Picture This: Getting a Good Action Shot

Piggy-backing on our recent lessons on using the manual functions of our cameras and specifically the shutter speed, this week we’re going to talk about action shots. Last week we discussed taking long exposures with a long shutter speed, this week we’re going to talk about short exposures with a short (fast) shutter speed.

The most crucial thing when taking action shots is learning to anticipate the moment. When you take a photo of someone playing baseball, you don’t want to be too fast to hit the shutter or else you’ll only get the batter standing there. You also don’t want to be too slow or else you’ll only get the batter leaning off of home. What you want is to be just right, to get the photo right when the ball touches the bat. You need to find the climax of all the action and photograph that moment. To be honest, that is really, really hard to do and it can take hundreds of clicks before you get your timing down just right. You have to get a feel for how fast the ball is going. You need to study the pitcher’s movements as he releases the ball. You need to feel how fast the batter swings. And you may need to practice. A lot. I once took more than 200 photos at a baseball game before I finally got my settings right and all the action in the frame.

A man playing baseball swings at the ball and misses.
None of my shutter settings were fast enough to catch the ball when it flew past the batter until I amped up the shutter to 1/1600 of a second. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough light to fill in the photo as the sun was going down, so even though the shutter was fast enough to finally catch the action, the photo was still unusable.

It didn’t work out like I wanted to but I learned a few good lessons from this adventure out with my camera:

First, when photographing a sport with your head down the viewfinder, keep both eyes open. This will feel weird at first, but it’s essential to anticipating the action. How could I know when to snap my photo if I wasn’t also looking at the pitcher for the moment when he threw the ball? With one eye on the pitcher and one eye on the batter, I learned that if I clicked the shutter when the pitcher threw the ball, then the photo would get the batter swinging just at the moment when the ball flew past. It is an immensely valuable skill that will help you know exactly when to click the shutter, so practice, practice, practice!

A boy is blind folded and kicking an apple off a chopstick held by a second boy.
The only way I got this photo was by keeping both eyes open. I had one eye pointed down the viewfinder and one eye focused on the boy kicking. Because I had tightly framed my photo, there was no way to know when he would kick by only looking through my camera. By watching with both eyes, I was able to anticipate the moment. (I don't have data on how fast this shutter is but probably pretty freaking fast!)

Second, always think about where the action is going, not where action already is. If you point your camera and try to capture what is currently happening, nine times out of ten you will miss the action completely. That’s because a baseball moves fast; a skate boarder moves fast; a swimmer only comes up for a breath for a split second. You need to think two seconds ahead to get the photo you want. Think about where the baseball is going, how high the skate boarder will jump, or when the swimmer will take his or her next breath – take that photo! If you’re thinking ahead, you’ll be prepared and it will be much easier to get a good, clear, well-composed photo. Part of this is instinctual and part of it is just practice. Watch for a while before your pick up your camera and find the rhythm in the action.

Waves crash on a rock.
I waited and waited and waited, watching waves crash on this rock for about 30 minutes, studying their movement and learning what size of wave would make the biggest explosion. I also took a lot of practice shots waiting for the right one but when I finally saw and knew what kind of wave would give me the photo I wanted, I was ready because I knew where the action was going and how to time it with my camera. Shutter speed 1/800 of a second.

And third, put your camera on Rapid Fire Mode. This means that when you push the shutter, as long as you are holding down the button, the camera will be taking photos as fast as it can. Some cameras unfortunately don’t have this feature, but if yours does, it will prove handy next time you need to put your camera into action! This function may be faster or slower, depending on your settings. For instance, if I am shooting in RAW format, my camera can take three photos per second. However, if I am using JPEG format, it can take seven photos per second. That’s a big difference and it could make a difference in the right situation, so read your camera manual to find out what options you have. If you aren’t sure of the timing and the action you are photographing is only going to happen once (i.e., your grandad doing a backflip into the swimming pool), then use this mode because the more photos you take, the better your chances are of getting the photo you’re after.

A young girl jumps on top of a sand castle.
This girl helped me build a big sandcastle in Thailand and then asked if she could "body slam" it. Knowing I would only have one chance to photograph it, I set my camera to rapid fire, which helped me get the photo I was after. Shutter speed 1/250 of a second.

With summer on the way across the northern hemisphere, you are bound to have countless opportunities to get some action photos. You could be watching your kids running through sprinklers, water skiing for the first time, attending a rodeo, playing summer soccer, riding bikes down trails, or swinging in the park! Wherever you look, something is happening in the summer so put these tips into action! If you are using a point and shoot camera, try using the sports or action setting on your camera to get a good photo or make it purposefully slow (this photo makes me dizzy)! When you’ve got a photo you like, where you really captured the climax of the action, come back and post it in the comments section!

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

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