If you had to pick the most diﬃcult subjects to photograph, action would be there at the top. Here’s how to increase your chances of getting that action shot.
How to shoot action photographs.
Action is difficult, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re dealing with moments that last fractions of a second, which means that sometimes you’re reacting faster than you have time to think. While no single technique can guarantee you the shot, these principles can help you increase your chances, whether you’re shooting race cars or your children playing.
Get the shot before the shoot
When action happens, it usually happens so quickly that you can’t do anything but press the shutter and hope you got it. This means that everything else has to be prepared beforehand; your camera settings need to be dialed in before the shoot, you need to check your exposure with a few tests the moment you get there, and you should ideally get to your location early so you can scout out the best angles to shoot from.
Get the safe shot, then reach for the risk
When you’re shooting action, you have options – whether to freeze action with a fast shutter speed, or blur motion with a slow shutter speed. If you’re not sure which works better for that particular scene, here’s a rule of thumb: Get the safe shot, then reach for the risky one. With a slower shutter speed, you risk getting incomprehensible blurry shots. So get the safe shot with a sharp, clean capture at high shutter speeds first. When you get a few you like, then try dragging the shutter speed for photos with motion blur.
“WHEN ACTION HAPPENS, IT USUALLY HAPPENS SO QUICKLY THAT YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING BUT PRESS THE SHUTTER AND HOPE YOU GOT IT.”
Increase your failure rate
Shooting action is sometimes like playing the odds – if you have a camera that shoots five frames per second (FPS), you have five chances to capture a perfect moment in a second. If your camera shoots up to 18 FPS, then your odds for getting the shot almost quadruple. To increase your chances of success, increase your chances for failure and shoot as much as possible. That doesn’t just mean machine gunning the shutter, but also getting to the location early, leaving late, and practicing often.
Pause and look around
When you’re shooting action, it’s easy to get fixated on what’s happening inside the view finder. After all, action is fleeting, and if you don’t snap quickly, you might miss getting the shot. But if you have the chance to shoot for an extended period of time, it’s worth taking the time to pause and look around, to see if you’re missing something outside of the frame, or if there’s another angle you can shoot from.
Zoom makes you see closer, but wide makes you feel close
More often than not, you’ll be shooting with a far-reaching zoom lens when photographing action. It’s just pragmattic – you can’t be right beside the soccer player as he shoots the goal, or running beside a tiger as he makes the kill. But zoom lenses compress the lines in a frame, flattening perspective. Shooting wide, however, exaggerates those perspective lines, making the image three-dimensional and bringing the viewer into the action. Whenever you can, shoot wide and close for impact.
Shot at 1/500th of a second.
“GET THE SAFE SHOT, THEN REACH FOR THE RISKY ONE.”
Increasing the odds of succes
Practicing seeing and getting “the decisive moment” is a good way to improve your photography. But action happens so quickly that pressing the shutter as soon as you see the moment can mean you already missed it. You want to have as high a chance of success as possible when shooting action, especially when you’re on assignment.
A feature like the ‘Pro Capture Mode,’ introduced in the Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark II, helps in this regard. When you half press the shutter, Pro Capture Mode starts capturing shots to the buﬀer. When you fully press the shutter to capture the shot, the camera saves the previous 14 frames as well as the frames you’re now capturing, so you have the safety of catching the action before, during and after you squeeze the shutter.
Getting closer with a wideangle
lens exaggerates angles and makes you feel like
part of the action.
Don’t watch TV before the show is over
If there’s one mistake that destroys your chances of getting the shot, it’s reviewing your images right after you’ve shot them. There’s only one reason to preview your images at the location, and that’s to check your exposure settings (and that should be done before the action starts). Turn off the image preview in your camera’s settings, and keep your eye on what’s happening in front of you, not on what’s already happened on your camera’s screen.
Practice, practice, practice
Unlike, say, landscape photography where you can take your time to compose the image, shooting action often demands that you react so spontaneously you don’t have time to fiddle about. You’re forced to compose quickly and intuitively, and how well you can do that depends on how much you’re internalised the rules of composition before that shoot. So practice whenever you can to hone your instincts.
Zooming in with your lens compresses perspective and
flattens the angles.
Emotion is everything
The best photographs don’t just make you look, they make you feel. Look for the emotion in action, whether it’s a look of joy, anger, sadness, victory or defeat. And if your subject doesn’t carry emotion, like a rapid race car, look for contrasts, which is a way to portray conflict in a still frame. Think about a car that pulls ahead of the rest, a cheering champion in front of his opponent lost in defeat, or a big animal bearing down on a small one.
All images shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.