How-To: Capturing Action & Motion

Capturing Action & Motion
Text and Photos by Lynne Eodice

There are several ways to express motion in your photos—ranging from freezing the motion with a very fast shutter speed to panning along with your subject using a slower shutter speed. You can also express a feeling of motion by slowing down your shutter speed to intentionally blur your subject.

Freezing Action

Action Mode (left), Shutter Priority Mode- 1/1000 second (right); click images to enlarge

In order to give an image a stop-action look, you’ll either need to use your camera’s sports/action mode (indicated by the running figure on the basic shooting mode dial), or your shutter-priority mode to set a fast shutter speed. In this mode, denoted by the Tv (time value) or S (shutter) mode on your shooting dial, you set the desired shutter speed and your camera will automatically set the aperture to get the best exposure. By using a shutter speed of at least 1/500—and especially at 1/1000 to 1/5000 second—you can freeze nearly all activities, including those that happen too quickly to be perceived by the human eye. A person will appear to be suspended in mid-air, while water droplets seem frozen in space. You’ll also need good lighting in order to freeze motion, so it’s best to shoot these images in a well-lit interior venue or on a sunny day. I also advise using an ISO setting of at least 400 to help stop action as well.

A good stop-action photo requires a little planning. If you know the path that your subject will follow (e.g., a race horse running around the track), you should determine your vantage point in advance so that you can concentrate on capturing the moment. Fast shutter speeds relieve worries about camera movement, but it’s also important that you anticipate the moment of peak action that you want to freeze. Try to press the shutter button a split-second before that moment occurs. In most of today’s digital cameras, you can also set your auto focusing mode to continuously focus on moving subjects. And in the sports/action mode, you’ll get continuous shooting (at least 3 frames per second) when you hold the shutter button down. This will boost your chances for success in getting a great stop-action photo.


Panning- 1/30 second ; click image to enlarge

This is another highly effective way of portraying a sense of motion when photographing a moving subject—you’ll follow the subject with your camera during an exposure. If this is done properly, you’ll get a relatively sharp subject against a very blurred background. The subject will rarely be entirely sharp, though, and some blurring of the subject can heighten the feeling of motion.  In order to get this effect, you’ll want to use your camera’s shutter priority mode and set it for a slow shutter speed. Settings of 1/15 or 1/30 second will enable you to handhold the camera during an exposure. If you’re using your camera’s basic shooting modes, you can often get a somewhat slower shutter speed with the landscape mode. Although it is designed to give you great depth of field when photographing landscapes, this mode will also utilize a somewhat slower shutter speed. Longer exposures work well on cloudy days or in the shade. In order to prevent overexposure with slow shutter speeds on a sunny day, you may want to use a neutral-density (ND) filter, which lets less light through the lens. This will enable you to get longer exposures in bright light.

Panning shots should also be planned. Choose subjects that are fairly well separated from their backgrounds. When shooting, timing and smooth camera movement is crucial for a successful panning photo. Start following your subject before you release the shutter and continue to follow it until after you hear the shutter click. And rather than moving just your head and shoulders, rotate your entire body in an even, graceful motion. Panning takes practice! You’ll find that no two pictures are alike, and some will definitely be better than others.

Motion Blur

Motion Blur- 1 second (left), Motion Blur- 3 second (right); click images to enlarge

One of the most exciting ways to portray movement in a photograph is to allow a moving object to become blurred. This approximates the way that our eyes perceive a fast-moving object. To record a moving subject as a blur, you must use your camera’s shutter priority mode to set a slow shutter speed, but the exact slowness depends on several factors, such as the speed of the subject. For example, a Ferris wheel in motion at dusk can be blurred at a shutter speed of at least 1/30 second. Also, a subject passing across your field of view blurs more quickly than one headed straight toward you.

When using slow shutter speeds at night, a camera can record patterns of moving lights that can’t be seen by the eye. Cars and amusement park rides are excellent subjects for this technique. To capture the blur of moving lights, it’s best to set up a tripod at a location where you can get a great view of your subject, and where the ambient light is not too strong. You’ll be using long shutter speeds of about 5 seconds on up to about a minute.


Just as with sports, action photos taken with fast or slow shutter speeds take practice. So experiment with a variety of shutter speeds and exposure combinations – and above all, have fun.




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