, you’ll be ready.

Action photography tips
I knew that the moment the driver put his foot down, the car would lurch forward and the front wheels would lift!

4. Create a compelling composition

Capturing breathtaking action photos isn’t just about freezing the action. For the best results, you must also arrange the frame in a clear, balanced way.

Fortunately, this isn’t as tough as it sounds. One trick is to give your moving subject space to travel into – that way, the viewer feels like they breathe as they look around the frame. (This is known as the rule of space.)

Action photography tips

It’s also a good idea to learn the rule of thirds, which will help you position the main subject in a pleasing portion of the frame.

If composition is a tricky subject for you, try looking at some of your favorite action images. Spend some time identifying what makes them work from a compositional perspective, and try to use those same techniques in your own photos.

5. Keep that shutter speed up

Shutter speed refers to the speed at which your camera takes an image, and the faster the shutter, the more likely it is that you’ll manage to freeze a fast-moving subject.

Action photography tips

Therefore, when shooting action, it’s essential that you pay constant attention to your shutter speed. While there’s no single best shutter speed setting for action scenarios – different subjects require different speeds – a good starting point is around 1/1000s. You might begin at 1/1000s, then take some shots and increase (or decrease) your shutter speed based on your camera’s LCD preview.

Over time, you’ll develop a sense of the speeds you need to freeze various activities, and it can help to keep a log of the shutter speeds you used and how successful you were.

Pro tip: While a too-fast shutter speed won’t directly harm your images, it may force you to raise your ISO more than necessary, which can decrease image quality.

6. Use a wide aperture to blur the background

The best action photos tend to emphasize the main subject while forcing the background to recede. While there are a number of techniques you can use to make this happen, I’d recommend starting by adjusting your camera’s aperture setting.

You see, the wider the aperture, the blurrier the background will become, and the more the viewer will focus on your main subject. An aperture of f/4 can get you great results, but an aperture of f/2.8 is even better. (It’s not just about the aperture, though; longer focal lengths will also increase background blur!)

Action photography tips
By using a wider aperture, I separated the rider from the crowd.

An alternative background-blurring technique is panning, where you deliberately slow down the shutter speed to under 1/80s or so, focus on your moving subject, and follow them with your camera while firing the shutter button.

When done correctly, panning will blur the background while keeping your subject sharp, and this can look breathtaking.

If you are going to use panning to blur the background, make sure that you have a focal point that turns out sharp, even if everything else looks blurry. If you’re photographing an athlete, for example, you need to make sure their face is sharp. This is essential because without an area in sharp focus, your images will turn out more like abstract art pieces than action shots.

7. Pick the right camera mode

I recommend using one of two camera modes when photographing action:

Aperture Priority mode, which allows you to set the aperture and the ISO, while your camera sets a corresponding shutter speed for a good exposure.

Shutter Priority mode, which allows you to set the shutter speed and the ISO, while your camera sets a corresponding aperture for a good exposure.

Action photography tips

Either can work, and it really comes down to personal preference. Do you want to choose the shutter speed you’re after and risk the aperture narrowing too far? Or do you want to choose a wide aperture and monitor the shutter speed to ensure it doesn’t drop too low?

If you’re not sure, I recommend experimenting with both camera modes to see what you like best. You can also test out Manual mode, though it does tend to fail in scenarios with rapidly changing lighting.

8. Using continuous focus

A key part of action photography is autofocusing – both your settings and your technique. Here’s what I recommend:

  • First, make sure you use your camera’s continuous AF setting, not its one-shot option. That way, it will continue to focus on your subject even as they move.
  • Second, if your camera offers a subject-tracking AF mode, use it. Otherwise, you can try various zone-focusing or single-point focusing modes until you find one that works for you.
  • Third, start focusing on your subject before they’re in the right spot for your composition, then continue to track them after you’ve fired the shutter. Unexpected action may happen after you’ve captured your primary image, so it’s best to be prepared to photograph it.

If you’re struggling with autofocusing, I’d recommend putting yourself in consistently challenging scenarios, then spending some time playing with your camera’s focusing settings until you can capture reliably sharp shots. Over time, you’ll get way better, and you’ll be ready to take on all sorts of difficult subjects.

Action photography tips

9. Use burst mode

This final action photography tip is quick, but it’s also essential: If you want to capture those split-second moments, make sure you use its burst mode (also known as continuous shooting).

With burst mode active, your camera will fire off a series of shots every time you hit the shutter button, not just a single frame, and you’ll have a much better chance of nailing the composition.

Action photography tips

But make sure you bring plenty of memory cards! Using Burst mode will fill up your camera quickly, and you don’t want to run out of space halfway through a photoshoot.

Action photography tips: final words

Well, there you have it:

My top tips to improve your action photography images. Remember to choose the right gear, learn the ins and outs of your camera, and practice regularly. That way, the next time you’re in an action scenario, you’ll come away with some amazing shots.

Now over to you:

Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Michael Coppola
Michael Coppola

‘s photography journey started in the late 1990’s when he bought a film camera and started motor sport in the mid 2000’s, published in various car magazines. He enjoyed capturing a mixture of the cars, and people. Contracting to an event company doing school formals, he worked on posing and getting people on side quickly. Building on the above he started No Green Square, teaching you how to get the best out of your camera.

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