Facebook Pixel Vital Tips to Capture Fast-Action Photos

Vital Tips to Capture Fast-Action Photos

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Whether you’re photographing cars racing down the track, athletes running across a field, or your kids playing in the yard, it can seem impossible to get tack-sharp photos of fast action. If you have ever struggled to capture fast-action photos, you’re not alone. Lots of people deal with the same issue!

Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as it seems. With a few simple tweaks to your photography process, you can get great action photos in no time at all.

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Nikon D750, 112mm, f/4, 1/350 second, ISO 500

A major element of action photography involves knowing where to position yourself and what to look for.

In addition to that, there are some critical camera functions you need to understand and know how to control if you want to get the kinds of shots you see in sports magazines. Mastering a few shooting techniques will help you get the kind of fast-action photos you’ve always wanted.

Taking a picture is pretty simple. You press the shutter button, your camera initiates autofocus, and then it takes the picture. A quick beep-beep might sound once focus is acquired, or you might see a dot or square light up in the viewfinder of your camera. That works great for still subjects, but if you want to capture fast-action photos, you’re going to need to adjust your settings.

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Nikon D750, 140mm, f/2.8, 1/1500 second, ISO 100

Use the right autofocus mode

Understanding how to use autofocus to capture fast-action photos is one of the first and most important steps you can take.

Autofocus first came to prominence in 1985 on the Minolta Maxxum 7000 camera. Ever since then, it has continued to evolve. Now, modern cameras have a host of ways to configure and control this basic feature.

Every camera has a variety of autofocus modes. They go by different names depending on the manufacturer, but, in general, you can expect the following on any given camera.

  • Focus-and-lock: Once focus is acquired, it will not change until you take a picture or re-focus.
  • Continuous focus: Your camera will constantly adjust focus as your subject moves.
  • Manual. Not recommended for most fast action. It can be good if you know exactly where your subject will be at a specific point in time, but in general, it’s best to use autofocus.

Your camera will also have a few settings for how it computes autofocus. Names will vary but they will be something like the following.

  • Full auto: Your camera decides what to focus on without any input from you.
  • Expanded AF or Group: You use multiple focus points to keep the subject in focus instead of just a single dot or square.
  • Tracking: You set a focus point and your camera will maintain focus continuously until you take a picture. You will see the focus point move around as your camera adjusts to keep the subject in focus.
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Nikon D7100, 200mm, f/3.3, 1/1500 second, ISO 100

To capture fast-action photos, you will need to use one of the final two modes and make sure you set your camera to continuous autofocus. There is so much unpredictability with action shots that you want to use all the smarts and capabilities of your camera to help you out.

Tracking modes are particularly useful on newer cameras since the algorithms used to lock on subjects and track them are very advanced.

If your camera has a tracking option, I recommend using that, but Expanded or Group modes work well too. They give you a little more freedom and wiggle room compared to relying on one single autofocus point.

Back Button Focus

Back button focus is more of a technique than a camera setting. While it’s going to feel really weird at first, it will make your life a lot easier when capturing action photos.

Instead of using the shutter button to focus your camera, you use a button on the back of your camera.

Back button focus might seem counterintuitive since it feels like autofocus would go hand-in-hand with clicking the shutter button. There are some good reasons to use back button focus, though, especially when it comes to capturing fast-action photos.

When you set your camera to continuous autofocus and use the shutter button to engage autofocus, it can be difficult to keep the button half-pressed while following your subject around. Back button focus lets you track your subject continuously with a firm press of your thumb.

Then whenever the decisive moment hits, you press the shutter button to get the perfect shot. Or you can start snapping pictures well before the moment arrives and continuing to maintain focus with your thumb.

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Nikon D7100, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1500 second, ISO 100

Almost every camera can do back button focus, but you will need to change a few menu settings to enable it. Do an online search for your exact camera along with the words “back button focus,” and you should find the information you need.

It took me about a week to train my mind to use back button focus, but now I use it all the time, even on casual everyday photos.

It works so well once you get used to it!

Embrace Auto-ISO

When shooting action photos, the most important thing is to get images that are tack sharp. A well-composed shot won’t mean anything if your subject is blurry (unless, of course, you are trying to capture motion blur), so that means you need to use a fast shutter. And that often means embracing higher ISO values, especially when shooting indoors where there isn’t nearly as much light as outside.

Fortunately, Auto-ISO can take the guesswork out of your action shots.

You can set a minimum shutter speed and a maximum ISO value and let your camera take care of the rest. Most modern cameras look great up to ISO 6400, and many can go well beyond that while still maintaining enough color and detail to be usable.

