Shooting Action and Moving Subjects


(Originally posted on the Kira DeDecker Photography blog)

I would say the three most frequent questions I get asked is 1.) How I post process 2.)What lenses do I use and 3.) How do I shoot action. I see the same things pop up when people ask about capturing moving subjects — What camera settings, Shutter speed, etc etc etc. There is no one setting to getting those great actions shots but rather it’s a matter of having your settings right, a firm understanding of photography basics and lots and lots of practice.

(Note: These techniques work best for those who know how operate their cameras and have a firm understanding on shutterspeed/apature/ISO dynamic as well as focal planes. I don’t say that because I’m sort of elitist but because this particular technique rely on the user using a mode other than Auto. If you are you just starting out in your photography journey and don’t know how to use manual mode on your camera, I suggest starting with the Action mode on your camera.)

My first step is to change my autofocus mode to AI-Servo. I typically shoot in One Shot but change it over to AI Servo when working with action/moving subjects because it keeps the focus active so it can track a moving subject.

I make sure my camera is set to High-Speed Burst Mode. This enables me to hold down my shutter and take multiple shots in a row to capture the ongoing movement. This lets me to a get a series of images of my subject moving, the end result is kind of like a flip-book.

I pick my focus point, usually the dog’s eye/face. I NEVER EVER let my camera choose focus for me. I also don’t focus and recompose, the action is too fast for that (plus, I’ve never been a big fan of that technique but that probably has something to do with me starting with macro photography and having to deal with very narrow focal planes).

The key to freezing the action, is of course, shutter speed. For action, I don’t even begin to feel comfortable until I’m around 1/1000 sec with the sweet spot usually being in the 2000-5000 range.

Then I focus with my Back Button (AF-ON), I keep holding it down to focus (this is where AI Servo comes into play since it will keep the focal point active) while pressing my shutter button to take my photos. Back Button Focusing separates the shutter release from the focusing mechanism. I love BBF, so my camera is always set to BBF for my day to day work.

I anchor myself someone where with good light and catch the action around me. I only move in-between a series of shots. I don’t move with my subject – running while trying to photograph a moving subject is a recipe for disaster – for me at least. Safety first.

When choosing a lens for shooting action, I need to keep in mind how fast it focuses. For instance, I love my 50mm 1.4 lens for portrait work, but it’s not quite fast enough for action – for that I use my 85mm or 16-35mm 2.8L lens. When choosing lenses, it’s important to choose what works for you and your needs.

As for aperture, I like to shoot pretty open but that’s just how I like to shoot. For a single subject, I will be in the 1.8 – 2.8 range, for multiple subjects, it will be higher/narrower. When starting out, sometimes it helps to start with a narrow aperture (bigger DOF), since you will have less room for error.

Keep in mind that every lens has it’s own Minimum Focal Distance. If a subject gets to close to the lens, it won’t be able to find its focus and things in that range will be blurry (every lens has a different min focal distance).

And there you have it. Those are the basics of how I shoot action. As you can see, action shots are the perfect union between equipment and photography skills. I realize that all the lingo and jargon I used was Canon so if any Nikon users want to chime in with Nikon terms, that would be awesome. Curious about something? Feel free to ask – leave a comment or contact me.

December 6, 2013 - 5:39 am

Bonita Holmes - thank you, good read

December 8, 2013 - 12:19 am

Kelly Garin - Very helpful, thank you!

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