A Pro Shares His Secrets

Whether it’s a child’s soccer game or your white-water rafting trip, fast-moving action can be a challenge to photograph. To take better action photos with a point-and-shoot or DSLR camera…

Set Up the Shot

Three tips for positioning yourself properly before you shoot…

Anticipate where the action will occur, then get as close as possible. Great action photos do not just show the action—they capture the facial expressions of the people involved. That’s very difficult to accomplish from a distance, particularly if you’re not ­using a telephoto lens.

Keep the sun at your back. This makes it more likely that your subjects’ faces will be well-lit.

Seek clean backgrounds. A busy background, such as a parking lot full of cars or a row of portable toilets, can spoil an excellent action photo. When possible, position yourself in a spot where the background of your shots will be uncluttered. When that isn’t possible, consider shooting from an elevated position so that your background is the ground. (Don’t rely on photo-editing software to remove background distractions from images later—it’s much better to not have the distractions in the first place.)

Warning: Signs in the background are particularly problematic. The ­human eye is drawn to words, so any text that finds its way into your photos will be a distraction from your intended subject matter.

Select Camera Settings

Here are four ways to set up your camera for action shots. Keep in mind that all but the simplest cameras (such as smartphone cameras) allow you to override the default shutter speed and aperture. These are important creative controls that will help you take better photos. If you’re not sure how to use these, check your camera’s manual for instructions.

Field_hockeyChoose a very fast shutter speed. This reduces blurriness caused by motion. A setting of 1/1000 often is appropriate for photographing running pets or kids…while 1/2000 could be appropriate for a car race.

Select a wide aperture. A wide aperture—that is, a low f/stop number—lets more light into the camera, which helps it capture images using a faster shutter speed. Even more important, a wide aperture means the background of the shot will not be in sharp focus, which reduces background distractions.

Select auto ISO. ISO refers to the light sensitivity of your camera’s image sensor. Auto ISO will let the camera compensate automatically for changing light conditions while you choose the widest aperture and a fast shutter speed.

Opt for autofocus. Your camera can focus on action far faster than you can. If your camera has a “continuous autofocus” setting, this is a good choice for photographing subjects that are in motion—your camera will make the adjustments necessary to remain in focus even as the subject moves around.

Example: On Nikons, the “AF-C” setting provides continuous autofocus. On Canons, the “AI Servo” setting does so.

Action-Photo Tricks

Kids in Crisis TriathlonPan with the action. Set your shutter speed slower than you normally would for action photography—perhaps 1/250—then physically move the camera to track a moving subject as you shoot. This keeps the subject in focus while blurring everything else, creating a sense of speed.

Warning: It is very easy to accidentally blur the subject of a shot along with everything else when you try this. You should expect to have to try it dozens of times to get one good shot. After a while, you will get better at using this technique.

“Flash and blur” close shots. If you can get within 10 feet or so of your subject, you could try slowing your camera’s shutter speed to perhaps 1/250 and using a flash. This, too, can create a sense of speed by keeping certain parts of the subject in focus while blurring particularly fast-moving elements—for example, a cyclist’s legs and spinning wheels.

Tip: Use a remote flash that communicates wirelessly with your camera rather than the camera’s built-in flash. A built-in flash tends to create harsh, flat-looking images because of the close proximity of the flash to the camera’s lens.

Position your remote flash so that the flash, your camera and the subject form something close to an equilateral triangle—that is, a triangle where each side is of similar length. This gives much more depth to your pictures.

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