The Tech

How to set your camera for action.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

How to set your camera for action.

There are two ways to express movement in a photograph, either by freezing the action (above)
with a fast shutter speed, or blurring it (below, right) with a slow shutter speed.
There are two ways to express movement in a photograph, either by freezing the action (above) with a fast shutter speed, or blurring it (below, right) with a slow shutter speed.

Action photography is as technical as it gets, because you’ll need to know which settings are more likely to help you get the shot, like Single versus Continuous AF. And because action happens so quickly, you’ll need to understand your settings so well that you can rapidly switch between them when necessary, so you don’t miss the shot by fiddling with your controls.

Single AF versus Continuous AF

Single auto-focus (S-AF), also known as “AF-S” or “One shot AF,” focuses once when you half press the shutter button, and the focus stays locked even if you or your subject moves. The focus will also stay locked when you shoot multiple images in a single burst. It’s best used for stationary subjects. Continuous AF (C-AF), also known as “AF-C” or “AI Servo,” focuses when you half press the shutter button, and will refocus to track the subject if you or it moves. The camera will also continuously refocus in-between shots when you shoot a multiple shots, tracking the subject as it moves. When you’re shooting action, switch AF mode to C-AF. AF

Area modes 

The other crucial setting on your camera is the AF-Area mode. On most cameras, you only have two choices: Multi-Area AF, which lets the camera focus automatically, or Single-Point AF, where you choose a single AF point to focus. If this is what you have, then we’d suggest you use MultiArea AF for subjects that move too quickly for you to change single AF points on. On more advanced cameras, however, you have a wealth of options for action, from Dynamic AF-Area to 3D-Tracking to Group-area AF modes. It would take two pages alone to go through them all, so the only succint advice I can give is to break out your manual and experiment with the different AF settings. Some will benefit you more than others, depending on the kind of action you shoot.

Phase versus contrast-detection AF

There are two kinds of auto-focus technologies in digital cameras: phasedetection and contrast-detection. Generally speaking, phase-detection is better at tracking moving subjects, while contrast-detection is better at getting precise focus on stationary subjects. If you want to shoot action, you’ll need a camera with phase-detection AF.

In the past, only DSLR cameras came equipped with phase-detection AF, but high-end mirrorless cameras now offer a hybrid combination. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, for example, can switch between phase-detection and contrastdetection AF systems, for shooting both still and moving subjects.


Shutter speeds

When shooting action, you’ll almost always be shooting in Shutter-priority Mode, so you can control the most important setting for this subject: Shutter speed. There are two ways to express action in a still frame: Freeze the moment in sharp detail, or blur the action to show movement. Both require shutter speeds at opposite spectrums. How quickly do you need to shoot to freeze action? It really depends on what you’re shooting, a fast human is traveling Upon approval Please sign: Name and Date: at different speeds from a fast car. The quick answer is as fast as you can get away with, but sometimes you’re limited by aperture and ISO settings. Generally speaking, for moving children, shoot at 1/250th of a second and above, for sports, shoot above 1/500th, and to freeze very fast action, at 1/1000th and above. It’s best to shoot and review your settings, especially for subjects you’re shooting for the first time. To blur motion, experiment too. Start from 1/80th of a second, and start slowing down from there.

Frames per second

When shooting action, the more frames per second (FPS) your camera can capture, the better. Most digital cameras have an average of three to five FPS, but those built specifically for speed usually have faster frame rates from 10 onward (the Olympus E-M1 Mark II does an astonishing 18 FPS).

Cameras will list two FPS specs, one is a higher FPS with AF and AE (autometering) locked from the first frame onwards, the second is a slower FPS with AF and AE active. The latter is the spec you want, as you’ll need AF to be active as your subject moves.

Even then, the listed FPS is a happy maximum. Whether or not, or how often you hit the FPS depends on a few factors. If your shutter speed is set to one quarter of a second, for example, you’ll only get four FPS, no matter how quickly your camera shoots. You’ll also need to account for how many frames you can shoot into the camera’s buffer before it fills up and slows down the frame rate.

Fast lenses

Wrangling the exposure triangle of shutter speed, ISO and aperture is difficult enough in normal shooting, it becomes more so when one or the other is constrained. If you’re shooting action outdoors in good light, then you can shoot fast while keeping your ISO low. But if you’re shooting indoors, then ISO will invariably creep up, and image noise along with it.

One way to compensate is to get the latest cameras, which are shooting cleaner high ISO images than before. But we can’t all print money at every upgrade cycle, so the other way to keep shutter speed fast and ISO low is to shoot with faster lenses. Ideally, you’ll want lenses that are f/2.8 at least, and f/4 at the most. 

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Why are cross-type AF points important?

The number of AF points in a camera is important, the more there are, the wider the spread, and the more likely they can track a subject as it moves across the frame. AF point sensors are divided into two types: Vertical and cross-type. Vertical AF points can only detect contrast on a vertical line, while cross-type AF points can detect contrast both horizontally and vertically, which makes them much more accurate. The more cross-type AF points on a camera, the faster and more accurate its AF system is likely to be, which is crucial for action photography. 

Go for the safe shot, then take creative risks. This shot was
taken handheld, at a slow shutter speed, and was only one
of two successful images out of dozens of failures.
Go for the safe shot, then take creative risks. This shot was taken handheld, at a slow shutter speed, and was only one of two successful images out of dozens of failures.

Fast lenses don’t just let you shoot faster, they also focus faster, as modern digital cameras focus with the lens aperture at their widest.