How to Capture Action and Sports with Your Digital Camera

By Julie Adair King

A fast shutter speed is the key to capturing a blurfree shot of any moving subject with your digital camera, whether it’s a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, a car passing by, or a running baseball player.

The shutter speed you need depends on the speed at which your subject is moving, and finding the right setting requires some experimentation. For example, when shooting the hockey player, a shutter speed of 1/500 second was used. That didn’t come close to freezing the action, so the shutter speed was bumped up to 1/1000 second to capture the image shown on the right. Even at that speed, the end of the hockey stick is slightly soft, but it lends a sense of action to the shot.

Sports
A shutter speed of 1/500 second wasn’t quite enough to stop the motion of this racing hockey player; raising the shutter speed to 1/1000 second did the trick.

As you continue practicing action photography, you’ll gain an understanding of what shutter speeds work best for your favorite subjects. But generally speaking, 1/500 second should be fast enough for all but the fastest subjects — a hockey player, cyclists, motorcycles, birds in flight, and so on.

Whatever the speed of your subject, try setting your camera to one of the following exposure modes to capture action:

  • Shutter-priority autoexposure: Usually abbreviated S or Tv (for exposure time value), this mode enables you to specify an exact shutter speed. The camera then chooses the f-stop needed to expose the image properly. Of course, you can always switch to Manual exposure and set both shutter speed and aperture yourself.
  • Sports mode: Almost all cameras offer a Sports mode these days, although it may go by some other name (Action, for example). Whatever the name, this mode automatically dials in a fast shutter speed for you. Often, Sports mode also sets the shutter release mode to continuous so that you can fire off a burst of frames as long as you hold down the shutter button.

Here are a few other tips that pros use when capturing action:

  • Raise the ISO setting to enable a faster shutter, if needed. In dim lighting, you may not be able to get a good exposure at the chosen shutter speed or in Sports mode without taking this step. Raising the ISO does increase the possibility of noise, but a noisy shot is often better than a blurry one.
  • Forget about flash. Using flash isn’t usually a workable solution for action shots. First, the flash needs time to recycle between shots, so it slows your shot-to-shot time. Second, most built-in flashes have limited ranges — so don’t waste your time if your subject isn’t close by. And third, remember that the maximum shutter speed decreases when you use flash; the top speed is usually in the range of 1/200 to 1/250 second. That may not be fast enough to capture your subject without blur.

If you do decide to use flash, you may have to bail out of Sports mode, though; it probably doesn’t permit you to use a flash.

  • Set the camera to burst mode, if available. This mode may be called Continuous or something similar; often, you enable it via an option called Drive mode, Release mode, or Shooting mode. Whatever the name, it enables you to record a continuous series of images with a single press of the shutter button. As long as you keep the button down, the camera captures image after image at a rapid pace — three to five frames per second is common, but some high-end cameras can be faster.
  • In autofocus mode, try continuous-servo mode, if available. Again, the name of the mode varies from camera to camera. When this feature is enabled, the camera initially sets focus when you press the shutter button halfway (or tap to set your focus point on a touchscreen-enabled camera) but adjusts focus as necessary up to the time to take the picture, just in case the subject moves. All you need to do is reframe the shot as needed to keep the subject within the area the camera’s using to calculate focus.
action
For this shot, continuous autofocusing, burst-mode shooting, and a shutter speed of 1/1000 was used to capture this bird transporting a branch to fortify its nest.

Be aware, though, that not all cameras can adjust focus between the individual frames of a burst. Instead, the focusing distance set for the first shot is used for all frames. With such cameras, capture a short burst, release the shutter button, and set focus again before taking your next series of frames.

  • Compose the shot to allow for subject movement across the frame. To make sure that your subject doesn’t move out of the frame before you press the shutter button, compose the image with extra room at the edges. You can always crop the photo later to a tighter composition if you want. Speaking of cropping, remember that if you plan to crop the photo, setting the picture resolution to a high value helps ensure that the cropped photo will have enough pixels to produce a good, larger print.
  • A large depth of field gives you a better chance of success when you photograph a subject moving toward you or away from you. The greater the depth of field, the larger the distance over which sharp focus is maintained. If you use an f-stop of, say, f/5.6 and you’re shooting with a telephoto lens, the depth of field will be pretty shallow, and you have to snap the photo at the exact moment the subject is within range of focus. Stopping the aperture down a couple of notches (raising the f-stop number) extends the depth of field so that the subject is within the sharp-focus zone for a longer period of time, giving you more shooting opportunities.
  • Get to know the habits of your favorite moving subjects. For example, if you enjoy photographing your daughter’s softball team, pay attention to how the various players react after a winning play. After a strikeout, does the pitcher always punch her fist in the air? If you know that detail, you can compose a photo of her well in advance of the pitch, leaving extra room at the top of the frame to accommodate her arm.