How to Take Tack-Sharp Action Photos
You guys know I love taking photos of Miley and Howie running around like lunatics in the backyard. If you’ve ever wondered what the best settings to use to get action photos sharp and in focus were, here’s my go-to recipe for tack-sharp action photos. I use these five simple settings every single time. I still take a lot of photos, and I still get a lot of out of focus shots, but with these settings I get a whole lot more in focus than out of focus, and playing with my camera in the backyard with the pups is a much more pleasant experience. ;)
*These are the “ingredients” I personally use for my action photos, but you can definitely achieve similar results with the equipment you already own.
1. Canon 7D
For my money, the Canon 7D is one of the best cameras out there for fast action photos. The 7D can capture 8 frames per second (aka 8 fps). This means the camera can take 8 photos in one single second! It’s practically a cinch to get action photos with features like that. There are much fancier and more expensive cameras out there that don’t even come close to 8 fps. This is the number one reason why I chose the 7D. So when camera shopping, if action photos are a priority to you, be sure to look at the fps capabilities.
Now, of course you can use any good lens for action photos (especially a fast lens with a low aperture number), this just happens to be my lens of choice for outdoor action photos of Miley and Howie, so it’s the lens you’ll see me use most.
3. A bright, sunny day or lots of light.
You’ll need lots of light for action photos, which requires a fast shutter speed.
1. Put the camera in Shutter Priority mode.
- On a Canon, turn the dial at the top to TV.
- On a Nikon, turn the dial at the top to S.
Shutter Priority mode means we’ll be setting the shutter speed manually while the camera takes care of the rest of the settings. Shutter speed is how fast the camera records a picture. A very fast shutter speed will stop action, just like we’re trying to do today. A very slow shutter speed causes blurry images (which can be a cool effect if you’re taking photos of waterfalls or car light trails) but requires a tripod. Today we want to stop action, so we’ll tell the camera to use a very fast shutter speed.
2. Set the shutter speed to 1/1000
In addition to the labeled dial, you’ll see an unlabeled black dial on your camera. Use this dial change the shutter speed. Crank it left for lower and slower, right for higher and faster. The higher the number, the faster the shutter speed! Set the dial to change the shutter speed to 1/1000. It may also just say 1000. That is a very fast shutter speed. This means the photo that the camera captures will show what was happening in that one one-thousandth of a second. That’s pretty fast!
3. Change the focus mode to AI-SERVO
*AI-SERVO is known as AF-C on Nikon or “continuous focus.”
Now, you can take pictures as fast as you want, but they’ve got to be in focus, or it won’t matter how quickly they were taken. AI-SERVO is the best mode to use when taking picture of moving subjects. In AI-SERVO mode, the camera quickly refocuses on the subject as it moves before taking each picture. This greatly increases your chances of getting your subject in focus! AI-SERVO mode is predictive — it predicts where your subject will be and how fast it’s moving — so to fully optimize, press the shutter halfway down and start tracking your subject’s movement BEFORE you take the picture, then press all the way down when you’re ready to shoot.
4. Set the shooting mode to High Speed Continuous
In continuous shooting mode, you can press the shutter button and hold it down to take several photos in a row without lifting your finger. In High Speed Continuous mode, the speed at which the camera takes the pictures is much faster. The get the full 8 fps capability of the Canon 7D, the camera must be in High Speed Continuous mode.
5. Change the Focus Point
The focus point tells the camera where to focus.
- Auto Select is best for photos with one subject (by themselves) in the frame. The camera will pick where the focus will be and what it will focus on. If there’s anything else in the background, the camera might get confused as to what to focus on.
- Manual Select Zone will change the focus to concentrate on the middle of the frame. If you’re having a hard time getting the camera to focus on the right subject, try using this mode and keep your subject in the center of the frame. This mode is still best for a single subject.
- Manual Select Single Point is best when there are many subjects in the frame (like a team sport), and you only want one of them in focus. Manually select your point, and be sure keep your subject in that point.
And that’s it! These are my preferred settings for outdoor action photos.
The Quick Version:
How to Take Tack-Sharp Action Photos
- Put the camera in Shutter Priority (TV or S) mode
- Set the shutter speed to 1/1000
- Change the focus mode to AI-SERVO
- Change the shooting mode to High Speed Continuous
- Set the focus point to right in the middle (Zone or Point).
For a refresher course on Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, and Focusing, be sure to read A Quick Guide to Understanding Your DSLR.
For more DSLR tutorials, like What Lens Should I Choose? and What Settings Should I Use? Check out the Photography Tutorials category of Kevin & Amanda.
If you’ll be posting your action photos online, be sure to use this tutorial to fully optimize and sharpen your images for web-sized viewing: Saving and Sizing Your Images for Blogging
In most cases, you can change all of these settings from the screen on the back of your camera. If you can’t figure out how to change a certain setting, try checking the manual.
I use a Canon exclusively, so if any of the above information is wrong for Nikon, please feel free to correct me in the comments and I will update the post.
Hope this helps! Thanks for looking! :)