Eight Tips for Action Photography

©istockphoto/binabinaOut­door sports are about action. But action is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fi­cult to cap­ture. Deci­sive moments—the leap of a ski­er off a slope, a kayak­er sus­pend­ed in midair, the ner­vous glance of a climber on a knife-edge ridge—only last a frac­tion of a sec­ond. Most action pho­tos are blur­ry, bor­ing or miss the action entire­ly. Here are some tips for dis­till­ing adren­a­line into visu­al form and tak­ing your action pho­tog­ra­phy to the next level.

Big Gear Wins
Bad news for die-hard iPhone pho­tog­ra­phers, but big DSLRs with a wide range of zoom lens­es are what you still need to cap­ture the action. Noth­ing else gives the pho­tog­ra­ph­er the com­bi­na­tion of speed, cre­ative con­trol, image qual­i­ty and range of per­spec­tives. Even the newest mir­ror­less cam­eras don’t mea­sure up. Small portable cam­eras are small and easy to use—but not much else. You’ll hate car­ry­ing an SLR and your gear up the moun­tains, but you’ll be glad when the time comes.

Eye Lev­el
The com­mon per­spec­tive is a bit above your sub­ject, the cam­era held con­ve­nient­ly at the photographer’s height. That’s easy, but easy sel­dom cre­ates a com­pelling image. I start by get­ting down to the par­tic­i­pants’ eye lev­el, what­ev­er that is, and adjust from there. Eye-lev­el shots cre­ate a much more inti­mate expe­ri­ence between the view­er and the sub­ject. You can also make great images by get­ting very high or low—but most images at your nor­mal eye lev­el are well, nor­mal. And nor­mal is bor­ing when it comes to creativity.

Ren­der Motion
Use your sense of cre­ativ­i­ty to decide how you want to con­vey motion. Motion, after all, is the core of all out­door sports. Do you want motion stopped, show­ing atom­ized water droplets or snowflakes? Or blurs that con­vey the sense of smooth move­ment? You’ll only get this lev­el of con­trol with a dig­i­tal SLR (and usu­al­ly a tri­pod) and it takes some under­stand­ing of expo­sure, but the results are worth it.

Use Con­trast
Most out­door sports take place in the mid­dle of the day. Typ­i­cal­ly, this is when light is harsh and direct, and many pho­tog­ra­phers avoid shoot­ing. But sports pho­tog­ra­phers sel­dom have many choic­es. Use that mid­day con­trast to your advan­tage for the one thing it gives you: dra­mat­ic con­trast. Deep black shad­ows and bright high­lights don’t make land­scapes look great—but they can make the action look dra­mat­ic. Fine-tune your expo­sure to avoid blown-out high­lights, and make con­trast your friend.

©istockphoto/SportstockGet Close
War pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Capa famous­ly said that if your pho­tos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. It’s less dan­ger­ous in our pho­tog­ra­phy than in his. Get close and zoom in on facial expres­sions, beads of sweat, the tex­ture of fresh snow, the mud on a cyclocross racer’s face. Crop the edges—it adds a sense of ten­sion and unfin­ished business.

Pho­to­graph the Back Story
Don’t just focus on the action high­lights. Turn the oth­er way and look at the spec­ta­tors, peo­ple wait­ing to com­pete, the breaks in the action when peo­ple relax and exhale, the stress of anticipation.

Hide The Scale
Deprive your view­er of scale. In this image of kayak­er Paul Kuthe descend­ing a water­fall, the view­er has vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing to pro­vide any sense of size, or how the sto­ry ends. Cliffhang­er moments cre­ate antic­i­pa­tion. Keep the view­er guess­ing enough to feel sus­pense, but not so much that they’re just confused.

Try and Try Again
You’ll only improve your action shots but shoot­ing action more and more. There will be tri­al and error, and the more you exper­i­ment, the faster you’ll learn. Time to get out there and shoot.