Fast Learner: Tips for getting better actions shots with your compact camera

by Reads (525)

The difficult truth, as any working sports or nature photographer will tell you, is that shooting action photos is equal parts skill and art. Good instincts, intuition, anticipation, and the ability to read a scene and make choices quickly all play a part in getting the best possible photos in fast-moving situations. While there are no shortcuts to great photos, some basic knowledge of which camera settings and what shooting techniques to depend on in these situations will go a long way toward improving your action photos.

Certain limitations inherent to compact cameras, however, require a slightly different way of thinking, and while most of the skills presented in this article are broadly applicable, the focus here is especially on action shooting with a point-and-shoot camera. As in all things photographic, your experience with your particular equipment may vary.

Get Out of Auto Mode

Auto mode on most point-and-shoots does a surprisingly good job across a range of shooting scenarios, and cameras seem to get better all the time in this regard. Unfortunately, auto mode is usually no place for action shooting, especially if the lighting is at all tricky.

At its most basic, three distinct camera functions come into play when trying to freeze an image: focus, speed, and light taken in. Putting focus aside for the moment, what has to happen in order to capture a sharp image of a fast-moving subject is relatively simple. The camera must take in enough light to adequately record the image, while simultaneously doing so quickly enough that the image capture is sharp. Hence, shutter speed, aperture value (the amount of light let in by the lens), and sensitivity (or ISO setting) all impact the final capture.

With all of this in mind, it’s time to get out of auto mode. There are two options here, depending on how much control your camera offers. If your device is so equipped, the shutter priority (often called "S", "T", or "Tv") mode is a good starting point for outdoor action shots.

Action shots

In this mode, you’ll have control over how long the camera’s shutter, which allows light to pass onto the sensor, stays open. The longer the shutter is open, the more light taken in. In practice, this means that the less light available, the longer the shutter will have to stay open in order to capture a properly exposed image. Leave the shutter open too long for a fast-moving subject, however, and the image becomes blurry. At extremely slow shutter speeds, even as little movement as the motion of the camera in your hands can lead to blurry shots.

(For more information on shutter-priority and other shooting modes, check out forum contributor and review writer J. Keenan’s articles demystifying the various camera modes. They can be found at the top of the page in our Photography Forum.)

For action shooting, select a minimum shutter speed of absolutely no less than 1/200 – remember that as the bottom number, 200 in this case, gets larger, the shutter speed gets faster. Ideally, aim to shoot at 1/500 or faster when taking action shots: the faster the shutter speed, the better the chance that your shot will be razor sharp.

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At 1/1000 in outdoor lighting, my compact Canon was able to freeze the base runner in stride.

Remember that you can only set the shutter speed as fast as available light allows. Most cameras will either warn you if the speed you’ve selected is too fast, or simply won’t let you select a speed beyond the useable range for the metered scene. Check your owner’s manual to get the specifics on your camera’s shutter priority mode.

If you’re shooting outdoors with plenty of light but you’re using a camera with few or no manual controls, your options in this area are more limited: head to the scene modes and look for an action, sports, or kids/pets mode (most cameras made in the last few years have one or more of these options). All of these modes operate on the same basic principle outlined above: raising shutter speed to its maximum possible value using available light.

In most cases, the only noteworthy difference between aperture priority mode and action scene modes is the amount of control that you as the photographer have over the shutter speed setting, but in this case more control is often a good thing. If you’re considering a camera for action shooting, you might want to factor whether or not it has shutter and aperture (discussed below) control into your buying decision. Even so, the absence of manual control doesn’t mean good action shots aren’t possible, and an appropriate scene mode is a good place to start.

Dealing With Low Light

While fast shutter speeds are ideal for action shots, shooting quick subjects in low light changes the nature of game, requiring the photographer to make some smart compromises. As before, your approach will be different in dim situations depending on how much control your camera offers.

First, however, it needs to be recognized that there are situations which are simply too dark to allow for good action shots. Gymnasiums are a great example. Often, a gym may not seem like a particularly dark room; the same could be said for a well-lit house. In both scenarios, however, it is often the case that while there may be enough light to capture a photo at shutter speeds of around 1/60 at moderate ISOs – usually fast enough for a decently sharp handheld shot of a still subject – this speed is hardly fast enough to freeze even modest action. In this kind of situation, there may not be an easy solution to consistent photos, but there are a few ways you can improve your chances.

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Evening outdoor scenes can be tricky, often looking brighter than they really are. At maximum aperture, the very slow shutter speed here was nearly fast enough to freeze the action, but a shaky hand hurts overall image sharpness.

In lower light situations, it’s more important to worry about maximizing available light as your first priority. Some steps are simple – if you’re shooting in your own home, turn on a few more lights to help capture those shots of kids playing. If you’re at a sporting event, try to get as close as possible to the action. In a related vein, note that zoom lenses tend to let in less light at the long end of the range. For this reason, in order to maximize available light in very dark situations it sometimes makes sense to shoot at a wider angle and crop the image for composition later if possible.

For a camera with manual controls, try starting in the aperture priority (usually "A" or "Av") mode instead of shutter priority mode in low-light situations. (As before, to learn more about this mode in general, visit J. Keenan’s excellent series of articles on camera modes at the top of the Photography Forum on this site.)

