How to Photograph Fast Action :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Fast Action

by David Peterson 2 comments

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with beginning photographers, and in all of that time I would say that one of the biggest disappointments for people who are new to their cameras and the art of taking photos is failure to capture action shots well. This can be particularly crushing for parents and other people who want to capture fast action photos of events that are meaningful to them personally. I don't have to tell you that when your child scores the winning touchdown in the final game of the season, that’s a moment that can never be repeated. Once it's gone, it's gone, and until someone actually invents a Tardis, your only real option is to poll the other parents to see if someone else got the photo. What to do? Keep reading for some foolproof tips.


Tigers_Sept08_game-131 by Flickr user GaryMcCormick35781

So I would say that one of the most important skills that a new photographer can develop—especially if loved ones are her favorite subjects—is the ability to capture fast action photos, and to do it well.

Now I hope you noticed the term "to do it well," because that is the key. I'm sure you've captured lots of a fast action moments, but it's likely that a lot of them weren’t captured as well as they could have been. It's easy to tell the difference—when you get it right, you freeze the action. You capture a single split-second in time. And when you don't do it well, you may capture a blurry streak instead of a frozen moment.

Shutter speed, shutter speed, shutter speed

One thing that you absolutely must keep in mind whenever you're shooting fast action—and even when you're shooting slow action—is that you have to keep your shutter speed high. I know it's hard to imagine that a human being can be faster than, say, 1/250th of a second, but it's true. You need a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action for very fast-moving people, and even for slow-moving people. If you don't use a fast shutter speed, you get motion blur. You’re probably familiar with motion blur because every photographer experiences it at some point or another, whether on accident or on purpose.

If your shutter speed is very slow, motion blur can look like long streaks. If it’s only moderately slow it can look like short streaks or unfocused blobs, usually in a person’s extremities such as hands and feet (which tend to move faster than the rest body).

  • Olympus E-500
  • 100
  • f/3.9
  • 0.167 sec (1/6)
  • 74 mm

Abstract soccer by Flickr user whiskeybravo

Even people who aren't moving particularly quickly can render as motion blurred, so as a good rule of thumb, photograph stationary people at around one 1/125 (unless you’re posing them and they’re willing to keep very still for a longer exposure). Photograph people who are walking at 1/250, and photograph people were running at 1/500. Of course you don't need to limit yourself—you can go even faster in any of those given situations, and it's generally a good idea to if the conditions will allow, just in case your subject is moving faster than you anticipated.

Now keep in mind that there are some variations to these speeds. Depending on the direction your subject is moving relative to your camera, you may need faster or slower speeds to get the same action-stopping effect. For example, a very fast moving subject that’s traveling straight towards you is not moving across the frame, it’s only increasing in size as it approaches. So you can photograph a subject that’s headed straight towards you with a shutter speed that’s two or three stops slower than you would use for the same subject if it was moving parallel to your lens. And for a subject that’s moving at a 45-degree angle, you can use a shutter speed about one stop slower than you would use for a parallel moving subject.

Now in order to accomplish that fast shutter speed, you may find that you need to turn up your ISO. If you're like a lot of beginners, you have probably been told that you should always shoot at ISO 100. This is simply not true, especially in our modern age of digital technology. Even in the days of film, photographers who were photographing action did not do it with ISO 100 film. At a bare minimum that they bought ISO 400 film, and photographers who were shooting very fast action would buy ISO 1600 speed film or even greater, even though they knew they would get visible grain in their images. Why? Because it is always best to trade a little bit of a grain—the equivalent of noise in today's technology—in exchange for a tack sharp, motion blur-free image.

  • Canon EOS 6D
  • 12800
  • f/5.6
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 400 mm

“長跑 Long Run (Marathon)” / 香港體育 Hong Kong Sports / SML.20130502.6D.03782.BW by Flickr user See-ming Lee 李思明 SML

What if you’re using a fast shutter speed and your images still aren’t sharp?

