Most of us, at one time or another, have tried to take pictures of a sporting event or some other action shot and been very disappointed with the results. Often, the resulting photograph is merely an incomprehensible blur when what we really wanted to capture was some incredible action! Without knowing a few basic pieces of information, it can be hard to get these shots to turn out well. Never fear: this article will help you learn the right camera settings to get those action shots to come out beautifully.
Let's talk basics for just a minute. Remember that the exposure triangle is made up of three elements: the Aperture, the Shutter Speed, and the ISO. Each of these is going to need some tweaking depending on your location and situation. For indoor sporting events or outdoor events in low-lighting, you can expect to use a high ISO (don't be surprised if you're pushing it up to 1600 and higher!) to get a properly exposed picture. Because you're using such a high ISO, you may need to cheat the shutter speed down just a bit to keep the noise down. Try 1/800 and see what kind of results you can get. But in general, to freeze action, a good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of 1/1000. A shutter speed this fast will freeze the action for just about any sport (think football, soccer, baseball, etc). However, if you're trying to photograph a particularly fast-speed sport (like racquetball, for instance) you may need an even faster shutter speed.
Are there ever times when you don't want to completely freeze the action? Think about the situation of photographing a race car: if you completely freeze all the action, you're going to have a fantastic picture of what looks like… a parked race car. This totally defeats your purpose. Just about anybody (even me!!!) can take a picture of a parked car without having it turn out blurry. But what you're going to want is to capture the feeling of motion while keeping the car in focus. This can be a little trickier, but learning about panning will help you a ton in this situation! This photo Dustin took is a great example of capturing the motion while still getting a nice, crisp, in-focus shot of the car.
Some of the coolest shots capture motion in amazing ways. This photo of the dancer does a fantastic job of freezing the motion and capturing the action – you can just feel the movement in this photo! If you find yourself in a situation where you'd like to freeze motion, practice adjusting your camera settings to allow you to get a proper exposure while keeping the blur off your subject. (We have this handy cheat sheet that you can use to get an idea of a good starting point for your camera settings in different situations.) It will take some practice – don't get too discouraged when your first few action shots don't turn out well. But with practice and some patience, you'll begin to understand the basics of sports and action photography. Before you know it, you'll be taking some really incredible photos too!