action sports photographyHave you marveled at photographs of skateboarders or cyclists suspended in mid air as they perform a stunt? Action sports, such as snowboarding, surfing, whitewater kayaking, bike racing, skateboarding, and rock climbing are highly individualized efforts. These sports pit single athletes against gravity and the elements. They can be dangerous. Photographing these sports also requires an individual approach. We’ll give you some ideas to help you get that singular shot. Use this course on photography fundamentals to get background on some of the topics we’ll discuss.

Location and Equipment

The first priority in getting great shots is location. You must be in the right spot to get the best action shots. This often means being close to the action, perhaps close enough to be at the edge of what is allowed by the venue or at the brink of personal safety. Sometimes these photos are taken by actual participants in a race or on a climb. Many action sports photographers were once athletes themselves.

As you might imagine, equipment that can capture fast action is essential,starting with your lens. Fast lenses, f 2.0 or better, will be needed. These lenses will get you shutter speeds of 1/500 second and faster, which are minimum speeds for action sports photography. Action sports are often shot with wide angle lenses, 17-70mm or 12-24 mm zooms being common. This gets you the iconic photograph with the athlete large in the frame with a lot of the surrounding action also showing. These focal lengths require that you get physically close to the action in order to get the large subject size. It is still advisable to have a fast telephoto lens and matching 1.4x and 2x teleconverters for the times when it is just not possible to be that close.

Other features are required for your camera to capture many frames rapidly. Action happens quickly in these sports. You will lose shots if you rely on reacting to the action. The chances of reacting in time to hit the shutter and get a peak moment are very low. Your camera should have a fast burst rate in continuous shooting mode. As the action develops, you can capture a series of shots. You will find one of them that has the ideal moment of action or emotion that tells the story of that event.

Shooting in continuous mode brings on another requirement: a fast memory card. Use the fastest card rated for your camera. A fast card allows the buffer to be cleared sooner so that you can be ready for another action sequence. All of that shooting in continuous mode will also fill the card in a hurry. You will need many cards. Yes, you will lose some time changing cards but that is not as bad as if you had to stop and download your card before you could keep shooting. You might be able to get a huge capacity card. You will have to balance the convenience of few card swaps against the risk of having the entire shoot on one card that can malfunction or get lost.

Accurate and fast autofocus will also be essential to capturing action sports in a photograph. Most intermediate and advanced DSLR cameras will have the ability to automatically track a moving subject. This is known as AI, servo, or predictive autofocus. When this is engaged, the system can detect how fast the subject is moving, predict where it will be, and move focus to that point before the shutter is fired. Predictive autofocus is especially needed when the subject’s motion carries it closer to or farther from the camera. Another feature on the more advanced cameras is back button focus. This feature moves the focus function from the shutter button to one of the buttons on the back of the camera. Now it will be easier to activate the servo focus when needed and you can use the shutter without activating the autofocus. If the motion is mostly sideways to the camera, autofocus may not be needed. In this case, you might do fine by manually pre-focusing the camera on the spot where you expect the action to occur.

Another way to stop action is to use flash, usually very high-powered units. By keeping a high ISO, the flash can be used at lower power. This will give shorter flash durations which will freeze even the fastest action. Of course, the flash can be used at full power, allowing for lower ISO settings and less noise in the image. A very important benefit of high power flash is that it can light the athlete without aiming it directly at them. It avoids distraction and the possibility of being banned by event organizers. The use of remote transmitters to trigger flash can make it possible to synchronize the flash at higher shutter speeds, allowing even faster action to be captured. Learn to master flash with this course from Udemy.

Technique and Creativity

Equipment and location are only part of what you need for great action sports photography. You then must execute with good technique and a creative approach. Much has been said about equipment that allows you to freeze the action. Yet, you should also get some shots that convey motion and speed with well-placed blurs. Common panning techniques can be useful here. Panning with the subject will render the athlete sharp, with a blurred background showing their motion.

You don’t have to limit yourself to this, however. You can show motion with sequence shots, where you capture action in continuous mode and later combine them into one image with photo editing software. Learn skills with Photoshop from this great course. Another technique is called dragging the shutter. This means to use a slower than usual flash sync setting. The slow shutter lets in enough light to capture the scene and the athlete is frozen in place by the flash. This will give you a blurred trail with the subject in sharp focus at the end. You can always use the traditional long shutter speed that will leave your subject in blurred motion against a sharp background.

Be creative with your camera angle. Many action sports photographs are taken from a low camera angle. This will exaggerate the height of an athlete as they do a jump. The careful use of a fisheye lens can be effective here. Keep the subject near the center and not as close to the camera. This prevents them from being distorted too much and includes a lot of the surrounding scene.

You don’t have to be with the camera to get creative positions and unique shots. A camera can be mounted on a racer’s bicycle, for example, or somewhere right next to the course. The challenge will be to do this securely without damaging equipment. Compact cameras such as the GoPro are now commonly used in action sports events. A zoom is not needed, as the camera cannot be zoomed or re-focused once it is in place. It will be pre-focused and left on shutter priority in case the exposure changes. This course will help you to learn more about exposure modes.

You can get great creative shots by working with the athlete during practice sessions. Now you can be a director, sharing your ideas for a shot with the athlete and listening to their suggestions. The move can be repeated as needed until you get that unique moment of action.

Action sports photography will give you many opportunities for honing your skills as a photographer. This guide should help to get you started. Maybe you will be inspired to become a pro photographer. If so, this course will start you on your way.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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