Action shots

Aperture refers to the system that allows light in through your camera’s lens, and somewhat confusingly, a smaller aperture number (say f/2 or f/2.8) allows more light in than a larger number (f/11, or f/16). Different cameras/lenses have different minimum and maximum aperture values, but usually for compacts they begin somewhere around f/2.8 and go up to f/16 or so. An aperture value of f/2 lets in more light than f/16, but it also has a narrow depth of field – meaning that while the focused subject should be sharp at f/2, the background will likely be blurry. If you look at most action shots, however, you’ll quickly realize that this depth of field limitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

While aperture adjustment has other applications in other settings, for low-light shooting we want to select the aperture value that lets in the most light – that is, the smallest possible number. Because the camera automatically selects shutter speed in aperture priority mode, dialing in the lowest possible aperture number allows maximum shutter speed using available light.

The other way to maximize available light whether you have manual control options or not is to turn up your camera’s sensor sensitivity, or its ISO setting. Selecting a higher ISO number (many compact cameras go all the way to ISO 1600 now, and some even have higher settings) in effect turns up the sensor sensitivity, meaning less light is required and, in turn, faster shutter speeds can be used. If you can’t find ISO adjustments on your camera, look for "digital image stabilization" or "high sensitivity mode" – these terms all refer to ISO boost.

There’s a trade-off for using higher ISO values, however. It comes in the form of increased graininess (what photographers call "noise") and/or detail loss at higher ISOs.

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This hand-held shot, taken courtside with a newer ultra-compact looks alright at this zoom level…

Action shots

…but when viewing an enlargement, some pretty serious detail loss is apparent.

While some cameras exhibit these behaviors worse than others, it’s a problem that’s common to all compact cameras in some measure. For this reason, you’ll want to do some experimentation and use the lowest ISO you reasonably can that still captures sharp images.

In either case, though, the shot shown here adequately freezes the motion of the scene and should provide decent prints at normal sizes.

Tracking Your Subject

With the heavy technical lifting mostly out of the way, the actual business of taking action photos is largely a common-sense operation. The number one mistake that most photographers new to action shooting make is simple to grasp but often hard to internalize: blurry photos are frequently caused by a failure to track the moving subject with the camera. Unless you’re using outrageously high shutter speeds, trying to "set a trap" for your subject by fixing your camera on a stationary point and waiting for the subject to enter the frame almost never works. It’s better to get your camera moving in sync with your moving target.

There is nothing profound about tracking itself: simply frame your subject, and move the camera in order to, as best as you can, keep the subject in a constant position relative to the frame. I find it helpful to turn on the on-screen alignment grid for this purpose. Most cameras offer some variant of this feature.

Action shots

A standard 3×3 on-screen composition grid.

Optical image stabilization (not the digital, ISO boosting IS mentioned above) may or may not be your friend in this case, depending on how the system in your particular camera works. Some devices compensate for panning shots, but other systems may be confused by your tracking motion and try desperately to smooth it out. Not good. If you find your IS camera seems to lag when panning, try disabling the system and see if the situation improves.

Staying Focused

While lots of working pros rely on their continuous auto focus systems, the quality, functionality, and tracking speed of continuous AF on point-and-shoots vary widely. If your camera has continuous AF functionality, you’ll want to do some experimentation to see if the system is able to keep pace in action shooting: in many cases, continuous AF is a great improvement for tracking fast-moving subjects.

In the absence of a good continuous AF system, however, I tend to fall back on a basic pre-focusing technique, one that may be familiar to you if you’ve ever shot with older, slower digital cameras or tried your hand at action shooting with manual-focus equipment. The idea is simple, with only three steps: lock, track, and fire.

To begin, set your focusing system to its default (usually called single AF, or some similar) mode. A second or two before your subject reaches pivotal action (remember: anticipation), give your shutter button a half press and hold it there. This locks focus on the subject at a point just before the action. The longer you wait before locking focus (that is, the closer you are to the pivotal action moment), the more likely you are to get a sharp shot, but wait too long and you won’t be able to fire in time. Some experimentation with your camera will help you begin to intuit how long your particular device takes to acquire focus lock.

As the camera locks focus, continue to track your subject on its path of motion. With the camera pre-focused, you should be able to fully depress the shutter button and take the shot almost instantaneously at the critical moment. Working in this way compensates for the second or more of focusing time which many compacts require. When pre-focused, most modern point-and-shoots can fire a shot in less than half a second, making shutter lag a non-issue.

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This shot could have benefited from a longer zoom, but the bird in flight is acceptably sharp. Tracking the subject with focus locked was the key here.

While pre-focusing is great for certain kinds of shots, it has some clear limitations. Note that this approach usually works for a subject that’s moving along a path perpendicular to the direction your lens is pointing. Put more simply, if your subject’s path and your lens barrel form a T shape, this method will often work. If the subject is moving in a path closer to parallel with your lens axis – if it’s moving more toward or away from you than across your field of vision – chances are this method won’t work. The reasons why are perhaps obvious: in the first case, the subject moves in such a way that its distance from your lens, and thus optimal focusing distance, remains nearly constant in most cases. A subject moving toward or away from you, however, is changing its distance from your lens much more rapidly, meaning that the focus you locked in two seconds ago is no longer correct.

