Action photography is something that we all partake in. Even if it isn’t a genre that you want to specialise in, at some point you will have to take photos of people moving. Whether that is dance, sport or even people waking, being able to freeze the action to capture sharper photos can be tough. So here are some tips to help you be able to freeze moving subjects in your action shots.


The biggest mistake in action photography is…

By far and away to the most common mistake that people make when they try to freeze action is a slow shutter speed. Or rather, too slow for what they are photographing.

Your shutter speed determines how quickly a photo is taken. In other words how fast your aperture opens and closes. If it isn’t fast enough your subject will be blurred.

For example, if someone is walking at a casual speed, you may be able to freeze them in motion with a shutter speed of 1/100 sec. But if that person is sprinting fast or say dancing, you may need a shutter speed of 1/250 sec to be able to freeze the action.

Unfortunately, there are no rules that can be applied to every scenario. My advice to anyone is to use faster shutter speeds than they initially think.

sharper image

Make sure you focus correctly

Fast shutter speeds are just one element of being able to master capturing a sharper image of moving subjects. The second part of this process involves where you actually focus.

The reason that this is important is that usually in this type of photography, you will be using a shallow depth of field. By using a wide aperture, it will blur the background bringing more emphasis to your main subject. Helping them stand out in your frame.

cuban dancer havana

Sometimes, you have no choice but to use a wider aperture in say low light conditions. Otherwise, you would not be able to have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Either way because of your shallow depth of field you have to ensure that you focus on the right element.

For example, if you are taking a photo of someone running but accidentally focus on a tree in the background, then your runner will likely be blurred. So how do you ensure you can focus correctly you may be asking?


Use continuous focus for action photography

The big challenge of focusing correctly is that your subject is moving. That’s not a problem if they are going to be at exactly the same distance away from you from when you focus to when you take the shot. But that will rarely happen.

For example, if someone is running toward you, by the time you focus and take the shot they would likely have taken a couple of more strides. So now they are closer to you whilst your focus point is further away. This will result in them not being sharp.

Continuous focus will ensure that your camera will continue tracking the subject and focus on them as long as you hold down the shutter button (or the back focus button). Whether it’s dance photography, sports photography or any other action photography, continuous focus is a must.

freeze motion photography settings

Take lots of photos in burst mode

No one will be able to nail the perfect shot of moving subject with just one shot unless they get lucky. There are just too many factors that could spoil the shot. From the person you are photographing having their eyes closed to a pigeon flying across your shot, anything can happen.

So for any type of action photography, you should be shooting in burst mode. This will give you a far better chance of capturing the perfect frame in a sequence. You can then choose the best shot in post-production.

Keep in mind that burst mode will mean many more photos, so make sure you take spare memory cards.

dance photography

Camera settings to freeze motion

As mentioned above there are no rules that can apply to every scenario. Everything from the light entering the camera, to the venue and even the type of action will effect your settings. But here are some tips to help you on your way:

  • Use fast or high shutter speeds – anything that considered fast you should be looking at shutter speeds of 1/250 sec or faster.
  • Avoid slower shutter speeds unless you actually want to show motion blur. But in this case, you may need to use a tripod.
  • Select shutter priority mode – ideally you will need to avoid your shutter speed being too slow. By selecting this mode your camera will keep your shutter speed to the minimum that you have set by either increasing your ISO or selecting a wider aperture.
  • Use a fairly wide aperture – this is subject to your own creative vision, but generally, you’ll need a wide aperture (f/5.6 or wider). This will blur the background and also help ensure you can achieve a faster shutter speed.
  • Keep an eye on your ISO – by selecting shutter priority you may find that sometimes your camera will bump up the ISO really high to be able to achieve your minimum shutter speed. High ISO means more noise and an overall softer image. If this is the case you can try using manual mode and selecting the settings yourself.
  • Continuous focus and burst mode for action photography – give yourself the best chance to capture the perfect frame.
freezing motion in photography

From dance photographers to travel photographers, anyone who picks up a camera will at some point have to shoot moving subjects. It will take time to master the skill of being able to freeze motion in action photography, but the tips and advice above to should help you on your way.

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Kav Dadfar is a writer and travel photographer who has written over 400 articles on photography. He is also a judge on the Wanderlust Travel Photography of the Year competition and a speaker at camera clubs and events. He has years of experience shooting assignments with his images having been used by some of the biggest brands in the world.

This freeze motion photography settings and tips article is subject to copyright. Words and photos by Kav Dadfar (That Wild Idea). Copying or reposting of photos or article elsewhere is strictly forbidden. Please contact us if you would like to use this feature on your website.

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