Shutter speed. Shutter speed, shutter speed. If you want to take action shots with your dSLR, you must make shutter speed your top priority. All else is secondary. Use the largest aperture you can and raise the ISO as much as you need to. A blurry action shot isn’t worth printing out and framing.

The other part to keep in mind is how transitory things are: People, planes, horses, buggies — whatever you’re after is in motion. You can’t use a relaxed focusing mode. Put your camera in a continuous focus mode so that it keeps focusing as long as you have the shutter pressed halfway.

Use a single AF point, unless it’s something whose motion is so random you can’t track it; in that case you can try a zone or other more advanced AF mode (if you have it).

Be prepared. Pick a spot and camp out for a while. If that works, take tons of shots! When you’re satisfied, move to another location.


Track the action.

Fast jets, loud jets, J-E-T-S, Jets Jets Jets. This is a shot of a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor screaming by overhead, executing a fly-by during a local air show. To capture this sort of action, you need shutter speed and reflexes. The camera was set for 1/1000 second, which seemed to work well.

If you’re photographing something super-fast, don’t focus on one spot. Instead, pan and track the plane, using continuous focus to lock on. When everything works (except the weather in this case, which stunk), you get sharp photos of action, well, in action.

Settings: f/4.5, 1/1000 second, ISO 125, 300mm focal length. APS-C.


Pick your spot.

Not every action shot needs to be an air show or a professional sporting event. This photo was taken looking down the base path from third to home. The change in perspective worked because the shot could include an interesting baseball-related background in the shot that includes several intriguing details: the batter, the stands, the fence, and the people in the stands. The background made all the difference.

If you want to try something like this, look into an affordable zoom lens that covers between 200mm and 300mm focal lengths. You can also rent or buy your own super telephoto lens.

Settings: f/4.5, 1/400 second, ISO 100, 300mm focal length. APS-C.


Choose the right moment.

Pressing the shutter button at just the right moment is an important skill to develop if you want to shoot good action shots. Although it might seem like hit or miss, your sense of timing is very important.

The horses and their drivers are rounding the final turn to head down the main strait. This isn’t the type of shot you can plan. You have to feel the moment and press the button. The more practice you get, the better you’ll become. As with other action shots with lots of motion, this required a fast shutter speed. The sun was shining, which meant the ISO could be low.

Settings: f/4, 1/1000 second, ISO 125, 300mm focal length. APS-C.


Capture a drive.

This photo is a good example of how difficult it can be to take good action shots. It was taken in a dimly lit gym that didn’t seem all that dark at first.

This shot uses a 50mm prime lens whose maximum aperture is f/1.4 and opened it up wide. (Not everything has to be telephoto.) The players were positioned so they’d run through direct sunlight. Only then could the shutter speed be set fast enough to capture them without blurring, and that was with a relatively high ISO. Here again, timing was important. There wasn’t a huge amount of motion.

Settings: f/1.4, 1/500 second, ISO 1000, 50mm focal length. APS-C.


Picture everything.

This photo is of a North American P-51 Mustang taxiing out to the runway. It was raining off and on. During a short break it looked like the P-51 would make it up in to the air. Taking a few shots of it taxiing was the only way to go.

However, there are several things about this shot that really stand out. First, the plane was very close, which lets you see the interesting details, such as the prop cutting through the air. You can also see the name of the plane and other markings very clearly.

Settings: f/4, 1/1000 second, ISO 180, 300mm focal length. APS-C.