For subjects that are moving toward or away from you, this entire timetable must be compressed, with lock-fire coming in much closer succession. Your ability to capture this kind of scene with this technique depends largely on what kind of action is taking place, the specifics of its motion, how close you are to it, and much more so in this case, the speed of your camera. You’ll probably find that lock-track-fire is fast enough on most cams to take on-axis (where the motion is toward or away from you) shots of a child’s soccer game, for instance. Depending on your positioning, the chance of getting super sharp close-ups at a motorcycle race (like those great magazine shots you’ve probably seen) with your point-and-shoot, however, is much slimmer: as fast as they’ve become, many compact cameras simply don’t respond quickly enough to deal with the rapidly changing focal distance in these kinds of high-speed situations. For that matter, a fair number of entry-level DSLRs perform little better.

Fire at Will

The last technical advice, then, is both the simplest of all and the most important: if you’re not happy with your results, you need to take more shots. The more you shoot, the more refined your skills become, but also, the more shots you take at any one event, the more you have to choose from. In taking action photos it’s best not to bank everything on that single perfect shot. Try to get lots of similar shots, and choose the best among them later.

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I took a burst series of shots of this approaching alligator photographed from a moving boat, ensuring that one came out nice and sharp.

If your camera has a continuous shooting mode that allows full-resolution shooting (some don’t, which can be a problem), by all means use it for action shooting. That’s why it’s there, after all.

My grandfather was known to say that "even the blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile." You may have heard one of the many variants of this adage. In suggesting that you take what may seem at first like a ridiculous number of shots, I’m not advocating the "blind squirrel" approach to action photography – where you shoot carelessly and hope for the best. But the technical challenges presented herein have hopefully convinced you of just how difficult action shooting can be, especially with compact cameras.

The best approach to ensuring lots of good shots is to combine good set-up and solid technique with a huge number of shots from which to choose. In difficult situations, taking 100 shots to get the perfect one is not as unreasonable as it sounds (that’s the beauty of digital, after all), and if you’re doing everything right, you’ll find that you get plenty more than one keeper out of every batch of 100. Don’t forget that even the pros, who often make a living on that one perfect shot instead of a few good snapshots, are taking lots of photos in the process to make sure when the perfect moment happens, they capture it.

Final Thoughts: Keep Your Equipment, Upgrade Your Skills

Finally, having reasonable expectations for what can and can’t be photographed well with your skills and equipment is crucial. If anyone could shoot publishable photos with a Canon SD870 instead of a 1Ds, do you think pros would be hauling those big, expensive, heavy cameras and lenses around just for kicks?

Conversely, all of this gets at a larger issue, one of our perpetual need (sickness?) as photographers to constantly upgrade equipment. As in all crafts, I would argue that 90 percent of a great photograph has to do with the skill of the craftsman; 10 percent or less is dependent on the quality of the tool used in the crafting. Pros use the equipment that they use because it makes their work easier, but for action shooting and shooting in general, upgrading your camera is rarely the ticket to upgrading the quality of your shots.

Action shots

While the shots in this story are more to illustrate than impress, note that most of the action shots were taken with a Canon PowerShot A620 – a three-year-old model without IS or continuous AF, and with a maximum ISO of 400. Even with these limitations, it was possible to snap sharp action photos fit for a family photo album.

The harsh reality is that we as photographers (I’ll indict myself on this one as well) tend to look first to the camera when we’re unhappy with our shots, instead of to our own lack of knowledge about and experience with our camera’s abilities and its limitations. By exploring the full range of what your current setup can do – and not assuming that because it doesn’t take the photo you envisioned straight out of the box, it must be inadequate – you’ll develop your general photography skills and be better prepared to choose a camera that suits your needs when the time to upgrade comes.

Going back to motorsports photography, the professional shots from these kinds of extremely difficult shooting scenarios aren’t taken in auto mode: in fact, you won’t find "Auto" on the dial of any commercial camera currently on the market. Hence, if you’re judging the power of your own camera without ever exploring its range of settings and options, or without honing your shooting technique to get the best possible shots, you’re making unfair assumptions about what is and is not possible with your camera.

Shooting high-intensity action scenes, whether of athletes in motion, animals in the wild, or your kids playing in the back yard, can be simultaneously one of the most rewarding and most frustrating photographic activities out there, and doing it with point-and-shoot cameras further expands the technical challenge. Still, if you’re an occasional action-shot photographer, don’t assume that these inherent limitations mean you need to go out and buy new equipment. If you have a clearly developed interest in shooting lots of sports photography, for instance, it may well make sense to upgrade your kit: for serious action shooting, you’ll almost certainly be happier with a DSLR than with any fixed-lens camera. But for taking pictures of kids, pets, and even amateur sporting events, a smaller, less expensive camera is in most cases up to the task of taking action shots that are not merely acceptable, but often quite good.

Keep firing away, and good luck!

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