Taking photos of fast-moving subjects can make for some amazing photography, but it also presents a unique set of challenges. In this tutorial, I’ll cover some of the basics of how to set your camera to capture fast moving subjects that you might see in sports, or wildlife, or when trying to capture children.
First, let’s discuss shutter speed. It is shutter speed that allows you to freeze motion and capture sharp photos of moving subjects. For most of this tutorial, we’ll assume you’re aiming to capture sharp frozen-in-time photos of your subjects. I’ll discuss creative motion blur later.
For fast-moving subjects, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement. There’s no exact shutter speed to memorize because it varies by situation. The shutter speed to use depends on how fast the subject is moving, how far away the subject is from you, and whether it’s moving across the frame or coming toward / away from you.
For most “general” types of moving subjects, I find that 1/500th second works in a lot of cases, and is a good starting point. 1/500th should be able to freeze most moving subjects. Of course, some things can be frozen with a much slower shutter speed, and some require much faster. The farther the subject is from you, the slower you can go with the shutter. Similarly, if the subject is coming toward / away from you, you can use a slower shutter speed. The opposite is true if something is close to you or moving across the frame. Think of it this way, if there are horses a mile away running toward you, you won’t need that fast of a shutter speed. They’ll look pretty much the same even after a second has gone by. On the other hand, if you’re standing on the track at a NASCAR race and a racecar speeds past you when you’re twenty feet away, you’re going to need a mighty fast shutter speed to capture that car.
If you have the time to experiment and try a few settings, then go ahead and see what shutter speed works for the subject you’re shooting.
So how do we get those fast shutter speeds and how do we set the camera? You have two options as far as setting the camera. You can either set the camera to Shutter Priority or Manual Mode. Then select the shutter speed that works for you. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. If you use Shutter Priority, the camera will use the shutter speed you select and will set the aperture automatically for you, but with a potentially different aperture from shot-to-shot, depending on the lighting in each shot. This can be useful if you’re pointing the camera in all different directions from shot to shot and the lighting is different in each shot. The camera will help ensure the exposure is correct for each shot, by adjusting the aperture. The disadvantage is that there will be no consistency from shot-to-shot, which is actually the advantage of using Manual Mode.
In Manual Mode, you set both the shutter speed and the aperture to capture the subject with the correct exposure. Regardless of whether the subject is in front of a light background or a dark background, the subject will always be captured correctly, but the brightness of the background will vary because the aperture will remain the same. If you use Shutter Priority, it’s “possible” that the camera may choose an aperture you don’t want. Here’s an example to make it clearer… let’s say you’re taking pictures at an NFL football game. You have the camera set to Shutter Priority mode at 1/500th second. You’re taking several photographs in a row using your camera’s rapid-fire continuous shooting mode as a player is running across the field. In one shot, the player is in front of a background that consists of the crowd, and the crowd is fairly dark. The camera chooses an aperture of F4. Two seconds later the player has run down the field some more, you take another picture, but this time the background is a bright white billboard for a car company. Because the scene is brighter, the camera chooses an aperture of F8. Well now you have two pictures at two different settings, and the player is going to be darker in the second one. Had you shot in manual mode, the player would have looked identical in both shots, but the background would have been bright in the shot with the billboard. This is an example of some of the types of things you’ll want to think about. Do you want the player to look identical from shot-to-shot, or are you more concerned about the overall exposure of any given one image? It’s up to you. I personally shoot in manual mode so I know what I’m going to get, but it’s a matter of personal preference.
Let’s talk a little bit about how to ensure you’re getting the correct exposure. We know that fast shutter speeds let in very little light. All other things being equal, fast shutter speed = dark pictures. So we have to compensate for that to make the photo brighter. The best way to compensate for fast shutter speeds is to open up the aperture (set it to a low F-number like F4 or F2.8). Apertures that wide let in a lot of light, allowing the fast shutter speeds while still keeping the image bright. Of course opening up the aperture that wide also limits depth-of-field (the amount of the picture that is in focus front-to-back). A wide aperture causes a nice blurred background, which in many cases is exactly what we want (for the football example above, it’s best to have the crowd render as a soft out-of-focus dark area so the player really pops out in the image).
If you want more of the photo to be in focus, you’ll have to close down the aperture. You may also have to use a narrower aperture simply because your lenses don't have particularly wide apertures at all. Lenses with wide apertures are expensive to make. What you’re paying for is all that glass and technology that allows the lens to let in that much light. If you’ve ever heard the term “fast lens”, that’s what this is referring to. A fast lens is a wide-aperture lens that allows for fast shutter speeds. Most people consider a fast lens to be at least F2.8. Zoom lenses rarely go below F2.8. Prime lenses (non-zooming) can go down to as low as F1.2! They can take pictures in incredibly dim lighting and still allow a fast shutter speed. If you’re at the widest aperture your lens allows (or that you want to use), you’ve determined the appropriate shutter speed, and the photo is still too dark, then you have to resort to raising the ISO. ISO essentially brightens the image, but it also decreases image quality. I use ISO as a last resort in the chain. I start at ISO 100 (which will ensure the best image quality), then I adjust my shutter speed and aperture to see how much light I can get. If the image is still too dark, I increase the ISO to 200 and check the brightness again. I keep increasing the ISO one step at a time until I reach the correct brightness level, all the while trying to keep the ISO as low as possible.
Besides exposure, the other challenge when shooting moving subjects is focus. There are a couple of options that will help you get the results you want.
