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Tech Tips for Photographing Motion

Written by Daven Mathies

One of the defining aspects of photography is its ability to freeze a moment in time, and nowhere is this more readily apparent than in action photography. Photographing a fast-moving subject is both challenging and rewarding. Hopefully, these tips will not only help you, but inspire you to get out there and experiment with your camera.

Master the shutter

Shutter speed controls how you see motion in a photograph. A fast enough shutter can freeze a moving subject in its tracks, whereas a slow shutter will lead to blur. We generally think of blur as being bad, but the truth is, motion blur is a great way to illustrate movement. Keep in mind, the speed of your subject is relative to its distance from you, so you will need a faster shutter to freeze close-up action compared to action at a distance. To work with shutter speeds, I stubbornly prefer to shoot in Shutter Priority mode (S on the mode dial, or Tv on Canon cameras for "Time Value") but many photographers will tell you just to stay in Aperture Priority (or Av). As there are fewer options for aperture than shutter speed, shooting in A mode means you have less steps between your minimum and maximum settings, so it can be a little quicker. However, I like to be very specific with my shutter speeds, so I work in S mode. If you choose to stay in A mode, just remember that a smaller aperture (large f-number) will result in a slower shutter speed, and a larger aperture (small f-number) will likewise result in a faster shutter speed.

Pan and burst

Panning is the act of following your subject with your camera. The above photo is an example of panning with a slow shutter speed. Notice that the front of the streetcar is in sharp focus, but the background is completely blurred. Panning is a great way to showcase the speed of your subject. When panning, be sure to track your subject both before and after you press the shutter. This will help ensure you match the speed of your subject and keep it in the frame. Shooting in continuous (or burst) mode will let you capture many frames at once, giving you a better chance of getting a good one, but it can be tricky to maintain a steady pan through multiple exposures, especially with a slower shutter speed. Experiment with panning at different shutter speeds to see the variety of effects you can achieve. (Note that burst rate is independent of shutter speed. Shutter speed is the length of time of a single exposure, and burst rate is the number of exposures in one second.)

Use continuous autofocus

Continuous AF works just as its name implies, by continuously updating focus as you press the shutter button. This will give you the best chance at getting a moving subject in focus, especially if your subject is moving along the z-axis (either toward you or away from you). Some cameras feature subject-tracking AF, which I suggest you use sparingly. I have had decent results using tracking systems in pro-level DSLRs, but even then it was hit and miss. Certain situations lend themselves to subject tracking, but single point, continuous AF is the easiest and safest focusing method for action photography in general—just be aware of where your active AF point is and keep that point over your subject.

Have a tip of your own? Feel free to add it in the comments!

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