Action photography tips

Action photography is tough and it is a discipline where many people struggle. Getting an average action photography image is easy however getting a great action photograph is much more of a challenge. If you are struggling with action photography there are some things you can do to improve your technique and the way you tackle such shots. 

Know the subject

In order to get the best action photography images you must know and understand the type of action you are photographing. For example, if your action photography is that of an equestrian event you should know that the horse is slowest as it is sizing up the jump and the real action happens at the jump. This knowledge will allow you to anticipate what is going to happen, and where it is going to happen, which allows you to plan the perfect shot. If you are not knowledgeable about the action or sport associated with the action photography you are trying to capture, you will struggle. The best thing to do is spend some time doing some research beforehand. Get some books, do an internet search, read the rules, watch some video footage etc. etc. Spending some time learning about the action or sport will drastically improve your hit rate. Remember that “knowledge is power”.

Side cars racing around Snetterton. These machines require perfect harmony between rider and passenger, as well as a lot of guts, to keep all wheels on the track.

Sidecars racing around a race trackCredit: yackers1

Get in the right location

The perfect action photography image involves being in the right place at the right time. When photographing sports events it is not always possible to know exactly what is going to happen, but it is possible to have a good guess where it is going to happen. For example, when photographing motor racing you will know there are specific parts of the circuit, such as individual corners, where more action takes place. Go to these corners and get yourself ready for the action to start. Location really is key.

If possible try and get to the location before the event in order to scope it out. Using the motor racing example above, get to the corner and see what part of the corner is the best. Some parts of the corner will allow you to get head on shots, some parts of the corner will allow you to get shots of the back of the cars, some parts of the corner will let you see other parts of the circuit etc. etc. You need to decide what type of shot you are after and find the perfect location to get that shot.

When choosing the location you need to think about the background. There is nothing worse than getting a classic action photography image only for it to be ruined by a distracting background, such as an advertising board, so you really need to choose your action photography locations carefully.

Use a pre-focusing technique

When you are practicing your action photography of sports that are repetitive, such as motor racing you know where the action is going to happen. You will know that the cars or motorbikes will use the same racing line lap after lap and go around the corner on the same part of the circuit time and time again. This repetition allows you to pre-focus on the specific parts of the circuit and then hit the shutter button as the cars or motorbikes come through and enter the frame.

As an alternative to the above you may wish to set your digital camera to a focus tracking option, such as Al Servo, which will mean your camera will automatically track and focus on moving subjects.

Two bikes racing around Snetterton race circuit.If you stand and observe you soon get to see where the racing line is and can pre focus on that before the bikes even get there.

Two bikes racing around a race trackCredit: yackers1

Shutter speeds and timing

Timing is key in action photography, and this goes hand in hand with shutter speeds. Many photographers want to ‘freeze’ the action when practicing action photography therefore the shutter priority mode is the best option more often than not. The shutter speed needed to freeze the action will depend on the speed and size of the subject. For example, photographing a runner in a marathon race will require a slower shutter speed than photographing a motorcycle in a race.

As well as the size and speed of the subject you need to consider the size, weight and focal length of the lens. As a general rule of thumb, to avoid blurry photographs and camera shake you need to use a shutter speed that is at least one over the focal length of the lens. So, if you are using a 200mm lens the shutter speed should be at least 1/200 seconds, if you are using a 300mm lens the shutter speed should be at least 1/300 seconds etc. Some people can obtain tack sharp images using slower speeds than the rule of thumb, but it is always a good rule to follow.

If you are struggling to get the required shutter speed to freeze the action adjust your camera settings accordingly. Try increasing the aperture. If you are using the lens’ widest aperture you will have to adjust the ISO to get the sharp images.

The Saker car challenge. A fast shutter speed is needed to freeze the action and get a sharp shot. It is also worth putting the camera in burst mode and taking multiple shots, at least one of which will be sharp.

A Saker racing carCredit: yackers1

Shoot in burst mode

All digital SLR cameras will have a burst mode, which allows you to fire off several frames whilst pressing down on the shutter button. Entry level digital SLR cameras have a burst rate of 3 frames per second whereas some professional digital SLR cameras have a burst rate of 10 frames per second.

Timing is very important in action photography and firing off several frames in quick succession is going to improve your chances of getting a sharp image than taking a single shot. When using burst mode you will use up your memory cards much quicker and the camera’s battery life will decrease so you need to keep this in mind.


Panning is another technique used in action photography. Rather than freezing the action, some photographers want to introduce some movement in to the final image. The only way to do this is to pan the shot. Panning allows you to take a picture of a tack sharp subject with a nicely blurred out background, which demonstrates movement.

Panning is a difficult technique to master but it is a technique that is well worth learning. If you are struggling with panning don’t worry about it, get too het up and give up. It will take a lot of practice to get the desired results.

Get the right equipment

A long zoom lens is an essential piece of kit for action photography. Because of health and safety measures you will often find yourself a long way from the action, therefore you need a long lens to get close to the action and get some frame filling shots. Frame filling images are all good but you will also want some wider shots to tell a different story. Rather than carrying around a load of fixed length prime lenses, and having to change them which could result in missing the action, it is easier to have a single zoom lens.

At many sporting events you will not have the chance of moving closer or further away from the action, instead you will be confined to a single location. A zoom is also preferable in these situations as it is more versatile than a fixed prime lens.

The Canon EF100mm - 400mm L IS USM lens. This is an excellent lens for motor sports and action photography. It may not be the fastest lens but it is affordable compared to other 400mm lenses.

The Canon 100mm - 400mm L IS USM zoom lensCredit: yackers1

Know your camera

Action photography requires quick reflexes and the ability to change camera settings quickly and efficiently. Ideally, you should be able to adjust the important settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance, without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Changing the settings should be natural and instinctive and the only way to do this is to know your camera inside out.

So, before you go to the sporting event spend some time with your camera taking test shots. Practice changing all the settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder and get to know your camera intimately.

Practice, practice, practice

Unlike still life or product photography, you have no control over action photography. When you first start out you will find there will be many opportunities missed, many out of focus shots, many photographs where bits have been missed etc. etc. Action photography takes a long time to master so it is important not to get too disheartened and give up when you don’t get the desired shot. So, persevere and always remember that practice makes perfect.

The above should drastically improve you action shots however you still need to remember the other fundamental rules of photography, such as composition, and have an artistic flair.