How To: Take Amazing Action Shots

By: steve

July 8, 2010

Action can come in all guises when you travel: you might want to photograph a horse race, a waterfall, a speeding tuk tuk or even the running of the bulls in Pamplona. How you decide to do this can make or break your image. Stylistically, you essentially have three options: freeze, blur or pan.


Freezing action

To freeze the action, you’ll need to select a fast shutter speed. This is easy to do if you’re using a DSLR in manual or on shutter-priority. If you’re using a compact camera, then you can select the sport or action picture scene mode, which will customise the settings for you.


The actual shutter speed that you’ll need will depend on the action, but it should be at least 1/500th second, preferably faster. Use as fast a speed as you can to completely freeze any motion. If there isn’t enough light to get a fast enough speed, then increase the camera’s sensitivity (ISO).


Polar bear freeze by Steve Davey

Polar Bear, Svalbard, Norway


To capture the right moment, you’ll need to trip the shutter a fraction of a second earlier than you think or else you can miss it. Many photographers will also use the drive function to shoot a rapid series of images, but some level of anticipation is still useful.

If you’re shooting with a compact there is often a significant delay before the picture is taken. You can minimise this by pre-focusing. Half-press the shutter release while pointing the camera at the place that the action will occur, and then keep the button held down to hold that focus. When the action happens simply complete pressing the shutter release.

Some subjects don’t suit being photographed in this way. If you freeze the motion of a speeding car it can look parked!


Tomantina festival, Buol, Valencia by Steve Davey

La Tomantina, Buol, Spain



Blurring action

If you use a slow shutter speed then your subject will move during the exposure, causing it to blur. This can be really effective with subjects without much detail like waterfalls and relatively slow moving subjects, but if something is very fast moving and blurs too much then it will be completely unrecognisable.



Waterfall blur by Steve Davey

Waterfall, Si Phan Don, Laos


If you use a slow enough speed then even subjects like crowds can be blurred in your image.

Blurred subjects look more effective if there are parts of the picture that are completely sharp. This is often best achieved if you put the camera on a tripod to minimise the chance of camera shake. Experiment with the shutter speed to get different amounts of blur.


Blur: Monks in Laos by Steve Davey

Monks at Luang Prabang, Laos




For subjects like cars that look stationary if you freeze them, or unrecognisable if you blur them, then there is a third option: panning. This is when you use a relatively slow shutter speed and move the camera to follow the motion of your subject. Your subject will stay relatively sharp, but the background will show motion blur.


If you use a telephoto lens and are perpendicular to the action, then you’ll get a very flat pan, with little distortion. If you shoot with a wideangle lens and the action is coming towards you then you’ll get an exploding effect with lots of distortion. As with blur, experiment with the shutter-speed you use, depending on the speed of the action. Generally between 1 and 1/15 second is a good starting point.

With all of these techniques, remember that when you change the shutter-speed you’ll need to adjust either the aperture or the sensitivity (ISO) correspondingly, so that you get the same exposure.


Panning wide by Steve Davey

Speeding Tuk Tuk, Chiang Mai, Thailand


All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Horseman near Ulan Batur, Mongolia.

Steve Davey has his own exclusive range of travel photography tours to exciting parts of the world, including Morocco, India and South East Asia. Land arrangements are provided by Intrepid Travel, and Steve accompanies each tour giving detailed tuition and encouragement to help everyone improve their travel photography. More information on

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