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How to capture action reliably and with style

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be spending this fine Easter afternoon with family and friends, eating, laughing, and, of course, making lots and lots of photographs. At our annual Easter gathering there are an abundance of children. And children make great subjects for photography except for one problem: they don’t sit still. A moving target is one of the most difficult things to photograph. Read on for some tips that should help make things a little easier.

If children just sat still all the time, it would be a lot easier on parents and photographers, but you wouldn’t be able to capture the joy of a child running through the grass or leaping through the air. It’s difficult to capture action like this for several reasons:

  1. Because the target is moving, your point of focus keeps shifting. Even modern auto-focus systems can’t quite keep up with a moving child who is constantly changing direction. And it’s even worse if the subject is moving towards or away from you.
  2. Shutter-speeds have to be high to freeze action without visible motion blur. That means you need lots of light. Outdoors, hope for a bright day. Indoors, flash.
  3. If you have a digital compact camera, shutter lag is one of the child photographer’s worst enemies. This is the delay between when you press the shutter and when the photo is actually captured. This will hopefully be a thing of the past but even today many lower-end cameras exhibit this problem. This is one of the very few areas where better equipment can really help make a better photograph.
Jumping Into the Sea
1/640s @ f/13

I’ve deleted innumerable photographs of blurry children or kids half-way out of the frame. So, what can you do about all this? As with all photography, a little planning, a little knowledge, and a lot of practice. Let’s tackle the issues above one by one.

First, focus. Focusing on a moving child is difficult. Remember that the point of focus is a plane at a certain distance from the lens. Objects moving in the plane (across the frame) will stay in focus and objects moving through the plane (towards or away from you) will quickly go out of focus. If you can, try to arrange yourself so that the action is moving past you, not towards you. If you must take shots moving towards or away from you, try this trick: try and predict where the action will happen and focus on that point. You’re setting a focus “trap.” Then you just wait for the subject to pass through that point and shoot. If your camera has a burst mode, use it. You may find that only one of every three or four photos is in focus. The fact is, no matter how much you practice or how good you get at it, you will still make lots of blurry photos. But digital saves the day: shoot lots, review, and delete.

New hat and a hula hoop
1/640s @ f/6.3

Next up, shutter speed. A high shutter speed is crucial for freezing motion and capturing sharp details. The right shutter speed to use depends partly on how fast your subject is moving (and in which direction) and how long your lens is (how zoomed in you are). The rule of thumb for shutter speed is 1 over the focal length of your lens. That is, if you are using a 100mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/100s. Basically, the higher the zoom, the faster the shutter speed should be. But if your target is moving, you should at least double or triple that. For kids, I’d try for the fastest shutter speed you can manage, 1/500s or even faster. In direct contrast to focus, freezing motion is easiest when the subject is moving towards or away from you and more difficult when the subject moves across the frame (because there is more apparent motion). Your camera’s “Sport” mode was designed to capture action by using the fastest shutter speeds possible. Sport mode will also sometimes turn on a predictive focusing mode depending on your camera model.

But freezing motion isn’t the only option. Sometimes, a little blur is just what is needed to capture the feeling of motion or speed. There are basically two ways to capture motion blur and both involve using a slower shutter speed than you would to freeze action. Set the shutter speed to 1/60s or slower. Then,

  • To capture a blurred subject and a sharp background, point the camera at a fixed location and let the subject move through the frame.
  • To capture a sharp subject and a blurred background, track the subject with the camera at the same speed the subject is moving while you capture the image. This technique is called “panning.”
Letting go (motion blur example)
1/40s @ f/20

Finally, shutter lag. Dreaded, terrible shutter lag. It is one of the most frustrating issues with digital compact cameras. There are a couple of things you can do to combat it. Try your best to predict the action and press the shutter a half-second early. This works but it takes lots of practice and you need to make a lot of shots. Also, try pre-focusing. Most cameras will let you focus and hold the focus by pressing the shutter half-way. As long as you keep the shutter pressed half-way, the focus will remain at the same point. Press the shutter the rest of the way to take the picture. This eliminates focusing time and cuts down lag considerably.

When shooting action, there’s no silver bullet that will allow you to capture the perfect photo every time. But, keeping these issues and techniques in mind, and with practice, you can get the shots you want much more often.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.
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