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DSLR Guide News - Action Photography Tips and Tools
May 20, 2012

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DSLR News - May 2012

In This Issue
This issue is all about action photography.
Action photography is - by far - the most demanding style of photography, requiring specialized gear and LOTS of practice.
The key ingredient that you'll need is a basic one: light.
The less light you have available, the more difficult action photography becomes.

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Styles of Action Photography
frozen motion

There are two ways you can use your DSLR camera to capture action shots:
  1. Freezing the motion of the subject so that the subject is perfectly sharp
  2. Blurring the motion of the subject to illustrate the speed of the subject
The first is more common: images of professional sporting events are always sharp and clear, regardless of how fast the subject was moving.
How do you get pictures like this?
It's simple (sort of). You must use a really fast shutter speed. The faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed you'll need to eliminate motion blur. Example: for the image above, the shutter speed was 1/2000th of a second.
Keep this in mind for now — we'll come back to it shortly.
For now, let's take a moment to talk about the second style of action photography, where motion blur is not only acceptable, it's encouraged.
To get photos with intentional motion blur, you have to slow down your shutter speed and then pan the camera to keep up with your subject.
If done correctly, you'll get a nice clear subject with a background that's a complete blur which clearly illustrates to the viewer that your subject is moving.

Beginner Digital SLR Lessons
  • Dramatically improve the photos you take
  • Take manual control of aperture, shutter speed and ISO
  • Get exposure right, even in challenging light
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Download lessons as PDF files
  • Ask me questions
Learn More >>

How to Get Fast Shutter Speeds

There are three variables that will affect the shutter speed you can use:
  1. The amount of available light
  2. The maximum aperture of your lens
  3. Your camera's ISO setting
Since we're looking for maximum speed here, here's how to get more speed from each of the 3 variables:
  • More available light ==> faster shutter speed
  • Wider lens aperture ==> faster shutter speed
  • Higher ISO value ==> faster shutter speed
Simply put: the ideal situation for action photography is a bright sunny day (or a sports arena filled with REALLY bright lights).
If there is plenty of available light, then you can get fast shutter speeds even with moderately narrow lens apertures and low ISO values.
However, as the available light decreases, you have to leverage aperture and ISO more to increase your shutter speed.

How to Get Sharp Action Photos
yellow lab in sunlight

In situations where you want to make sure your subjects are clear without having to pan the camera, choose the following settings:
  1. Autofocus Mode: Continuous
  2. AF Point: Center
  3. Drive Mode: Continuous
  4. Main Mode Dial: Aperture Priority
Continuous autofocus ensures that the camera constantly adjusts the focus point to track your moving subject. The alternative is called "one-shot" autofocus which is less effective — by the time the camera locks focus, your subject is long gone.
If your DSLR allows you to select a single focus point, always select the center one for action photography, since this is the most accurate and locks focus the fastest.
Setting the drive mode to continuous is so that you can fire off a burst of shots every time you press the shutter release button. Every DSLR has a maximum speed for continuous photo capture.
In Aperture Priority mode, you get to select the lens aperture while the camera chooses a matching shutter speed based on the amount of available light.
Once you have your camera in aperture priority mode, select an aperture that is the widest your lens will allow. This is called the maximum aperture of the lens.

TECHNIQUE
Remember: the key to sharp action photos is getting a shutter speed that's fast enough to freeze the motion of your subject.
Here's how to do it:
  1. Select the widest aperture your lens allows (this will be the smallest f number like f/3.5 or f/5.6)
  2. Press down halfway on the shutter release button and note your shutter speed
  3. If the shutter speed is 1/60th of a second or slower, all you'll get are blurry shots
  4. Increase ISO to 200 and check shutter speed again
  5. Keep increasing ISO until your shutter speed is between 1/250 and 1/4000
NOTE: once you have your lens at its widest aperture, two of the three variables that affect shutter speed won't change: the available light and your aperture. This is why the ONLY way to increase shutter speed is to bump up your ISO.

EXAMPLE 1 - DAYLIGHT
When there's plenty of available light, getting fast shutter speeds doesn't require a lot of work.
Leave your ISO set to 100, set your lens to its maximum aperture and fire away.

