Defining action photography is no easy task. Most associate it purely with sport but, while that’s largely true, it also stretches into lifestyle and commercial photography. In fact, much of my professional work is considered action photography, and yet it is more likely to appear in editorial print use, such as in advertisements, than on the front of the sports section in your local newspaper.
The reality is there is as much difference between capturing events and capturing set-up shoots as there is between the photographers who shoot these styles. But in this article, I hope to give you some techniques to try regardless of the type of action you plan to capture.
Finally, you may think you need to know world class athletes to photograph these kinds of images, but sport happens everywhere. Often, it’s just a matter of asking permission to photograph your local sports team or event.
Events versus set up shots
Sporting event and live action photography is often fast moving and needs to be approached clearly and with precision. There is rarely a second chance to capture that exact same event-defining image, and so you need to get it right first time.
When shooting action or sports events you must also work with whatever you’re served within the given timeframe. Be that bright sunlight or pouring rain, you’ll need to get the job done as best as you can.
On the other hand, set up shoots (which I much prefer) are much slower moving, have an element of flexibility and can be more creative for the photographer in their approach and in the opportunities they afford. Much of my success, I believe, has been on understanding the balance between these two styles.
Photographers all work in different ways when it comes to shooting events, and my own approach has always been to focus on the creative side of events, rather than coming away with the same ‘technically perfect’ and tack sharp images that many photographers seek.
That’s not to discount the regular approach, as most of the financial return comes from these kinds of images. Photos like this have a broad appeal to sponsors, teams and athletes, and often an artistic image is a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential record.
Despite this, I prefer to take more of the “set up” approach into event photography. This can mean putting yourself out a little more, going that extra mile – be it up a hilltop or hiking deep into a remote area. Naturally, this does reduce the number of images you may be able to shoot, but it also gives you the opportunity to come away with something very different.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also bag the basics – which I always do first. Once my back is covered with a scattering of essentials, I relax and slow down. I always look around and allow my own creativity to take over.
Set up shoots
Set up shoots can be tough to pull together and to manage, and yet they can also allow you to create magical action images.
With this style of photography, it’s vital to think about exactly what you want to achieve and then be flexible within that plan. This means knowing your location, pre-visualising the shots, checking the lighting and where it will fall, at different times of the day. Try to plan your shoot within the prime weather and lighting windows.
When it comes to athletes or subjects, this can be tricky. Although we always want to shoot world-class athletes who look like they walked straight out of a Nike look book that rarely happens.
If you know the subject and can be sure that they are prepared to work with you on timing and will “pose” as you want them to then that’s a great start, but it doesn’t always happen and so you need to work with what you have available.
Think about how the subject looks and about what clothing or equipment they’re wearing. I often work with sponsored athletes who insist on wearing garish and heavily branded clothing. This will greatly impact not only the aesthetic of the images but also their potential use scenarios, so do be prudent and try to make sure all of this is cleared up before you shoot.
I tend to shoot close and low, especially for individual subjects/people. By doing this you add drama and impact to the image, although you do need to be very careful not to get too close to the subject, and to keep your hands and feet out of the frame.
You also need to be prepared to roll or back out of shot if your subject is too close for comfort. I only recommend doing this if your subject knows you are there!
A good technique to try is to pre-focus to the estimated subject distance, and then switch to burst. Wait until the right moment, and then pan your camera while firing the shutter.
Finally, subjects can soon get tired of hearing “one more time” and so make sure you work fast. Use burst mode and keep them sweet. Show them great images as you go, and even share some with them – it works wonders for cooperation.
Many of my own magazine features are shot with the combined approach of going out there and doing something myself, or with others, and then by stopping off for short image shoots along the way.
There’s no doubting that gear is important for cutting edge action photography, although I’ve never really followed that approach. I prefer to work around any gear limitations and to keep things simple.
For several years now I’ve been using Fuji X cameras, which may not be as reliable or robust as the Canon EOD 5D series cameras I used previously, and yet their form factor and tactile nature seems to fit with my style.
Regardless of what you use, get to know your camera settings, and dials inside out. I always have at least two bodies with me for any kind of action shoot, as you never know when something will fail.
If these cameras can be the same, or at least have the same menus dials and button layout it makes switching between them under pressure much easier.
I always have a stash of charged batteries with me and swap them out before they fade. The same goes with memory cards; make sure you have them all wiped, formatted and easily accessible. Try and go with the fastest cards you can, otherwise buffering can be an issue when using burst mode.
When it comes to glass, fast zoom lenses are always my go-to for action shooting. In most situations I have three lenses with me. Usually, I have one camera with a long lens (70-200mm equivalent) and one with a wide angle (16-35mm equivalent) which I swap on and off with a mid-range zoom (24-70mm equivalent).
For set up shoots I also often have a couple of fast prime lenses, although I only tend to use them if I have enough time to play around.
Invest in the fastest glass you can afford, but don’t be intimidated by a lack of lens speed. More important is to understand your gear’s limitations and embrace it – work with what you have.
About the author: Steve Thomas has been racing, shooting and writing about bikes and adventure travel for most of his life, and has earned his crust from it for 25-plus years. See more of his work at stevethomasimages.com.