Image: Nikon D750, 80mm, f/4, 1/500 second, ISO 2000. A fast shutter speed might be overkill for peo...

Nikon D750, 80mm, f/4, 1/500 second, ISO 2000. A fast shutter speed might be overkill for people just walking, but I wanted to be absolutely sure they were tack sharp. Auto-ISO chose a value of 2000 which was perfectly acceptable.

My Auto-ISO settings for action are minimum shutter speed of 1/500 second (or 1/1000 second if my subjects are moving really fast) and maximum ISO value of 6400. You will need to experiment to find out what your comfort level is and what settings you prefer.

Shoot in Aperture Priority

This tip piggybacks on the last one, though just like back button focus, it might seem counterintuitive.

If you need a fast shutter speed to capture fast-action photos, why not shoot in Shutter Priority? Because Aperture Priority and Auto-ISO let you get the best of both worlds.

Using this technique, you can worry a lot less about getting a properly exposed shutter, free of motion blur. That way, you can concentrate on composing your shot while your camera does the rest.

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Nikon D750, 35mm, f/4, 1/1000 second, ISO 100

When you shoot in Aperture Priority with Auto-ISO, you can set the aperture that gives you the right depth of field. That means you don’t have to think about other elements of exposure because your camera is going to stay within the shutter and ISO parameters you set.

If you know you are in a low-light situation, you can increase the aperture size or dial in a higher ISO value for Auto-ISO.

I shoot in Aperture Priority so I can control the depth of field while making sure I always get a tack-sharp photo. That’s because I know my shutter speed will never go below 1/500 second.

If you have never tried this when shooting action photos, you might be surprised at how well it works!

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Nikon D750, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1000 second, ISO 100. I used a large aperture to make the kids in the background blurry and focus the viewer on the child in the middle. My camera figured out the ISO and shutter speed based on my Auto-ISO parameters.

Adjust your viewpoint

When shooting any style of photos, you need to make sure you compose the scene in your camera from the proper point of view. That might mean kneeling, sitting, or even lying on the ground.

Sometimes you might find yourself sitting on top of a ladder or in the bed of a truck to get a higher vantage point. The goal, especially with action shots, is to take your pictures in such a way that they are dynamic, interesting, and help put your viewers in the middle of the scene.

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Nikon D7100, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/350 second, ISO 100. I shot this so it looks like the disc is coming right towards the viewer.

When shooting fast-action photos, you can’t always control your surroundings, and in that case, you might need to move around.

There might be physical barriers like guardrails, fences, or other people in your way. One solution is to sit there and settle for whatever happens. However, a good action shooter will move around until they find the vantage point that works best for the shot. (Within reason, of course. Be polite about it, and certainly don’t do anything illegal!)

Image: Nikon D750, 105mm, f/4, 1/1000 second, ISO 200. I should have scooted over to get that table...

Nikon D750, 105mm, f/4, 1/1000 second, ISO 200. I should have scooted over to get that table out of the foreground. A simple adjustment on my part would have made for a better image.

One factor you can’t control when taking fast-action photos outdoors is light and weather.

It might be cloudy or sunny, windy or calm, rainy or clear, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.

What you can do is adjust your viewpoint accordingly to get the best shots. Position yourself such that your subjects aren’t backlit, and make sure to have protective gear for your camera if the weather is bad.

Take a lot of photos!

What’s the best-kept secret for capturing fast-action photos? Take a ton of pictures! 

When you see a perfectly-composed shot of your favorite athlete on the cover of a magazine, there are a thousand similar images sitting unused on a hard drive that weren’t good enough. 

If you want one great photo, you need to be willing to take a lot of mediocre photos and sort through to find the keepers.

All cameras can shoot in high-speed bursts. This is critical for action photos since you never know which picture will be just the right one. 

Often the only limitation is the size of your camera’s internal buffer or the rate at which your camera transfers images can to a memory card.

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Nikon D500, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1500 second, ISO 100. The 10fps burst rate on my camera made this image possible. I shot about 30 images but this was the best one.

You will need to check your camera manual or do some online searching to find out how to enable burst mode on your camera. Just don’t think you can take a few pictures and get the perfect shot.

Professional action photographers will take thousands of pictures of a single game or event, and only a handful will be published.

The same holds true for you: if you want to get great action photos, you need to take a lot of photos.

What are some of your tips and techniques to capture fast-action photos?

Are there things that have worked for you that you would like to share with others?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. And if you have some examples of action shots you would like to share, make sure to include them too!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.