“Getting the Action Shots” (March 2009 Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter)

Since my photography hinges around wildlife behavior, action shots are my primary focus. Often, I am asked “what shutter speed do I need for taking action photographs?” Well, there are several factors that you should consider when trying to get action photos and this tip will talk about some of the factors and give some possible solutions for you.

First, one of the primary things to keep in mind is that hand-holding the camera can introduce “camera shake” just from holding the camera as you are taking photos. To help eliminate camera shake, I always recommend a tripod if one is available and the situation warrants it (i.e., for low-light sunrise/sunset photos). Also, you should always consider shooting using the formula of “1 over the ISO” as a guide for preventing camera shake. For example, if you are using an ISO of 200, then “1 over 200” = 1/200, and you should not shoot any slower than 1/250 second (the closest to 1/200) to prevent camera shake. For you point-and-shoot camera users, please check your camera manual as the shutter speed for most point-and-shoot cameras can be manually set.

Next, if you are using interchangeable lenses on your camera, you can easily shoot a stop or two slower than this “1/ISO” formula, if you have “Image Stabilization” or “Vibration Reduction” lenses. These lenses help to counter any small movements from hand-holding the camera. These lenses are more expensive, but worth their weight in gold if you do a lot of action photography.

Now that we have the “camera shake” issue out of our way, let’s focus on other action, such as sports or wildlife. To totally stop motion in such instances, it is usually necessary to use a shutter speed faster than 1/250 second, but this will, of course, depend on the subject and speed of the subject. Wherever possible, I usually use 1/400 or even 1/500 second for many of my action shots. Using such shutter speeds will usually stop the action. But shooting faster means that your aperture is usually larger, and this changes your depth of field (decreasing it). To me, depth of field is very important, so I often find that I must shoot slower than I would like, especially if I am looking for a larger depth of field in my image. A good example of this was when I was shooting a blue whale fluking against the beautiful Baja background. If I were to shoot at a fast shutter speed, my aperture would be quite large, causing the background to be out of focus. But I wanted the picturesque Baja background to be sharply in focus, so I used a very small aperture (f/22) which meant I needed to shoot at a slower speed. Fortunately, a whale fluking is not really fast action, so I was able to accomplish this. Another possibility is to raise your ISO. As you increase the ISO, you can shoot with a faster shutter speed, without needing to change your aperture. But beware, shooting above an ISO of about 400 often increases electronic noise into your photos that will make the quality a bit less (more and more cameras are coming out that will produce noiseless images at higher ISO’s, but older cameras cannot usually shoot above ISO 400 without noise). You can always use a noise reduction program to remove this noise, but for recreational photographers, this is just an added processing step and added expense.

But there may be times when you want a small amount of motion blur in your photos (see the accompanying dolphin motion-blur shot that is in my March Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter). By retaining a small amount of blur, you help to highlight the action or movement in your photos. Also, a bit of motion often gives your image an “artsy” look. This technique is often useful when you are panning your camera with a moving animal. You can shoot slower, causing a blurring effect of the background as you pan. But by keeping the animal in your viewfinder, you will likely have a fairly sharp image of the animal. Whenever shooting this type of shot, you should play with the shutter speed and aperture to find the amount of motion-blur to your liking, and shoot a lot of frames!!!

One of the most important things to remember when taking action photographs is to shoot, shoot, shoot. Remember, digital photos are cheap (no film or processing) so you can always erase any unwanted shots. But keep the shutter going and you will more likely be pleased with your results!

If you have any questions regarding shooting action photography, please let me know. Send your questions or tips via this easy link: showmenaturepix@hotmail.com

Posted in Photography Tips.
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