EXAMPLE 2 - CLOUDY DAY
For this example, let's assume that it's a pretty overcast day which is limiting the amount of available light.
You've set your lens to its maximum aperture and ISO to 100, but your shutter speed is a mere 1/60th of a second. Most of your shots are looking blurry.
By increasing the ISO to 200, your shutter speed goes up to 1/125, but an increase to ISO 400 gets a shutter speed of 1/250. This speed is better for ensuring clear shots.

EXAMPLE 3 - NIGHT SPORTS
Trying to take sharp photos of action at night in dimly-lit arenas or inside gymnasiums is the most challenging of all.
Even with your lens at its max aperture, you'll find that you shutter speed at ISO 100 is quite slow, maybe 1/10th of a second.
While you can increase your ISO, you may find that even at ISO 6400 you're still only getting a shutter speed of 1/60 or 1/125.
These speeds are OK for non-moving subjects, but subjects on the run will still turn out blurry.
In this case, you really only have two options:
  1. Use the pan and blur technique described below
  2. Purchase a lens with a wider maximum aperture

Intermediate Digital SLR Lessons
  • Discover the best types of light
  • Learn to see and manipulate natural light
  • Find out what all the settings on your flash mean
  • Improve the quality of light from your flash
  • Blend natural light with flash
  • Use off-camera flash for professional-looking portraits
Learn More >>

How to Get Blurry Action Photos
action with motion blur

If you'd like your action photos to illustrate the speed of your subject, only one setting will change from the other style of action photography:
  1. Autofocus Mode: Continuous
  2. AF Point: Center
  3. Drive Mode: Continuous
  4. Main Mode Dial: Shutter Priority
The reason to choose Shutter Priority instead of Aperture Priority is because you want to force the camera to use a SLOW shutter speed.
If the camera picks a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, that will freeze all motion and won't create the desired effect.

TECHNIQUE
  1. In Shutter Priority mode, select a starting shutter speed between 1/30th and 1/60th of a second.
  2. Take some practice shots, panning the camera to follow your subject as you fire away in continuous drive mode.
  3. If the level of blur isn't what you'd like, slow down the shutter speed further until you get the look you want.

Best Action Photography Lenses
tamron 70-200mm lens

I've left the description of gear for the very last, since I believe that with the right combination of light, aperture and ISO you can get great action shots with just about any lens.
Having said that, there are certain circumstances where having a better lens will make a difference.
You'll want to look at some of the lenses below if you often take action photos in low-light situations. For example, if you're always taking shots of your son's soccer games at night or your daughter's basketball games in a gym then you need the extra light these lenses let in.
What makes these lenses better than the "standard" lenses is that they all have wider maximum apertures. The wider the max aperture, the less you have to rely on boosting ISO to get the shutter speed you need.
You'll also notice that these lenses have longer focal lengths: this lets you zoom in on your subject even if you are on the sidelines or up in the bleachers.

CAMERA TYPEACTION LENS OPTIONS
Canon
Nikon
Olympus
Pentax
Sony

Additional Reading

Photo Links

Photo Contests
Other Photography Sites
  • Mirrorless Camera Guide - learn about mirrorless cameras from Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus, Samsung and Sony
  • Borrowlenses - rent lenses to use on your digital SLR before you spend tons of money on one
  • Betterphoto - a wealth of photography learning opportunities
  • Flickr - share your photos with friends and others
  • Photo.net - plenty of learning resources and examples of exceptional photography
  • Photojojo - tons of photography do-it-yourself (DIY) projects
  • Viewpoints.com - read product reviews from other consumers like yourself
Great Photo Blogs
  • Digital Photography School - hundreds of photo tips and techniques
  • Strobist - everything you ever wanted to know about lighting with external flash
  • Joe McNally - get the behind-the-scenes thought process from a professional photographer

In Conclusion
After a long period of silence, several new digital SLRs have recently been announced.
The good news - if you're a beginning SLR photographer - is that all the models are entry-level cameras. The better news is that cameras with less "pro" features cost less.
Included in the crop of new cameras are the Nikon D3200, the Sony SLT-A37 and the Canon T4i 650D (rumored, but apparently coming soon).
If you're still trying to find the best digital SLR, wait a few months. I'd hate for you to get a camera now, only to find out that the newer model is better.
Until the next issue - happy picture-taking!
--Chris Roberts, Your Digital SLR Guide

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