Camera-Ready: Make Your Action Shots Pop

I may be slower than a slow loris these days, but for some reason my three-year-old doesn’t agree that relaxing in the hammock for several hours every afternoon is the best way to spend the summer. By some lapse of logic, he prefers to run, jump, climb, swing, ride, skip, twist, twirl, and dance. Weird, right?

No matter how many times I’ve told him to “Wait, stop, move back a bit, look at the camera, now smile,” so I can get the perfect photograph of him candidly enjoying himself, I’ve finally accepted that, alas, the era of Wombat agreeing to sit still and pose nicely for a portrait are long gone, and I’d best be adjusting my photography techniques to keep up.

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Following are my top five tips for embracing action shots while you’re out capturing your summer fun. (Although these methods are great for catching kids on the go, they also work for pets, parties, sports and recreation, and fast-moving pregnant women.)

1. Action mode.

Whether you have a souped-up DSLR or a basic point-and-shoot, make friends with your camera's Action setting (also called “Sports” or “Kids and Pets” and usually represented by an icon of a running man). Action mode sets your camera to automatic focus, automatic flash, automatic shutter speed, and automatic ISO, meaning all you have to do is point your lens at your subject and shoot away. The best part of Action mode is that it allows you to hold down the shutter to get a continuous burst of shots, one right after the other. This is my favorite technique for getting great action photos, since you don’t have to carefully adjust your camera's settings, frame your shot, and then click at what you hope will be just the right moment. In Action mode, you let the camera do the work. Take a bunch of shots right in a row -— don’t be stingy; you’re not paying for film or processing -— and then just trash everything you don’t want.


2. Shutter speed.

If your camera is a DSLR, take full advantage of its capabilities by learning how to manually adjust the shutter speed. A fast or “short” shutter allows you to catch your subject as a freeze-frame, without any blur. (Check your user manual for specifics on how to adjust shutter speed on your camera.) If you don’t have a DSLR, or if you're just starting out in photography, keeping your camera in fully automatic mode (which will automate your shutter speed) works well enough for capturing one-off action shots so long as you have adequate light (like full summer sun) or the flash turned on.



3. Blur.

But what if you want your photograph to show the action rather than freeze-frame it? There are several ways to create dramatic blur in your pictures. For advanced users, go with a slow or “long” shutter speed. For point-and-shoots, you can often get good blur indoors by turning off the flash. If you want to show your subject moving against a still background, make sure you hold the camera very still (using a tripod or stable surface if you have one), since you want to blur your subject, not your entire frame. If, on the other hand, you want your moving subject to be in focus against a blurred background, pan your camera along with your subject as it goes by. Blur shots are tricky and can be hit-or-miss, but the good ones turn out spectacular, so it’s definitely worth experimenting.



4. Smartphone cameras.

If the camera you use most often is the one on your touchscreen phone, you’re probably extremely familiar with the frustration of the shutter always clicking just a moment too late. Try this: Hold your finger down on the shutter button while you frame your shot, and when you’re ready, lift your finger off the shutter to take the picture. Your mileage may vary depending on what phone, software, and app you use, but this trick works like a charm for me.


5. Try, try again.

Getting a subject to sit still and smile for the camera can be a drag (kids get antsy, and a lot of adults feel self-conscious in front of the camera for more than two seconds), but you’re likely to have more enthusiastic and cooperative subjects if you’re asking them to re-create an action shot over and over. Your movie date will toss popcorn three feet into the air and catch it in his mouth a dozen or more times, your party guests will throw confetti as much as you ask them, your kids will run through the sprinklers with Grandma again and again and again.



Those are my best tips for getting great action shots this summer. What are yours?

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