Once you’ve settled on the equipment you will use and sorted out the locations you’ll shoot from, it’s time to decide the camera settings you will use. Often these will vary, depending on how you want to record the motion. Here are a few general tips that will help you to make wise choices in most situations.


Multi-pattern metering delivered a balanced exposure that took account of the snowboarder, the dark sky and the bright foreground. ( ©iStockphoto.com/Sportstock.)

1. Select the right autofocusing mode

With most cameras, the AF-S (single shot focus)  is the best setting to choose when you want to ‘freeze’ the action, particularly for close subjects with tight compositions. Continuous AF (AF-C) can work better when shooting sequences, particularly when subjects aren’t moving quickly.

High-end cameras usually provide settings that can track moving, although  most cameras can’t autofocus continuously while in high-speed burst mode.  Many will default to AF-C in their low-speed continuous shooting modes or default to low-speed continuous shooting when the AF-C mode is selected.

Predictive autofocusing uses the camera’s microprocessor to assess focusing adjustments and predict where the subject will be when the shutter is pressed. In DSLR cameras, allowance is made for the split-second delay caused by the mirror rising and the shutter opening. With mirrorless CSC cameras, only the shutter opening has to be allowed for so the delay is a little less and focusing can be marginally faster.


Using the AF-S mode with a small, 9-point area selection made it easy to obtain a sharp image of this secretary bird in flight.

2. Use manual focusing when required

In poorly-lit places and with low contrast, the AF systems in some cameras can be slow because the focusing elements in the lens rack back and forth trying to find an edge. This is known as ‘hunting’ and it is quite common in entry-level and low-priced cameras, regardless of whether they use interchangeable lenses or have a permanently-attached lens.


Zone focusing was used to set the zone of sharp focus for this shot to the area where the swing reaches its maximum height. Once this was done, simply triggering the shutter when this point was reached captured the shot.

You can overcome this with a technique known as ‘zone focusing’, which involves pre-focusing manually on where the action will be (for example, the batsman in front of the stumps or plate or the tennis player serving). This strategy dramatically reduces the chances for hunting. When the subject enters the focused zone, it’s simply a matter of timing the shot to record it.

3. Utilise AF point selection

Most cameras provide at least three AF area modes, typically multiple, single-point and area selection. When shooting with the continuous AF setting ““ particularly in bright, contrasty conditions ““ selecting the multiple AF mode allows the camera to chose its own focusing point and lock onto the subject.

Area AF selection works well in dim lighting or low-contrast situations, especially if your camera lets you move the selected area around the frame without removing your eye from the viewfinder. Cameras with EVFs (electronic viewfinders) will show you where the AF points are located, whereas those with optical viewfinders may only provide a red dot to mark the selected focusing point.


Selecting a group of AF points helps to ensure the lens will focus upon the subject and increases your chances of obtaining a sharp image of a subject that is in motion.

Choosing a smaller area will speed up focusing as you can position the sensors on the area you want sharply rendered. With manual focusing, try choosing a single AF point or small cluster of points to focus on particular subjects. Make use of any focusing aids the camera provided, such as magnification of the selected area and/or focus peaking (which outlines sharp areas in the scene with a contrasting colour to show you what will be sharp).

4. Optimise depth of field

Action portraits usually work best when the subject is sharp against a blurred background. However, shots showing groups of players in an arena, herds of animals or flocks of birds will benefit from a wide depth of field.


Shots of groups of animals require a wide depth of field, achieved with a relatively small (f/8) lens aperture.

With most lenses, the sharpest resolution is a stop or two down from the maximum aperture; so if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/4 and you want a shallow depth of field, an aperture between f/4.5 and f/5.6 should provide the optimal balance between a sharp rendition of the subject against a blurred background. Use the maximum aperture if there’s a ‘busy’ background as the difference between maximum aperture and one or two stops down should be effectively unnoticeable.

Avoid very small aperture settings (below f/11). Even if you want maximum depth of field in the shot, diffraction is likely to begin reducing resolution from about f/8 so, regardless of the ambient light level. The smallest aperture settings are best avoided if you value resolution in your shots.

5. Choose a shutter speed to achieve the effect you want

To freeze action, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/500 second. Some sports, particularly those involving balls and/or rapid body movements, require a minimum of 1/1000 second if you want the subject to be pin-sharp.


Split-second timing and a fast shutter speed of 1/500 second were required to capture the action of this competition wood-chopper.

The opposite applies when you want to record motion as a blur or when panning to capture a sharply-focused subject against a blurred background. Most sports photographers use shutter speeds slower than 1/30 second for panning to ensure a well-blurred background.