Moving subjects can be difficult to focus on. Many people (including myself) generally rely on only the center focus point and opt to turn off all other focus points for everyday shooting. This means that if the moving object moves anywhere in the frame that is off of the center focus point, the picture will be out of focus. In these cases, I may sometimes turn on all of the focus points to have a better chance of catching the subject. Even so, it can be tricky, and it may require you to move the camera quickly to ensure the subject is always on one of the focus points.
When shooting in continuous shooting mode, a.k.a. sports mode, rapid-fire mode, etc., meaning that the camera will continue to take pictures in rapid succession for as long as you hold down the shutter button, there are a couple of focusing options.
(1) Single-shot AF (autofocus) means that the camera will focus on the object when you first press the shutter button, and will remain focused on that one spot for as long as you hold the shutter button down, even if the subject moves off of the focus point or changes distance from you. This ensures that all the shots in a series maintain the exact same focus. It’s useful when the subject is moving side-to-side.
(2) Continuous AF, Servo Focus, etc. means the camera will continually re-focus on the subject automatically from shot-to-shot while all the shots are taken in rapid succession. This is useful if the subject is coming toward you or moving away from you. For example, if you’re standing at the finish line of a running race with the runners coming toward you, you’ll want to use Continuous AF so that each picture re-focuses on the runners as they get closer.
(3) Manual Focus: Manual focus is one of the most important focus modes. In this day and age with everything being automatic, you may wonder why you would ever want to use Manual focus. The answer is because it’s quick and you’ll definitely get the shot off. When you use autofocus, one of three things is going to happen: (1) the camera will take a certain amount of time to focus (albeit sometimes briefly) and will achieve proper focus or (2) the camera will take some time to focus but will focus incorrectly resulting in a blurry throwaway shot or (3) worst case, the camera will not focus at all and it won’t take a picture (this happens a lot at night or in dim lighting). Using manual focus, you get around the problem of waiting for the lens to focus. You don’t have to worry about the camera being incorrect in its focus choice, or not taking the picture at all. I often use manual focus when it’s appropriate. For example, going back to our car racetrack example, if you were in the stands and trying to take a picture of cars coming across the finish line, this is a perfect time to use Manual Focus. Focus manually by eye on the finish line, or use autofocus to focus on the finish line and then switch the lens to manual focus. Now, no matter when you press the shutter, the photo will be in perfect focus, it will take the picture immediately upon pressing the shutter, and should a bird fly into the top of the frame as you’re taking the picture, there’s no chance the camera will decide to focus on the bird! For night and low-light photography, manual focus is often the only option that provides results quick enough for moving subjects.
The previous tips will help you get tack-sharp photos of moving subjects. But what if you want to show some motion in your images? Then you’ll need to do the exact opposite with the shutter speed and set it for extra long. You have two options regarding the style of the shot when doing this: you can mount the camera on a tripod so that all stationary objects are pin sharp while the moving objects are motion-blurred, or you can handhold the camera while panning along with the subject. I wouldn’t recommend just setting a long shutter speed and handholding without panning, because that will just look like an unintentionally blurred shot.
For the tripod shot, that’s pretty straightforward. Mount the camera on a tripod and set the exposure so that there is a long shutter speed (experiment to determine the appropriate speed for your subject). This will result in a bright photo, so you’ll usually need a small aperture (high F-number) for this, to ensure a properly exposed photo. Shots like this will show a pin-sharp background with moving subjects.
For panning, experiment with a few different shutter speeds (start at 1/10th a second), and as the subject begins to pass in front of you, click the shutter, and while holding the camera to your eye, pivot your waist at the same speed as the subject is passing by you. Continue to follow through with your pivot even after the shutter is closed, to ensure a smooth pan. To get an appropriately long shutter speed, you may have to close down the aperture (small F-number like F16 or F22) because the long shutter speed will let a lot of light in. You'll be counteracting that brightness by closing the aperture. You can also add a burst of flash during the exposure which will help make the subject pop. When using flash, I recommend using 2nd-Curtain flash sync (it’s a setting in your camera that you’ll see in the menus). This means that the camera will flash at the end of long exposure (vs. the beginning). It’s important because in most cases the photo will not look correct if you’re panning and the flash goes off at the beginning of the exposure – you want it to flash at the end.
Here are a few more tips before we wrap up. As a compositional tip, always allow space for the moving object to “move into” the frame. For instance, if you’re taking a picture of a car moving from right-to-left, make sure there is room on the left side of the picture for the car to “drive into” (otherwise the photo will look cramped).
Any time you’re trying to achieve a fast shutter speed to freeze action, be sure to remove any filters from your lenses. For example, polarizers can reduce the light entering the camera by up to 2 or more stops. That means without a polarizer, you might be able to get the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second, but if you don’t remove the polarizer, the best you can get is 1/125th of a second, or 1/60th. That’s too slow to freeze action.
If you’re shooting sports from a long distance and are using a telephoto lens (for example, something in the 150mm+ range), you may want to consider using a monopod. A monopod is basically a one-legged tripod with an attachment at the top to mount your camera. You have to hold it up yourself, but if you’re using shutter speeds in the 1/250th range with a long lens, you may have some camera shake that will result in a blurry photo. Monopods help stabilize the camera, are very inexpensive and can make a huge difference in the sharpness of your shots. It’s easy to sit in the stands watching a game with the monopod adjusted to the correct height, and a side benefit is that you don’t have to hold up the weight of the camera the entire time.
Taking action-stopping photos or photos with creative motion blur can really help make your pictures stand out. Experiment with the techniques above and you’ll see the difference right away.
For those looking to improve your photography, I've also created an app for iPhone / iPad / Android which teaches photography and how to get photos like these while you're out taking pictures. Click here:
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