Shooting Action

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I wanted to write this while it was still fresh in my mind.

The trip to the skateboard park gave us a good crash course in several different aspects of action photography. Sometimes, during classes, I’ll try to describe the stream of consciousness that goes through my mind while photographing outdoor events, but the great thing about this is that all of you also went through it, so we can discuss the shared experience.


When we started out, it was around 6 pm, and was seriously warm, around 90 degrees. The light was relatively harsh, but the color balance was good. There were some clouds that hid the sun for a few minutes, then it would pop back out. As the evening wore on, the sun descended, and as it got closer to the horizon, the shadows lengthened, and the light became more warm. Because trees blocked the horizon, we did not get the full warmth of a sunset, as the sun was blocked about 1/2 hour before true sunset. When the trees blocked the sun, and cast the rest of the skate park in shadow, the light changed, becoming more blue.
Coincident with the sun dropping behind the trees or the clouds, the amount of light dropped substantially. The shadows became less harsh, but freezing action became more difficult. The temperature dropped and it became more pleasant. When you’re working outside, there’s ALWAYS the unpredictability of the weather and light.
Outside photography can be physically challenging. All of the people we photographed were young and fit, so they dealt with it well. The sweat and sometimes tangled hair also fit in with the type of photography we were trying to capture. If you’re doing a model shoot, this could be a completely different challenge. A bride, for example, normally needs to have perfect hair, and sweat on makeup could ruin the entire shoot. In this instance, we didn’t have to worry about the models.
When you go out to this type of shoot, be aware of the possible weather conditions. We dealt with heat at this one, but sometimes it rains, and sometimes it’s cold or windy. In these instances, you have the choice of adapting to the weather or rescheduling the shoot.

Capturing the images.

The first thing you probably noticed is you took a LOT of photos. This is the nature of action photography. You shoot on the anticipation of something happening. In most instances, things don’t happen as you wish. I see blogs with statements like, “I was at a football game and took 700 photos, and all of them were keepers.” My immediate reaction is that the individual is either lying or has low standards. I’ve never done an action shoot, including last night, where all of the photos were even in focus. Besides, if you’re shooting action, you start on the initiation of action and shoot through. So, you get six to sixteen photos, and you’re not going to want to display all of them. Nobody, except the model or the model’s mom, wants to see 700 to 800 photos of the same event.
Separate shooting and editing. Sometimes people delete photos in camera during the shoot. I strongly recommend against this for three reasons:

  1. Your screen on the back of the camera is fine for a quick check, but don’t count on it for editorial decisions.
  2. You’re messing with your camera when you should be concentrating on the action.
  3. Photographing action and editing or selecting photos are two different thought processes. When you look on the back of your camera to make editorial decisions, you’re changing your mental state, and that’s not good.

Most of you noticed that your mental state changed as the evening wore on and you got into the flow of action. Each type of sport has it’s own flow. Football, basketball, baseball, softball, track, swimming, surfing, skiing, golf, gymnastics and every other sport has it’s own rhythm and motion. To be successful, you have to accept and get into that flow.
Notice that we had to get our camera settings before taking the photos. Once the boarders started skating, we needed to concentrate on capturing action. As the light changed, we needed to adjust our settings. Both these photos have been cropped, but no other adjustments.

Early photo

1/2500, ƒ4.0, ISO 320, AWB

Late photo

1/250, ƒ4.5, ISO 1600, pop up flash AWB

I had a regular flash with my equipment, but deliberately left it in the car, because I’ve gotten tired of all the photo blogs that say “never use pop up flash.” It’s a tool. Use it situationally, if the need arises.

I’ll reiterate here that I always shoot on manual, and turn off auto-ISO. Before shooting, I look for something that’s about 50% between light and dark and take my light reading off of this. The concrete of the skate track was too light, so I took my light reading off the grass. Grass has a great tendency to be about the right level of light/dark. This isn’t a perfect light reading, but we’re going for a “ballpark” figure here.
My problem with using shutter priority, aperture priority, or auto-ISO is that the camera will adjust itself to get it back to what it thinks is “proper exposure.” I don’t want it to do this. I initially did my settings so the skateboarders would be properly exposed. Because of the way they moved, we couldn’t be sure what background would be in place. If I’d used ANY automatic settings, the camera would have adjusted exposure. If the boarder had gone up in the air, with sky background, the camera would have adjusted and exposed for the brighter sky, making the boarder too dark. If there had been dark trees behind the boarder, the camera would have adjusted and the boarder would have been too light.

Flash after the sun went down

As the sun faded, I started using the pop up flash. This does a couple of things. First, it illuminates the subject. Second, it helps freeze action.


When shooting action, you have to position yourself before the action takes place. In most sports, there’s a place where the action is most likely to occur. Think about the angle, but also the background.

What you’re trying to capture

I’m hesitant on this, because I prefer to teach people the mechanics of how to get the photograph and let them decide what they want to photograph. In action, though, there are some things that work, and some things that don’t.

Here are my “rules”

  1. The peak moment of action is the best. A photo of the skater off the ground is more dramatic than one on the ground.
  2. Look for the detail that sells the photo.
  3. Get the face. There may be an instance in which a photo without a face has dramatic effect, but for the most part, the face needs to be in the photo.
  4. Be aware of the background. For the background, you have to be aware of the angle of the skater compared to you.
  5. Go heroic. Getting low and shooting high makes the subject look more heroic. I get kidded sometimes because I lay down on the sidelines or the field, but it gets some good angles. Having a sky background also makes for a less complicated background.


Focus is one of the most challenging things about action photography, and focus is EVERYTHING. To begin with, set your autofocus to AF-C (Nikon) or AI-Servo (Canon.) Sony autofocus is different, so I’ll cover that in another article. There are several things you have to watch on autofocus, and the big one is making sure the camera does not grab the background. The more complex the background, the more the camera will be likely to grab it.
Objects moving parallel to you are easier to get in focus than objects moving directly towards or away from you.