10 Tips for Stunning Action Photography

Freeze motion photography
I shot this photo while covering an event for a newspaper. The people jumped into a pool of ice cold water in the middle of the Winter. - Jim Harmer

Action Photography Tip #1: Plan ahead! Carefully plan where you will set up.  This is probably the biggest mistake for action photographers.  I can't tell you how many parents I see on the sidelines shooting their son's soccer game from the middle of the field.  Since the action will mostly occur near the goal, that is a much better place to set up.  No matter what action you are going to shoot, you need to predict where you can be to capture the face of the subject.

Action Photography Tip #2: Pre-focus. If the subject suddenly springs into the frame, you might consider using a technique called pre-focusing.

Action Photography Tip #3: Shoot in short bursts rather than one long bursts.  This will prevent your buffer from filling up, which could cost you the shot.  I usually shoot action in three shot bursts, wait a second, then shoot another burst.  To do this, turn your camera to continuous high drive mode.

Action Photography Tip #4:  Give the subject space to move.  For fast-moving subjects, the best composition is usually to allow some space on the side of the photo where they are traveling.  For example, the photo featured on this page has more space on the left side of the frame, since that is where the person is jumping to.  This composition will feel much more comfortable to the viewer so they don't wonder what's in front of the person.

Action Photography Tip #5: Get a fast memory card! This can help prevent your camera from slowing down if the memory card write speed is the bottleneck in your system.  Not sure which memory card to buy?  Check out this post.

Action Photography Tip #6: Don't miss the face.  Capturing the expression on the face of the subject will add much more drama to the photo.  Did you notice the face of the guy jumping into the icy water?

Action Photography Tip #7: Shoot JPEG.  Action photography is one of the only times that I switch over to JPEG.  Since JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files, most DSLRs can capture a few more frames per second on JPEG than RAW.

Action Photography Tip #8: Get down low.  One of the most important–and lesser-known–composition tips is that shooting from down low will make your subject look powerful.  Look at any picture of a CEO in Forbes or Business Week and you'll see that they are often shot from a low angle to make the person seem like a towering giant.  The same is true in action shots, where photographers generally want to make the subject look dramatic and powerful.

Action Photography Tip #9:  Shoot with two eyes open.  I learned this trick from teaching classes in shotgun shooting.  Closing one eye lessens your ability to determine depth and hinder's your eye's ability to track movement.  It takes some practice, but I always shoot sports and action with two eyes open, and it seems to help me get the shot.

Action Photography Tip #10:  Don't mash the shutter button! Just because you're shooting action doesn't mean you should forget last week's tips on getting sharper photos.

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16 thoughts on “10 Tips for Stunning Action Photography”

  1. Thanks for the tips! In action and sports photography, the most important factors to keep in mind are pre-focusing and timing, especially for very fast moving or far away subjects. It pays to be alert and ready with your camera so that anytime you see an action worth capturing, you can do it instantly.

  2. I dot think i have ever seen worse tips! i have specialized in photography though out my life in the Jamaican rain forest taking pics of their exotic mammals and rare donkeys. But these tips are simply terrible!

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