Shots that record motion, such as moving water and star trails, require the camera to be tripod mounted. Exposures in excess of 30 seconds are required in most situations, with shots of star trails usually taking more than 30 minutes to ensure the trails are long enough to be noticeable.

6. Metering choices

Most cameras let you choose between multi-pattern (‘evaluative’), centre-weighted average and spot metering when you’re using the P, A, S or M modes. Being designed for general photography, multi-pattern metering isn’t ideal for shooting close-ups of people or animals in action as it can be influenced by background illumination. Bright lights in the background can cause faces to be under-exposed, while dark backgrounds result in over-exposure of subjects.

Centre-weighted metering biases exposures towards the centre of the frame, which is where you will concentrate on recoding the action. Spot metering evaluates brightness in a small, selected area and ignores the rest of the frame. Partial metering does the same but with a larger metering area (up to about 10% of the frame). Both spot and partial metering provide the best ways to obtain correctly-exposed faces when there’s a significant discrepancy between subject and background lighting. (See more on metering in Chapter 4.)

7. Balance exposures

Use the lowest ISO setting the ambient light levels allow for your selected aperture and/or shutter speed settings. Test your camera’s performance at higher ISO settings to find out where noise becomes problematic. Then set the maximum for the auto ISO range at or just below that point.

In most cases, shooting with auto ISO should provide workable aperture and shutter speed combinations. But be prepared to increase ISO values in low light levels or add a neutral density filter to reduce light levels to match your chosen aperture setting in very bright conditions where you want a shallow depth of field.


An example of an action shot taken at dusk with a high ISO setting.

If you’re shooting JPEGs you may be able to adjust the recorded brightness range with the dynamic range adjustment or auto lighting optimiser settings in the camera’s menu. (These have no effect on raw files, which inherently contain a wider dynamic range than JPEGs, making post-capture adjustments possible.) Avoid multi-shot capture modes like HDR settings as they will usually result in blurred subjects.

Sports presets

Many consumer-level cameras include ‘Scene’ pre-sets that configure the camera settings to suit particular subject types. Their objective is to help novice users to choose the appropriate camera settings for different subject types and they are handy when you’re not sure how to configure the camera as well as when you must shoot quickly to capture a rapidly-changing subject.

Once a particular pre-set is selected, all the photographer needs to do is point the camera and press the shutter button. The pre-sets are normally only applied to JPEG files and some cameras will not support raw file capture when the Scene mode is selected.

‘Sports’ and ‘Action’ pre-sets are among the most common options. The Sports mode is primarily designed to ‘freeze’ action so the camera will select a fast shutter speed, usually higher than 1/200 second, depending on ambient light levels. Many cameras will start with 1/500 or even 1/1000 second.

As a result, the lens aperture is usually set to the maximum available, which is ideal when you want to isolate subjects from an out-of-focus background. Sensitivity will be adjusted to provide the correct exposure level, with most cameras defaulting to an auto ISO setting.

Some support an expanded range of sensitivity options allowing for faster shutter speeds if required. Depending on how high the ISO value is set, there may be some quality loss due to image noise. On a few cameras, ISO remains user-selectable in sports mode.

Focusing usually shifts to the continuous AF, with most cameras including focus tracking. Many add face recognition to improve focusing accuracy when photographing moving people. Photographers whose cameras don’t support continuous AF can try pre-focusing the camera with a half-press of the shutter button to ensure the maximum capture speed. But, if the subject moves between when you focus and when the shot is captured, it may end up out-of-focus.

The Sports mode can be used for photographing active children and/or pets, birds in flight and recording stage performances. In fact, wherever you need to use a long zoom lens, this mode can help inexperienced photographers achieve more usable shots.

Practice Makes Perfect

The more pictures you take, the better your timing and the better your ability to handle your camera. Practice by photographing your children’s sports, pets running in the yard, birds in flight, cars on the highway. You needn’t keep the end results but examine them carefully at the end of each shoot (preferably on a computer screen) and use them to analyse what worked and what didn’t.

Pay particular attention to focusing techniques, using both auto and manual focusing. Once you achieve a consistently high percentage of potential ‘keepers’ you’ll know you have mastered the basics of capturing action.

But remember there’s more to shooting action than just bagging that great shot. Aim also to tell the ‘story’ of the event by recording shots showing the emotion, the pre-event preparations, the audience reactions and the release of tension as the event climaxes. These also make great action shots and help to enrich your portfolio.


Excerpt from  Action Photography.