This is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of shooting fast action—when you know your shutter speed was fast enough to capture that fast-moving child and you still got blur. Contrary to what you’ve probably assumed, this blur isn’t related to your shutter speed but rather to your failure to keep your subject in focus as he moves from one part of the frame to another. Fast moving subjects almost never remain on the same focal plane, which means that you can be locked onto them in one second and have them completely out of focus the next second.

Fortunately, many modern digital cameras have a feature that deals with this problem—it’s called focus tracking, and when you have it turned on your camera will lock on to the subject and then make fine adjustments to focus as that subject moves through the frame. Now, it’s not foolproof and you may not get perfect results with it—the accuracy of focus tracking depends a lot on things like how erratically your subject is moving, the contrast and lighting in the scene and the number of autofocus sensors your camera has. So don’t be disappointed if focus tracking doesn’t turn out to be the foolproof solution to the blurry-photo problem—it won’t be, but it can dramatically increase the number of usable shots you’ll capture when you are photographing fast-moving subjects.

One final thing to consider in regards to your camera settings is your aperture—you might be tempted to use a very large aperture in order to obtain that fast shutter speed (vs. using a higher ISO) but this can often be the wrong move. Very large apertures mean very shallow depth of field, and you may find it extremely difficult to keep your subject in focus if you’ve got a shallow depth of field, because she’s not likely to be moving exactly parallel to your lens. In other words, she’ll travel in and out of the plane of focus, and you’ll have a difficult time keeping her sharp from one frame to the next.

Pre-focusing

Sometimes very fast subjects such as vehicles or athletes require pre-focusing. This is the technique that the old pros depended on prior to the invention of focus tracking—to ensure tack sharp focus, you have to learn to anticipate. What part of the frame do you want to catch your subject in? Put your camera in burst mode and pre-focus on that spot well before he arrives, and then set your camera to manual focus so that you can hit the shutter button without having to worry that your autofocus will change that focus point. Then put your finger over the shutter button and wait—when your subject approaches that pre-focused area, hit the shutter button and leave your finger there until he passes. Having your camera in burst mode will give you the best possible chance at catching your subject in the exact moment he crosses the pre-focused point.

Thinking creatively

Now do keep in mind that sometimes a little bit of motion blur can actually add to your fast-action subject—for example, a boy swinging a baseball bat looks good when frozen in time, but if you can catch a little bit of motion blur on the bat and ball, you’re going to add a sense of action and movement to your scene. And don’t forget that freezing a subject in time isn’t always a good idea because certain subjects look pretty much the same when moving fast and shot at 1/1000 as they do when they’re not moving at all. A race car, for example, frozen in time on a race track might as well be parked there—without a little motion blur, some panning or a little dust kicked up behind its wheels it doesn’t look much different than it does when it isn’t moving at all. If your subject doesn’t have any qualities that your viewer can use to conclude that he’s on the move (the pumping arms and legs of a runner do this very well), then you need to include other elements that suggest action such as motion blur.

Conclusion

Fast action is exciting to watch and it’s exciting to photograph, and as long as you are aware of your shutter speed and the speed and direction of your subject, you’re going to have a lot of success doing this. A little knowledge goes a long way, and so does some self-editing—just keep checking your LCD to make sure you’re achieving those tack-sharp images, then make some adjustments and try again. Before you know it you’ll be shooting fast action like the old pros.

Summary

  1. Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action
    • 1/250 for slow movement
    • 1/500 for faster movement
    • Turn up your ISO if necessary
  2. Focus
    • Use focus tracking
    • Avoid very large apertures
    • Prefocus
  3. Sometimes blur is good
    • Don’t shy away from creative motion

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Comments

  1. Jim says:

    Resist the temptation to zoom in too close and fill the frame with the subject, with todays high pixel count cameras you can afford to crop the picture at the editing stage rather than run the risk of cutting off part of the subject.

  2. Gooner says:

    Hi David, What or how would you focus if shooting things like aircraft in the sky?. You may not have a point in the sky upon which you can pre-focus, and then auto-focus is unable to act quickly enough for a fast moving plane at events such as airshows.

    Thanks

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
13 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.