Photography tips: capturing action shots

By Bill Hatcher 15 May 2012
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Award-winning photographer Bill Hatcher shares his tips on how to capture that memorable action shot.

MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS BELIEVE they need the reaction skills of a seasoned pro to shoot great action photos. Nothing could be further from the truth. Capturing action photography has more to do with knowing where and when to position yourself, plus a little camera-handling practise, than fast reflexes. Reaction and timing are important, but unlike what many might think, you don’t chase after action photos. Instead, you wait for the perfect moment as the elements in your photo come together and just as the action peaks you squeeze off the shot (or a series of shots).
If you know a sport pretty well, then anticipating when and where the action will happen is easy. For example, when shooting mountain biking you want to put yourself at corners and jumps, in kayaking you look for the river’s biggest falls and rapids, with rockclimbing you position yourself near the hardest sequence of moves or the steepest part of the cliff.

Being at the right place at the right time was how I got this shot of a climber swinging to his cliff camp. The location is at 6000m on the East Face of the Nameless Tower in Pakistan. I loved the mountains surrounding this spectacular camp so I used a 14mm ultra-wide angle lens to bring both the tent camp and the mountains into my composition. Once I had my photo framed, it was just a matter of waiting for the climbers to return to camp to complete the photo.

My camera can shoot six frames a second, so I shot a sequence burst for this photo. Most cameras have a high-speed continuous setting, but some cameras, especially the cheaper pocket cameras, have a lag, making capturing this very difficult.

As far as camera handling goes I find the hardest part of shooting moving action photography is a technique called panning – that is, following the action with your camera while triggering photos.
Learning the panning technique takes a bit of practise. You can do this close to home before your next adventure by photographing your friends or your kids running or biking. Practise squeezing the shutter as you follow the action. This technique does not come naturally, but is easy to master. In addition, try using a slow shutter speed combined with panning to give a sense of movement. What separates a snapshot from good photography is preparation. This is how I prepare when I am shooting action.  

Photography tip: pre-shoot checklist

Set your camera dials before you shoot action. Set the camera to continuous-shot mode and the shutter speed to 1/500 second or higher to freeze the action. Slower shutter speeds will blur movement.
I will pre-focus with manual focus if I think my camera’s auto focus will not work effectively to capture fast action.

Photography tip: scout your location

Good action photos have a clean background. If the background behind your location is ‘busy’ with trees, people or unwanted distractions, try changing your camera angle. Simply tilting your camera angle higher to include more sky can clean up a cluttered scene. Using a telephoto lens such as a 300 or 400mm with a wide aperture will render the background out of focus, making the sharp action standout.

Photography tip: practise dry shooting

Before the real action happens make sure the subject is framed correctly. If you plan to pan the action as they move past your position, practise following the imaginary action. Be careful with the focus. Auto focus is great, but does not work for every situation. Often for mountain-biking shots I will have someone stand on the trail where the riders will pass to help me frame the composition, I then pre-focus on the spot and mark where I will shoot.

Photography tip: the lull between action

Review a few photos you just shot to make sure they are framed correctly, are sharp and that the shutter speed is correct for the situation. Consider tighter framing or moving to another position.

You are now on your way to shooting like a sports photographer and you haven’t even broken a sweat.