Challenges in Shooting Action Photography and How to Solve Them

By Goran Prvulovic

What Is Action Photography?

It’s a term used often by professional photographers frequently but it’s not often defined with clear black and white boundaries. In a way, it’s easier to describe is by what it's not. There are no rehearsals, posing, or positioning. Action photography is when you can’t say “oh whoops, can we try that again.”

Action photography is when your subject is in constant motion and you are trying to take pictures in the midst of this. Most of the time the subject won’t be watching you, or may hardly even notice that you are taking pictures. This can be in a situation like taking pictures of hummingbirds or wild animals running around, they may not notice you are secretly capturing them. In other cases, such as sports photography, your subject is aware of what you are doing but he still remains focused on the moment, unaware of when or where you will shoot.

What this means is that the skilled photographer can end up with a batch of original, dynamic moments captured – never to be seen again.

Challenges In Action Photography

But at the same time, there are more than a few challenges that come with this style of photography. Often times, professionals need to use faster shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second or even up to 1/2000th to be able to fully capture all of the detail. The first big problem that arises is that their cameras may not have enough light to capture all the little details on display. Another hurdle to tackle is that your subject is almost always in motion and it’s hard to get a good, steady shot that’s in focus. Thirdly, the composition tends to be a challenge to get down perfectly as sometimes you don’t know what foreground or background you will have when you take your photos, and often times they are completely different each time you take a picture.


For the first problem, one’s lighting troubles can be handled by using a couple of techniques. First of all, using the proper lens in this situation is critical, as a wide-open lens with a 2.8 aperture can make a tremendous difference in the results you can get. Additionally, you can increase the ISO or set it to auto which lets the camera decide to adjust it as necessary – a technique that I use quite often. If that doesn’t help, I’ll use manual mode when sometimes the images are underexposed or manual mode with spot metering when I’m confident my subject has enough lighting and don’t care about how much light I get on the background.

The second challenge concerning focus requires an understanding of when to use your camera's autofocus feature as well as techniques such as back button focusing, which essentially separates the focus from the shutter button. What this means is that you can control and manipulate the focus of the camera while you press on the shutter and take the shot. Aside from all of this, shooting continuously in drive mode is another alternative to try out.

As for the third challenge, the best solution is to have a knowledge of your environment beforehand if at all possible. Use your observation skills to plan where your subject will be, what will be in the background at the moment, and just be prepared in general for when the perfect moment shows itself. Even if the composition of the shot isn’t perfect, you can sometimes improve these things in the post-processing stage.

My Settings

Just in case you're wondering what my personal settings on my camera, let me give you a rundown of some of the things I use. Generally, I use manual exposure unless I am shooting either in direct sun or shade. I will never have a shutter speed slower than 1/500, and I’ll also have a faster lens (f/2.8) attached so that will help. Indoor sports photography, as a rule, will often require ISO 3200 or more, while if you’re outside you can get away with less. I make sure to keep my camera on autofocus with a focus area of 9-points and use the back button to focus on my subject.  I’ll also try to shoot in bursts and keep the motor drive in continuous.

Hopefully, this will help you have a better understanding of how to make action photography work for you, and with any luck, you’ll be able to boast your own fantastic selection of pictures in no time.



Goran Prvulovic