Getting The Action Shot 

By Jim Donnelly

Its that time of year, when lots of things are happening and its time to break out those cameras and start capturing those special moments (I guess that could be pretty much any time of year, ha). Being a photographer of many sorts I completely understand that not everyone is a photographer or knows all of the ins & outs of their camera, everyone doesnt put every spare cent into new camera great, and they certainly dont spend all of their spare time to reading every article online to learn more about photography. All the being said, that doesnt stop people from wanting to improve the quality of their photos. So I thought I might be able to help with 3 key factors that are frequently overlooked by beginner photographers to help improve how you approach your action photography.

Some tips for people just getting started in action photography. There are a lot of websites with a lot of great tips for photographers to improve their action photography. The trouble with those sites is they are intended for PHOTOGRPHERS. What if you are just getting started in “photography” or even just like to take pictures and maybe not consider yourself in the realm of “photographer”? Those sites can be filled with jargon about “pre-focusing”, “mashing the shutter”, or “panning”. Here are a few very simple principles and tips to keep in mind as you are trying to capture that special moment or activity.

Know Thy Camera

Many of those aforementioned principles can be helpful but complicated and may be a bit more advanced for beginners. We can get to those, but lets take a look at something else first… Your camera. when it comes to action/sport shooting with your family, you might be shooting with lots of different types of cameras, so there is a key idea to understand when looking to maximize your camera.

Just because your camera has an “action” mode doesnt mean you are going to be getting the same results as a camera like this.

What those modes mean to do is inform the user the types for priorities the camera has. So in terms of the action mode, the camera places higher priority to the ISO & shutter speeds to improve fast performance. But on a point-and-shoot or even an entry level DSLR camera, that doesnt promise sharp photos in every scene. Cameras still have their limitations when it comes to speed, noise, and sharpness, the fact is that the more you pay for DSLRs the better those factors perform. So how does that help you? For me, knowing that… in regards to any camera I might personally use, weather it is a fancy Canon DSLR, point and shoot, or even my cell phone. It helps me to set realistic expectations of the photos I might get and if I need to consider using something different. It also helps me to focus my attention and efforts to the types of shots that will actually come out. I can try all day long, but if Im trying to capture and tough action shot with my camera and it just doesnt have the right stuff to get it, then maybe i should try something else. And with that said, Ill be happy to just have a nice sharp, clear photo to remember that moment, than a blurry, and out of focus picture.

Know Where You Are

The next largely overlooked factor when shooting , especially action/sports, is your environment. These factors will greatly change whether you are indoors or out, but knowing where your light is and how powerful it is will help you compose your photos. A general principle I follow, especially in difficult shooting environments is to expose your photo for the subject. That is to say, concern yourself most with the clarity and exposure of your subject. Of course everyone wants to have a well balanced photo, but I also dont want a ton of extra post-production work and sometimes you dont have a choice, and in those cases you just need to focus on whats most important, thats your subject.

For indoor shooting I think there are two key factors to consider when shooting. One, you would be very surprised how much light you need, and second the reason photos come out dark when you are in the gym at a basketball game are because of the fluorescent lighting. There are some cameras that have White Balance settings to expose for fluorescent lighting, but that mode still doesnt account for how fluorescent lights work. What you dont see is that fluorescents actually flicker (just at such a high rate that our eyes dont see it). So if you were shoot a burst of shots, not all of the photos would be exposed exactly the same. There is no simple solution to this and even with the best gear it can pose problems. Your best bet is to manually set your ISO high and slow your shutter speed, but as you know when shooting action, slow shutter isnt optimal. Im sorry that there is really no simple answer or special trick, but know you are not alone. The struggle is real! Some best things that will help, is a tripod to hold your camera as still as possible and an external flash to help with the lighting.

Zoom Doom — Beware the Blur

The third factor for beginners to consider is your focal length (how zoomed in you are). For many beginners, I think this is a very overlooked factor, AND I think its an overlooked factor when many pros are providing advice to beginners. Using zoom increases the likelihood of blur. Even shooting outside, in the sun, with a fast shutter speed, utilizing a zoom lens means that your movements and camera shake (how steady you are holding the camera) are exaggerated, as well as how quickly the subject will pass through your view because it is moving as well. Basically, the more you move, and they move, the blur effects are multiplied when zooming.

Additionally, your shutter speed plays a factor with this. The slower you are shooting, that blur will obviously creep up on you. There is a basic rule you can try to keep in mind when you see what your shutter speed is or if you begin to play with manual settings. The rule is that your shutter speed should be at least double your focal length. Wow, what does that mean? It means that if Im zoomed to 300mm on my lens, my shutter speed should be at least 1/600 of a second (or 600 as its displayed on your camera). If I am wider at only 100mm, then 1/200 could be my starting place. Now keep in mind, that is merely a reference point. because your subject might be moving as well, you might have to be shooting faster if you are trying to totally freeze the motion in your shot.

Again to this there is no clear answer, even in optimum conditions, the best idea for beginners would be to use a tripod or monopod, that would be able to help with holding the camera steady and help you to follow your subject. In addition to that, some guess and check with your shutter speed (if you are shooting in a manual setting) can help you figure out exactly what your shutter speed should be in trying to capture your moment.

I know what some of you might be thinking, and that might be, blur isnt always a bad thing, and you are right, if you can follow your subject so they are sharp in the photo through their movement, you can actually get a pretty spectacular shot. TRUE, that can be a very tricky task, so digital affords you a way play with that and try to get something, but sometimes your camera just might not be able even get it, so again just be sure to know your gear, and have a realistic assessment of what it can actually do.  

Give these suggestions a try next time you are out.  Just remeber to not be bashful…start clicking away and you will find what works for you.


Jim Donnelly is a young yet seasoned photographer who has shot the likes of Taylor Swift, BB King, Elton John, and countless others.  In addition he works with Los Angeles Magazine, Gibson Guitars, and the Sunset Strip Business Association.  He resides is L.A. with his wife.