Many different moving subjects can make great photos and movies: people, animals, birds, vehicles, sports action or simply the motion of flowing water or blowing leaves. Photo Review tech editor Margaret Brown gives shooting and settings tips for each type of motion scene.

Many different moving subjects can make great photos and movies: people, animals, birds, vehicles, sports action or simply the motion of flowing water or blowing leaves. Each scene presents a different challenge for you to overcome.

Before you begin shooting, you need to decide HOW you want the motion to be recorded – because that dictates everything else, particularly for photos. Should you aim to ‘freeze’ the motion, record it as a blur or capture the subject sharply against a blurred background? Each option requires a different technique.

There are three moving subjects in this frame, each moving at different speeds. The challenge is to pick a shutter speed that freezes the fast motion of the nearest subject.

Freezing motion

This technique is commonly used for recording athletes in mid-air, birds in flight or animals in full stride. It normally requires a shutter speed of at least 1/500 second. Fast shutter speeds are also needed when shooting video if you want subjects to remain sharp and crisp.

Fast shutter speeds are easy in bright lighting – but compromises are required in low light levels. Using the S (Shutter priority) shooting mode gives you control over the shutter speed settings and if your camera’s Auto ISO range has been set optimally (as outlined in the previous chapter) you should obtain good results in most situations.

A fast shutter speed of 1/500 second was required to freeze the action in this sports’ shot, which was taken with a 300mm telephoto lens.

In most cases you can use your camera’s default single-shot autofocusing mode with the area set for wide or zone focusing. However, you may need to change to continuous autofocusing for subject tracking AF. Continuous AF is the default for shooting video.

For stills shots, some people use the Continuous drive mode because it gives them a chance to choose the best shot from the sequence. This can be hit-or-miss so practice is required to learn your camera’s limits.

Review the focusing modes (see Chapter 2) and, if your camera includes ‘case’ settings with examples for specific moving subject situations, use them. Tracking settings can help you focus on subjects that are moving towards or away from the camera as well as subjects that move erratically, such as football or netball players.

Focusing modes

If you’re confident that you can react quickly enough to trigger the shutter button at the ‘decisive’ moment, Single Shot AF provides the fastest response for stills shots. But you must lock the focus on the subject while you frame the shot by holding the shutter button halfway down.

If you’re less confident, Continuous AF is probably the best option even though it may not be as precise. Once again, you’ll have the best chances of success if you lock the focus on the subject first.

Combining Continuous AF with Zone AF point selection and subject detection for human subjects will ensure the dinghy sailor closest to the camera remains in focus, regardless of whether you’re shooting stills or movies.

Subject detection and tracking modes help to keep the selected subject in sharp focus, even when it’s in motion, and you’ll benefit from image stabilisation. Your camera’s instruction manual provides the details you need.

You may also need to experiment to find which AF-area settings work best with different types of subjects. Zone (with a cluster of points) and Area (which covers much of the frame) options can provide more precise focusing for sports action, especially in team games where subjects continuously change position and are likely to move abruptly.

This illustration shows how the picture has been re-framed to position the locked AF zone on the part of the subject that must appear sharp. The Zone AF selection is shown within the outlined area.

Choose small or single AF point settings when you want higher precision, such as when you’re shooting close-ups or photographing individual players if they’re relatively static or if subject tracking is engaged. These settings are also good for birds in flight or animals at a distance. Most cameras allow you to expand the area of the Zone AF coverage or choose from several pre-sets.

Photographing birds in flight

Capturing birds in flight is a true test of a photographer’s skills. It takes a lot of patience and there is no single surefire approach that works in every situation.

You need to take account of the ambient conditions you’re working in; the light levels and quality of the light, the time of day and location; where the sun is in the sky and which way the wind is blowing. Birds often fly into the wind, and the best position for pleasing flight images is when they are flying toward you at an angle with the sun well out of the frame (ideally behind you).

The subject photographed against a clean background with no distractions makes an attractive picture and is easier to focus on.

Contrast the background in this image with the clean background in the other picture on this page. Which one do you find more engaging?

