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Photography Tips: Capturing Outdoor Action

Posted by Erika Haugen-Goodman at Sep 29, 2015 12:30 PM |
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These five tips will help you create better action photography to capture all the exciting moments that happen on trail.

By Buff Black

Whether it’s a daring feat or family fun—or both at the same time!—capturing life’s action-packed moments is a worthy challenge. Sometimes they only happen once, so be ready. Sure, you can use the sports mode on your camera. But to increase your creative control, here are some tips for bringing home evocative and energetic images (that you can also enter in this year's Northwest Exposure Photo Contest!).

Buff Black Camera Tips
To capture this image, Buff knelt low, set autofocus to servo mode and drive to continuous shooting, and panned left to right using shutter priority at 1/50 of a second.

1. Gain Your Composure

While the subject of outdoor action photography will be a person (or other creature) in motion, compose your subject against an interesting background, such as peaks or trees. And look for an interesting perspective. For example, if your subject is jumping, kneel or lie low with your camera so the sense of lift is accentuated.

2. Focus on Focusing

While creative blur can be interesting, an action shot that’s out of focus rarely is. To help
put your moving subject into focus, you can use servo autofocus mode. This mode is made to continuously track and focus on moving subjects. Servo mode can be especially helpful if a fast- moving subject is coming at you, requiring constant, split-second refocusing. But, servo can still miss the focus, because it takes time to track and focus, and sometimes it can’t keep up.

An alternative, especially if your subject will be predictably traversing across the frame (not approaching or receding), is to preset the focus at the right distance. Before the action starts, autofocus on the area where your subject will be traveling through the frame, then turn on manual focus to lock the focus where you want it. Once set, your camera won’t have to track and focus and can immediately start taking pictures when you push the shutter button.

3. Burst on the Scene

Unlike stationary landscape photography, action photography requires bursts of multiple frames. To do this, set your drive mode to continuous, the icon with the superimposed rectangles. Depending on your camera and storage card, continuous mode allows you to capture up to eight frames per second. In sports and wildlife photography, the photographers’ adage “spray and pray” is never more applicable.

4. Freeze the Action

For some adventure shots, you’ll want your subject to be crisply frozen in time. To accomplish stop- action, you can use shutter priority mode. Start with at least 1/250 of a second, but the freezing is better between 1/500 to 1/1000 or more.

Another option is to use aperture priority mode and set the aperture to wide-open, represented by the smallest f-stop number, such as 4.0 or 2.8. Like the dilated human iris with a large pupil, a wide-open aperture will let in as much light as possible, allowing the shutter speed (the “blink”) to be as fast as possible. In lower light, be sure to crank up the ISO (the sensor’s light sensitivity) too.

5. Panning for Gold

For other adventure shots, you may want to experiment with motion artifact to create a blurred background that energizes the image. To do this, practice smoothly panning in the same direction and speed as your active subject, often horizontally. This is best done utilizing a tripod. Start by using shutter priority mode set between 1/30 and 1/60 of a second.

The goal is to get a fairly sharp subject, especially a person’s face, set against a streaked and motion-filled backdrop. Be patient though. This kind of panning, just like for the precious metal, results in a lot of photographic silt. Keep at it to sift out the golden shots.


Put these tips to good use and enter your photos in this year's Northwest Exposure Photo Contest! Check out the contest categories and prizes being offered this year and submit your photos before October 19.