Sports & Action

Photographing fast moving subjects

Written by James Jordan

Modern camera technology and a little pre-planning can combine to give eye-catching results when photographing fast-moving subjects.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Capturing fast moving subjects is a challenge, but modern camera technology and a little pre-planning can combine to give eye-catching results.

Time and tide stand still for no one. And quite often, neither will your photographic subject. So what to do when you’re tasked with capturing a fast-moving subject with your camera? Here are some things to consider.

Critical elements for photographing action

On the technical side, the critical elements of catching action are focus and exposure. It’s true that focus and exposure are important for every picture, but when trying to capture action on the fly, adjustments must be made much more quickly.

This is where digital camera engineers have made great strides in the past several years. Some newer camera models will not only lock on your subject like a Tomahawk missile, but will follow the subject as it moves through the viewfinder, keeping it in focus all the way.


Take a few moments to read through your camera manual for focusing options, particularly if your camera has a sports mode of shooting. Otherwise, look for a continuous focus mode that continually makes small adjustments as your subject moves. One caveat: continuous focus can eat up your battery, so be fully charged or carry a spare when setting out to cover Bobby’s soccer game.


Concerning exposure, a fast shutter speed, on the order of 1/500th of a second or faster (especially if you’re zooming in on the action with a long focal length) will ensure that your fast-moving subject is frozen in time. Again, sports mode will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

For those who like to take charge of their exposure options, using shutter priority and locking in a fast shutter speed will freeze the action nicely. Your camera will then choose a larger aperture and/or higher ISO combination to accommodate the quicker shutter. A continuous shooting mode which fires several frames per second can also help you capture rapid-fire action.

Depicting motion in photos

Sometimes the best way to depict motion is to embrace some blur. Deliberately choosing a slower shutter speed for fast moving subjects can impart a sense of action that a frozen subject cannot.

Panning is a technique in which you follow a moving subject while pressing the shutter while it is set to a relatively slow speed. The result is a subject that is mostly stationary while the background is blurred behind it, resulting in a sense of movement.

Another technique is using flash with your camera set to rear shutter synch and a slow shutter speed (sometimes called “dragging the shutter”). Rear shutter synch fires the flash at the end of the exposure. The result is a frozen subject with lines of motion trailing behind.

Practice your technique

However you choose to capture a subject in motion, be sure to practice the technique and note which settings give you the results you’re after. Then, the next time someone yells “Action!” you’ll be ready with the lights and camera.

About the author

James Jordan

James Jordan, Digicamhelp Contributing Writer, is owner of James Jordan Photography in Elgin, IL. His portfolio includes portraits for families, seniors and corporations, events, products, travel and landscape photography. His work has been published in travel guides and lifestyle magazines in the Midwestern U.S. A series of artistic landscape prints will be exhibited in Door County, Wisconsin in the summer of 2009.