Stop-Action Photography Using Your Digital SLR

To capture a crystal-clear digital SLR photograph of something traveling toward you at high speed — a race car, a speeding train, a pack of bicyclists, or what have you — your focus has to be spot-on. You have to anticipate where the subject will be when the shutter opens, which means you’ll have to press the shutter a fraction of a second before the subject reaches the point at which you want to photograph it.

1

Find an unobstructed vantage point.

You want to be able to stop the action of a race car — not the back of someone’s head. Scout the location ahead of time and take pictures during warm-ups and practice runs to find the best spot.

2

Enable the proper camera settings.

When your goal is to freeze action, use Shutter Priority mode. Shooting with a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second freezes the motion of a fast racecar. You set the lens to manual focus because the camera can’t lock focus on a car traveling at a high rate of speed.

Use the Single Shot drive mode and don’t worry about image stabilization, although you can certainly turn it on if you have it.

Adjust the ISO setting until you have an f/stop of f/8.0 or smaller (meaning a larger f/stop number). The ISO setting depends on the amount of available light. If you’re shooting in overcast conditions, you may have to use a higher ISO setting.

Monitor your camera’s f/stop throughout the event. If the light gets brighter, decrease the ISO to maintain the desired f/stop. If it turns overcast or you’re photographing a long race, increase the ISO setting to preserve the desired shutter speed when the racetrack gets darker.

The suggested focal length range of 100mm to 300mm covers situations where you can “safely” get close to the action (100mm), or you have to photograph from a distance (300mm).

When you photograph one car that’s closely following another, use a lens that has a focal length of 200mm or greater. The long lens makes those cars appear to be closer than they actually are. If you photograph a car that has its engine mounted in the rear or middle of the car body, the picture will show a heat haze, as well.

If you’re photographing a single car, choose a focal length that captures the entire car in the frame, and then zoom out so that you can see some of the track around the car. If you’re photographing a group of cars, choose a focal length that captures all the cars in the frame, plus a little wiggle room.

3

Manually focus on an object in the same position as what you want to photograph.

If you’re at a race track, for example, focus on an expansion joint on the track that’s in the same position the car will be when you press the shutter button. Alternatively, you can focus on something off to the side, such as a guardrail or advertising banner that’s in the same place as the subject of your photo will be when you take the picture.

Leave some room in front of the subject to give viewers the impression that the car, train, boat, or bike is going somewhere.

4

Stabilize the camera by positioning your legs shoulder-width apart, moving your feet so that they’re angled slightly away from your body, and tucking your arms in gently by your side.

Cradle the underside of the lens with your left hand and zoom in to the desired focal length.

If you plan to take pictures throughout an event, you may want to set up a tripod to save your energy and your picture quality.

5

Press the shutter button fully just before the subject reaches the point where you want to photograph it.

The hand is rarely quicker than the eye, so be prepared to press the shutter just before your subject gets to the focus point.

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