How to Take Better Action Photos

141005 Semper Paratus 4022There are many sports photographers. We generally hear about those who specialize in a specific genre of sports photography like motorsport, tennis, golf, or surfing.

If you are just starting out and want to gain some experience and build a portfolio, what can you do to take better action shots?

What separates a true sports photographer from an amateur?

A sports photographer will get the shot they want as they see it, of the action they need to report on, every time. Their ability to pick the correct exposure, composition, focus, and amount of blur in the background comes down to their knowledge and understanding of the elements covered below.

Know your equipment

Your camera, whether it is an entry level or top of the line DLSR, has the ability to take amazing action shots.

You need to take control of your camera so that you get the results that you want from it when you push the button. You will need to adjust the way your camera focuses, allow continuous focus tracking, set the focus point on your camera to be focusing on the right spot, and set your camera to take multiple frames per second. Controlling the shutter speed and aperture so that you can blur the background or freeze action, allowing you to get the shot you envisage.

Understand your sport

Before you even pick up your camera, you really need to understand the sport that you want to capture. You need to know where the action is happening, and when it’s likely to happen. You will also need to know what will make your pictures amazing in the eye of the competitor, or their sponsor, (your customers).

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With motorsports, for example, it may be a spot on the track where accidents happen or a corner that will show the skill level of the driver. You need to know which part of the racetrack the drivers use, and which angle would suit that section of track.


In understanding drag racing, I know that the moment the driver puts his foot down on the green light, the car will lurch forward and the front wheels will lift like this by using a fast shutter speed I have been able to freeze this action.

With surfing, it may be which wave in a set will deliver the best surfing and allow the rider to get the most out of the wave. You must be able to pick out which are the good surfers and which are the amazing surfers, just by seeing how they interact with the waves, how long they will stay up, and if they are doing tricks.

In short, you need to be aware of what is going on where the action is. This allows you to plan your photo so that you can adjust the composition to suit.

Compelling composition

I personally prefer an action shot where the athlete has space to travel into, making sure that he/she is the main focus of the image. With this in mind, picking the correct focus point so that objective is achieved may mean not using the centre focus point. By using a different length lens you can change your composition without having to move to another location. Longer lenses can get you too close to the action, which sometimes means you may miss what is happening around the athlete – so experiment with a few different focal lengths.

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In this image I have used the right most focus point and given the rider room to “ride into” by panning and blurring the background. Thus, I have been able to make the rider stand apart from the crowd.

Make what’s important stand out

By setting your composition, you can then decide if you need to blur the background or make it part of the drama in the shot. You can do this by controlling the shutter speed; slowing it down to blur, speeding it up to freeze, panning with your subject, or by using a large aperture lens and shallow depth of field to blur the background.

Why blur the background at all?

Generally, you need to blur the background to separate the athlete or the subject from the background; ideally, they are the main focus of the shot. With spectator sports, the spectators in the photo may distract the viewer of the photo. By making them out of focus or blurring them with a panning motion, you make the athlete stand out.

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By using a small number aperture I have been able to separate the rider from the crowd.

If you are going to use panning to blur the background, make sure that you have a focal point in the shot that is sharp. That spot needs to be the pivotal place in the photo. If it is an athlete for example, you usually need to make sure their face is sharp. With motorsports it could be one of the sponsor’s logos or the racing number, but could easily be the driver’s helmet. This is important as without one thing in sharp focis, it tends to be more of an abstract art piece than an action shot. As artistic as these blurry pans are, if the sponsors can’t see their logos or the competitors can’t see their faces, you may have a tough time selling the pictures.

Aperture priority versus shutter priority mode

With this in mind, you need to make a decision to either use aperture priority and a large aperture to blur the background, or shutter priority mode and slow down the shutter speed and pan to blur the background. If you are looking to do slow shutter speed panning, make sure you have taken enough sharp frozen images of the event before you practice this. At least that way you will have some images for your portfolio.

Now that you have your camera settings sorted, you need to anticipate when the action is going to happen. This would also include following the path of the athletes as they pass you. If you have set the shutter speed and picked your composition, you lastly need to use tracking focus.

Using continuous focus

Start focusing on your subject BEFORE they are in the right spot for the composition, and continue to keep tracking them after the shot. More unexpected action may happen after, so it’s best to be prepared to photograph it. Knowing how your camera will act, and react, when you push the button with shutter lag (the time between pushing the button and the picture being taken) and multiple frames per second, you can start to follow your subject well before you intend to take the picture. But be ready to shoot at any moment’s notice as the action happens.

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By continuing to shoot after “the shot” I caught the car hitting the ground and the sparks flying even though this was happening quite fast I didn’t use burst mode, instead I took every frame.

Burst mode

If you have the luxury of multiple frames per second, and lots of memory cards to fill, you could follow and just continuously shoot, then cull the images you don’t like. Memory cards are cheap, but is it the best use of your time? Both while at the event and after the event?

Photograph the whole event, not just one aspect

When you are going to an event to take pictures, plan it. Make sure you are aware of where you can stand and how that will affect your pictures. Change your locations to get a mixture of angles. Change your focal length to get a mixture of wide and long shots. Change your shutter speeds to get a mixture of freezing action and blurring the background.

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By using a mixture of vantage spots, you can get some very different angles of the same event.

Step by step checklist:

  • Make sure the camera is set to: Multiple frames per second (as high as it can be), continuous focus, the correct shutter speed or aperture setting
  • Set up your shot compositionally by using different focus points
  • Track your target for as long as you can before you take the picture
  • Keep tracking your subject after you have taken the shot, as there may be more action
  • Use the multiple burst modes sparingly – be decisive about what you want and take one or two shots either side

So what are you waiting for? Get out your manual, make the changes to your settings and take a few risks (with the settings of course) and push yourself to take better action photos.

‘s photography journey started in the late 1990’s when he bought a film camera and started motor sport in the mid 2000’s, published in various car magazines. He enjoyed capturing a mixture of the cars, and people. Contracting to an event company doing school formals, he worked on posing and getting people on side quickly. Building on the above he started No Green Square, teaching you how to get the best out of your camera.

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