Soccer games, summer air shows, and trips to the local dog park all have one thing in common: They're ideal opportunities to take pictures. And they all require you to switch into the role of an action photographer, as the fast-moving subjects tax your camera's ability to freeze the action and make sharp, dynamic exposures. But no matter what you're shooting, getting good action photos depends on knowing the right camera settings and practicing a few simple techniques.
Shut Down Shutter Lag
Shooting action photos--such as a fleeting moment involving wildlife--requires you to freeze the action that you see in the viewfinder. Unfortunately that can be tricky with digital cameras due to shutter lag, which is the wait between the time you press the shutter release and when the camera actually takes the picture.
All cameras have some sort of shutter lag. On some cameras the lag is almost imperceptibly short, but on others it can be long enough to make you miss a great shot--like this bird, which nearly flew out of the frame while I waited for the camera to take the picture.
Here's why: When you press the shutter release, the camera has to focus the lens, measure the white balance (so that the colors look right in the final image), and perform a host of internal housekeeping duties, such as preparing the sensor to capture the image. If your camera suffers from noticeable lag, you can do a few things to minimize the delay when you press the shutter release.
Preset the White Balance
The first thing you can do to minimize shutter lag is to set your camera's white balance control to one of its preset values. Most cameras let you choose from among a handful of settings such as daylight, indoor, sunset, and cloudy. Just dial in whichever setting is appropriate for the situation before you start shooting. If the camera doesn't have to measure and calculate the white balance using the automatic setting, you save some time. Admittedly, you don't save much--a few hundredths of a second--but that can mean a lot when the action is fast. Remember, though, to change the white balance setting when the lighting conditions change. (If you forget, all is not lost. Read "Perfect the Colors in Your Photos" for tips on fixing off-balance photos.)
Preset the Focus
Often, the biggest time waster when you're trying to snap a photo is waiting for the camera to lock the focus--especially if the camera has trouble finding the subject and has to hunt for the appropriate focus.
You might already know that if you press the shutter release halfway down, the camera locks the focus. As long as you hold the button down lightly, the focus will stay locked while you compose the photo or wait for the perfect moment to take the shot. If your subject is darting around in front of you, lock the focus and keep tracking the action. At the right moment, finish pressing the shutter, and you'll get a much more immediate reaction from your camera.
Another option is to skip the autofocus entirely and set the focus manually. I recommend this approach if you know that the subject will always be very far away, such as airplanes at an air show. In that case, switch the focus to infinity. Just remember to set it back to autofocus when you take pictures of things that aren't quite so distant.
Tweak the ISO
Sometimes, in spite of having an ideal subject, you still can't get the photo you want. Your subject might be front and center in the scene; but due to poor lighting, the shutter speed is so slow that everything is a blur.
The fix? Find your camera's ISO control and increase it a couple of steps. ISO measures your camera's sensitivity to light; shooting at ISO 400 instead of ISO 100, for example, means that you can possibly catch a photo at 1/60 second instead of 1/15 second. That's the difference between being able to read the letters on a player's jersey and ending up with merely a blur.
The downside to increasing the ISO is that you'll have more digital noise in the photo, but if increasing the setting makes the difference in getting a sharp photo, it's probably worth it. This wolf never stopped moving, for example, so a high ISO froze the action at the cost of making a grainy photo. Like white balance and manual focus, ISO is a setting that you should remember to change back after your action-photo shoot.
Now, Take a Picture!
Now that you've set up your camera, it's time for some action. There are two kinds of action shots. The more common type, frequently seen in sports photography, uses the highest shutter speed available to freeze the action. If the shutter speed isn't quite high enough, the subject might be a little blurry--which can look creative and cool sometimes, too.
Alternatively, you can go for a slower shutter speed and let the picture tell the story for you: Nothing says "This girl was really fast!" like some motion blur.
Freeze the Action
When you're shooting fast action, shutter speed is the most important camera control you have, so use the camera's action or sports mode, or set the camera to shutter priority and dial up the shutter speed as high as possible.
What's a fast shutter speed? If you're at a car race, an air show, or a sporting event with lots of fast action, I recommend 1/1000 second or faster. In fact, no shutter speed is too fast if it lets you get a shot that you wouldn't be able to get otherwise.
Capture Some Motion
A more creative option is to use the motion in your scene to your advantage. Employing a technique called panning, you can pivot your body as you take the picture, keeping the subject centered in the viewfinder throughout the exposure. You'll end up with a compelling photo in which the background is blurry but the subject is sharp--and the whole photo conveys the impression of speed and excitement, like the one here.
Pan for Action
To pan, make sure that the camera's shutter speed is low enough to blur the background, but not so slow that camera shake ruins the shot. I recommend trying either 1/15 or 1/30 second.
To get ready for the photo, start tracking the moving subject in the viewfinder while it's still off to the side, and turn your body in a smooth motion as the subject crosses in front of you. As it reaches the point closest to you, gently press the shutter release and continue to pan with the subject as it moves off in the other direction. For the best results, you should follow through, in much the same way a golfer or a baseball player keeps swinging even after hitting the ball.
Choose an Action-Friendly Camera
When shopping for an action-savvy camera, keep your eye on two features in particular. First, make sure that the camera lets you set the shutter speed directly--this setting is usually called shutter priority mode. An alternative is an action or sports mode; these settings choose the highest available shutter speed for you automatically. It's also a good idea to look for a camera with a wide range of ISO settings, which will allow you to dial in faster shutter speeds even in low-light conditions.
Of course, a digital SLR is your best bet for such features, but many full-featured point-and-shoot cameras work great for soccer games, pinewood derbies, and air shows as well. A camera like the Nikon Coolpix P90 combines the best of both: It's an SLR-like point-and-shoot with full shutter control and other useful action features such as integrated optical image stabilization.
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