Your camera’s AF system works fastest when you shoot against a clean background with relatively flat contrast, such as the sky or still water. In addition, the further the background from the subject(s) the easier it is to blur out distracting details by setting a relatively wide lens aperture.

If you’re using subject tracking, the following settings are recommended:
– Continuous AF
– Medium size Zone AF
– Subject tracking mode set to Animals or Birds with Eye Detection On
– Partial or spot metering (spot metering is best if the background is a lot brighter or darker than the subject)
– Aperture set to between f/5.6 and f/8
– Shutter speed set to at least 1/500 second; faster if conditions permit. At least 1/2000 second if you want to freeze wing motion.

Some people like using their camera’s continuous shooting drive mode and recording a burst of frames as the bird flies past. In ideal conditions and with a sophisticated camera, this can increase your chances of getting usable shots. However, it can be hit-and-miss with older, less sophisticated cameras.

Many telephoto lenses provide a focus limiter switch that restricts the focus to a specific range, ignoring closer or more distance objects. This can help your autofocus system work faster.

This shot was taken with a 200mm equivalent lens using a very fast 1/2500 second exposure at f/5.6 with ISO 200. Stabilisation was unnecessary in this situation.

In some situations, you should turn the stabilisation off. Very fast shutter speeds eliminate the need for image stabilisation. Leaving it on can make it harder to track subjects and may slow lens performance.

Practice is generally the key to success. Consult your camera’s instruction manual for details of all the above settings, as well as how to select the best options for different subject types.

Blurred motion

Use the Shutter priority and Manual modes to set long exposures for capturing motion blur when you want to record moving water, flowing traffic or the motion of people in the scene. The camera MUST stay still during such long exposures.

A tripod was essential for keeping the camera still during the long exposure required to make the flowing water and moving clouds appear softly blurred. (Source: Nikon/Camera House.)

In most cases this means mounting the camera on a tripod although, for exposures of between half a second and 1.5 seconds you may be able to keep it still enough by resting it on a solid surface.

An example of a hand-held shot in which fast action resulted in motion blurring at a relatively fast 1/40 second exposure.

Shooting with the camera hand-held restricts your chances of using this technique – unless your equipment has built-in stabilisation (see below).


Panning lets you capture a sharply-focused subject against a blurred background. It involves focusing on the subject and tracking its motion with your camera. This technique works with any moving subject.

The process is straightforward; you start by tracking the subject in the viewfinder with the shutter button pressed half-way down to lock focus. When it’s in the desired position, squeeze the shutter button all the way down and continue tracking. Don’t lift your finger until after you’ve completed the pan to ensure the camera is moving smoothly when the exposure actually ends.

Successful panning depends on your ability to smoothly track the fast-moving subject while using a relatively slow shutter speed (in this case 1/25 second) to blur the background. (Source: iStock/Camera House.)

The shutter speed must be fast enough to synchronise with the subject but slow enough to blur the background. Shutter speeds between 1/25 and 1/60 second should work in most situations.

It takes a lot of practice to get the timing right but, once you’ve ‘nailed it’ you’ll be able to add this technique to your repertoire. Using smaller apertures (f/6.3 to f/11) makes it easier to keep your subject focused while you’re panning. The continuous AF mode also helps to keep the focus on the subject as it is tracked.


Stabilisation is built into all modern smartphones, most cameras and many interchangeable lenses. It’s well worth having because it allows you to use slower shutter speeds than would normally be possible with unstabilised equipment when shooting with the camera hand-held.

Combined stabilisation in the camera and lens enabled this night shot to be captured with the camera hand-held at a very slow shutter speed of 1/5 second. Note the blurred figure nearest the camera, which was moving, while other figures who were standing still are sharply recorded.

In-camera stabilisation relies on having the sensor on a moving gimbal, which automatically corrects for any detected camera movements. This system can normally move in five directions: up, down, left, right and towards or away from the subject; hence the term ‘5-axis stabilisation’.

Smartphones normally use additional techniques, with many recording a series of frames in rapid succession and combining the sharpest bits from them into a single frame. This processing usually takes a couple of seconds.

Useful links

Action photo tips

Long exposures

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Take Better Photos pocket guide.

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House