We love action sports, and we jump at the opportunity to take pictures of anything that involves racing, competition, or an adrenaline rush. The definition of action sports is very broad these days, encompassing a wide variety of sports that usually involve a high level of skill and at times, danger. Dirt bikes, bicycles, skateboards, snowboards, race cars, the list goes on. If it goes fast – we’re into it.
Over the years we’ve had the chance to shoot many types of action sports events. The thrill of photographing live action, is in my opinion, unmatched by other types of photography. As the photographer you have no control over what’s going to happen next. You’re not in a controlled studio environment with perfect lighting and opportunities for do-overs. You have to be ready at all times for the next big moment. It could be the start of a race, a sudden crash, or capturing the fierce competition between athletes as they battle for track position. In order to be prepared to get that perfect crisp shot of the winner crossing the finish line, you have to know your equipment, and practice using it as often as possible.
Today we’ll talk about some simple ways you can improve the quality of your action sports shots to always get that crisp, aesthetically pleasing shot.
Set a few goals – What do you want to capture? Where can you capture it from?
Before taking any pictures it’s best to set some goals for what you would like the end results of your photos to look like. Do you want close up shots capturing competitors’ facial emotions? Do you want wide action shots of the whole field of competitors? Maybe you’re just looking for that perfect shot of the winner crossing the finish line. Depending on the venue of the sporting event, your options may be limited, or virtually unlimited. It’s always best to explore the venue ahead of time if possible, or just arrive early to place yourself in the best position or scout out multiple places you can move between during the event. If this is an outdoor event try to determine where the sunlight will be, how shadows will fall, and the best way to light your subjects. You may or may not want crowds or observers in the background. There might be other photographers at the event, maybe you want to get away from them and try something different. These are all important factors to take into account before you fire your first shutter click.
Know your gear
When I was starting out taking action sports photos I wasn’t completely comfortable with my camera and lens. I didn’t understand all the functions and what all those fancy options on the dial meant. Lower end cameras have an “ACTION” mode usually depicted by an icon of a man running with some lines behind him. I figured this was the best place to start but I quickly learned I wanted more control over my camera. If you own a DSLR camera I recommend trying TV mode, or “time value”, also known as shutter priority mode. On most DSLR cameras this will allow you to control a set shutter speed and let the camera do most of the other work, determining aperture and ISO. This is a good place to start because you don’t have to think about everything at once, but this will give you a better chance at eliminating blur in your photos as you can control how long the shutter is open. Depending on the lighting and type of action, I’m usually above 1/180 second shutter speed. If you’re shooting something that’s moving quickly you may need a higher shutter speed. I recently took photos of an F-35 doing a full speed pass a few hundred meters in front of me, and that shutter speed was cranked up to 1/3200 of a second to freeze that plane perfectly in place. Test shutter speeds and review your images as you take them to determine if the shutter is open too long, or too short. As you learn you can progress to using more camera functions manually but if you’re spending your time fiddling with camera options you may miss that once in a lifetime shot!
Once you’ve positioned yourself in the best place to capture that perfect shot and you’ve dialed your camera settings in for a nice blur free picture it’s time to settle in and enjoy the action. Now that you don’t have to think so much about your camera settings you can focus on what’s in the frame. The composition of a picture is just another item on the long list of things that make an awesome action sports photo. My primary goal with all my photos is to tell a story, and action sports challenges that goal on a regular basis, but also provides some amazing opportunities. Being at an event in person or watching a video of it usually provides an easier understanding of what’s actually happening in that moment. With a photograph you have a single instance in time to tell that whole story. Composition is our friends in helping tell that story. A close up shot may show the emotion of one competitor, but a wider shot with all the right elements in the frame will tell the story. I think this is where the phrase “the bigger picture” comes from. One of my favorite recent action photos is one from the 2016 Olympics that went viral. It’s a beautiful shot by Getty Image photographer Cameron Spencer of Usain Bolt excelling past his competitors during the 100 meter dash while looking back over his shoulder with a grin on his face. I’m sure you’ve already seen it but here it is:
This is in my opinion an amazing example of a well composed action shot, it tells the story perfectly. I don’t need to even read the description to know what’s going on. This shot has all the right elements, it has some motion blur from the speed of the action, Bolt’s face is perfectly in focus training your eyes directly on his face before quickly looking over the image realizing what’s happening. The background colors accent the rest of the image perfectly while also making the whole image feel more dramatic. These are the elements I strive to include in my images because it makes them more aesthetically pleasing.
While these are only a few tips I hope they help you take better photographs and have a better understanding of the approach action sports photographers take. We’re always happy to help others learn the knowledge we have gained over the years. If you have any questions or would like some further reading, please reach out to us via our contact page, follow us on Facebook, or sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page to get regular updates on our blogs with more helpful tips. You can always check back here every Friday for a new photography related blog post!