Shooting Action
Presented by Glenn Springer, TIF, RHCC

Action pictures are fun to shoot!
but you need to pre-plan or you'll miss them!

At the Highland Yard race in 2012. A slow shutter speed and deliberate panning produced the sense of action and motion in this image.


Practice your "Birds in Flight" pictures at the local garbage dump! Lots of seagulls and other birds to shoot. Note that the pictures will be better if they don't show piles of garbage, so watch the backgrounds.


Morgan Nunn competing in the Open Canoe races at the Minden Wildwater Preserve. A fast shutter speed froze the water. By the way, very few photographers were there on the Saturday because it was cloudy and threatening to rain. That's the best time for pictures, not on bright sunny days!


How fortunate we are, to live here in the Highlands! Or even just to visit or cottage here. Not only are we surrounded by glorious nature, but there are activities going on all around us! Today I want to talk about shooting action pictures and give you some tips about improving them.

I include a lot of these tips and techniques in my workshops and courses. Invest a day or two to inspire you to make better pictures! Visit and click on “Workshops”.

I define “action” pictures as anything where there is movement. Not necessarily sports, there are other action subjects: your dog running across a lawn, birds flying, kids playing, running water, even vehicles driving by!

If you’ve read my previous columns, you know what I’m going to say next (if you haven’t, go to and click the “tips” button – they’re all there): you’ve got to get the focus and the exposure right, or you’re going to end up throwing the picture away. And you’ll be more likely to be happy with the image if you’ve composed it well too. A lot to think about when that waterskier is whizzing by or you’re trying to capture that bird in flight!

This was shot from the boat. Really challenging, when you're bouncing around. Manually focusing works because the rope is a fixed length so the skier is always at the same distance away!

It’s difficult to shoot action with a point-and-shoot camera because there’s a delay between the time you press the shutter release and the camera takes the picture. A DSLR works better but you have to watch out for how it autofocuses. For subjects moving toward or away from you, use “continuous autofocus”. In Canon cameras, that’s called “AI Servo”, Nikon calls it “AF-C”. Read your manual if you have a different camera. Another idea is to switch off your autofocusing and focus on a spot or a particular distance. Shooting a waterskier from a boat is an example: the rope isn’t going to change length, so you can pre-focus at that distance.


A fast shutter speed freezes the water. This one was shot from the dock as the skier passed by. You need the continuous autofocus function to get this shot.





Selective focus on the subject in the foreground tells a story.


I'll let you in on a secret! Two shots of the same goose! He was flying into a strong wind so was relatively motionless and easy to shoot.

There are two possibilities: either freeze the action, or don’t. Let’s talk about freezing it first. To do that, you need to shoot with a fast shutter speed. Two other things affect your exposure: the aperture (size of the hole the light comes through), and how sensitive your sensor is to light (the ISO). If there’s not a lot of light, one or both of these things will have to be increased, and both of those options present challenges.

You may be surprised how fast you need to make that shutter to freeze the action. Sometimes you need 1/1000 second! It’s a challenge to get there. Try setting your camera on “Shutter Speed Priority” (read your manual!).

At the Minden Wild Water Preserve. Freezing the action with a fast shutter speed. This image is available as a large format print. Email me!


Try not to get in trouble with the cops when pointing a camera at them! This guy was whipping by at a speed we're not allowed! I made it into an abstract.






Sometimes a slow shutter speed renders the action better. By ‘panning’ your camera with the subject — moving it while the shutter is open to keep the subject in the same spot in the picture — you can achieve amazingly sharp focus while the background blurs in the direction of the motion. But it’s a skill that requires lots of practice! Try it on cars going by, or bicycles. You’ll get funny looks from the drivers, though, if they think it’s a radar gun you’re pointing at them! And if it’s a police car, they’ll really be wondering (sorry, officer, I was just practicing my panning skills!). Try something like 1/15 second or thereabouts.

Or you can deliberately blur a picture if you like abstracts!

The trick is to be smooth. Don't stop your panning motion when the shutter goes off, keep it going, follow through like you do when hitting a golf ball or shooting skeet.






It took a lot of shots to get this one the way I wanted it. Slow shutter speed, panning, lying on the ground shooting up, hoping he wouldn't run over me! Oh, and it was c.c.c.cold!

There are lots of rules about composing your pictures, but for action, I focus on a few of them. (1) Make the picture ABOUT the subject. Including a lot of background gives you more sense of a “story”. (2) Leave room in front of a moving subject, and (3) try to time your shot to capture the best facial expression or body position. To accomplish #3, don’t be afraid to shoot high speed bursts! Sometimes the winning picture happens a few tenths of seconds later!

It's all about the facial expressions! Shoot bursts, the best expressions only last a fleeting instant!


No matter what the season, there are great action pictures out there waiting for you to capture them. Go for it!

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