There’s probably more action to try and capture during a regular week at Black Mountain Ranch than there is on your usual summer vacation. Unfortunately most people without a lot of experience or practice in this area are often a bit disappointed by their action photo efforts. So here’s how you can try and make them a bit better.

You’ll need 3 things:

  1. A good ‘fast’ camera
  2. Shooting action skills
  3. A level of knowledge and understanding of what you are photographing

Now those of you with a basic ‘point and shoot’ camera already put off by No.1 above, don’t be deterred. Do read on. While a good (preferably Digital SLR camera) is no doubt a significant advantage in this area of photography there are still things you can do with the most basic of cameras to improve your action photos. So bear with me. Please?

1. A Good ‘fast’ Camera

To capture ‘the moment’ in action shots you primarily need light and a fast shutter speed. To let more light in so your shutter speeds can be fast (1/1000 or more) a camera with the ability to allow high ISO settings (800 or more) helps hugely, as does a lens with a wide aperture (f4.0 or less). Then to get up close you’ll need a long lens (70-200 mm zoom minimum).

Nowell in Arena at Black Mountain Ranch
Aperture f4.0 Shutter speed1/4000 ISO 800 Focal length 70mm

It also helps to have a quick auto focus system and a minimal amount of shutter (or more accurately ‘processor’) lag. That is the time that passes between the moment you press the shutter release button to the moment the camera actually gets the shot. Add to that the desirability of quick camera write times – the speed at which your camera stores each photo before allowing itself to be ready for action again, and it’s not hard to see why the sports action guys turn up to events with serious bits of kit.

But all these things are about shooting pics good enough for Sports Illustrated. Whatever your camera is the most important thing you can do to help yourself take better action shots is to understand its capabilities and limitations and make it work for you as best you can.

If you have a point and shoot camera explore what (if any) over-rides or extras you have. It may be that you have a sports setting, it may be that you can shoot in ‘bursts’ (more than one shot at a time before the camera ‘writes’ the images), or it may be that you can adjust the ISO settings. Even read the manual (god forbid!) so you know what your fastest shutter speed and widest aperture are. At the very minimum have a play and get familiar with your camera’s shutter lag so you can anticipate it, see how long it is before it’s ready to shoot again and check how far you can zoom. Knowing all this will help you set up the camera as best you can and push the button at the right time.

If you are lucky enough to have a DSLR, get used to start using the manual controls to amp up the shutter speed, open the aperture and increase the ISO. Depending on the amount of ambient light you have available, you’ll probably find it easier to shoot on either shutter speed priority if you have plenty of light (where you set the shutter speed and the camera deals with the aperture), or aperture priority if the light is not so good (aperture as wide as possible and let the camera get the best shutter speed available).

If you have a Servo Zoom facility switch it on. It will allow the camera to keep the moving object continually in focus if you have the button pressed halfway down. Set the shot selection to ‘burst’ or continuous (rather than single shot) then strap on your longest lens (with an aperture of f4.0 or less) and you’re good to go. Shutter lag and camera write issues are less of a problem with a DSLR.

….And turn your flash off. It won’t help you and you’ll only annoy people.

2. Shooting Action Skills

One of the most important skills is simply thinking ahead. You don’t have much time once the action gets going. So work out where and when you are going to take your photos. Think about your composition. Look at the background and the lighting. If there are distracting elements in the background, move. When it comes to light, what you generally don’t want for portraits (i.e. harsh direct light) is often good for action, especially if you want to ‘freeze’ it. Watch a few subjects pass through your selected shooting area and see how the lighting affects them and if your camera settings are appropriate.

Depending on what kind of action you are shooting, pre-focusing is a useful trick often used by the pros. You decide in advance where you want to take the shot and set your focus to that point (usually with a test subject). Then fix that focus point and wait until your subject comes into frame and shoot as it arrives there. This can be easier than trying to focus on a rapidly moving subject and is good when you can accurately predict where your subject will be (like barrel racing), the downside is it’s not so good for action which moves a bit more randomly (like bull-riding).

cyndy racing

Use the viewfinder to see the action. You don’t have time to switch between live looking and looking back through the viewfinder. And don’t ‘chimp’. This is looking back through your photos on the screen. Tempting as it is, you’ll probably miss something whilst doing it. Wait for natural breaks in the action to do this. Keep shooting. Sometimes the best moments come right after you think you’ve got it.

cowboy at rodeo

There are 3 main ways to deal with an action subject:

Freezing Action is all about shooting at a fast shutter speed (at least 1/6000 and often much more depending upon the lighting conditions). A suspended moment in time. This is almost impossible to do with a basic point and shoot camera, But if you are in the right place at the right time, a DSLR set up correctly will give you some great shots. 

bronc rider
Shutter speed 1/1600 ISO 4000
bull rider
Shutter Speed 1/1600 ISO 4000

Blurring Action is done with a much slower shutter speed. Here your point and shoot can compete admirably with the big boys if you get it right. The aim here is to keep the subject sharp while the moving background is blurred, and it’s a great way to show speed. To make it work you have to master a panning technique. This means tracking your subject with the camera so that it stays in the centre of your viewfinder. Then press the shutter halfway down to start the autofocus. Keep moving with your subject and push the button down all the way when it reaches the desired spot. Most importantly, keep panning as you trip the shutter and for a beat afterwards. It take a bit of practice to keep the camera steady and smooth but is well worth it. Rotating your waist and keeping your feet still is the best method.

Shutter speed 1/100
Man in Rodeo
Shutter speed 1/80

Catching Action at its Peak can be done with either a slow or fast shutter. It relies on a sound knowledge of the type of action you are shooting and the premise that in most instances there is a time where the subject slows down at a critical point. This can be when they rise in the air, stop momentarily and then fall back down, or change sharply from one direction to another. It’s the time when the action itself almost seems to freeze and if you shoot at this ‘peak’, it’s possible to catch that stopped motion whatever camera you have.

Roping in the arena
Shutter speed 1/320 ISO 100
Shutter speed 1/320 ISO 250
Shutter speed 1/320 ISO 250

3. A Level of Knowledge and Understanding of what you are Photographing

Do your homework and be informed. Arguably as important as the first two points, knowing what your subject matter will do in action situations will really make a huge difference. It will help you know when a situation is critical, anticipate key moments, improve your timing and therefore enable you to capture better shots.

I never knew about guns before I went to the ranch, now I know when the reload happens and can capture the shell being ejected
I never knew about guns before I went to the ranch, now I know when the reload happens and can capture the shell being ejected
Knowing more about the art of roping (and a dose of luck) helped me get this
Knowing more about the art of roping (and a dose of luck) helped me get this

Knowledge about the field of action can help you better decide where you want to position yourself to get your shots. When I first started shooting at Steamboat Springs Rodeo I got what I thought was a good spot near the bull & bronco chute. But I found when the steer wrestlers came on I would get this:

in the arena

So for that event I decided to move to a low, head on angle at the end of the arena and I got this:


and then this:

at the rodeo

Play with different angles and ideas. Every action picture doesn’t have to look the same. Here are 4 very different shots featuring Ryan May roping in the Black Mountain Ranch arena.

Image 18 Image 17 Image 16 Image 15

Finally, don’t forget your surroundings. This may seem like a no brainer, but by taking a look around you can often see other things that capture the spirit of the event just as vividly as what’s happening in front of you.

Wrangler Helen’s horse Little Joe appears unimpressed by the roping efforts in the arena
Wrangler Helen’s horse Little Joe appears unimpressed by the roping efforts in the arena
An enthusiastic fan at the rodeo
An enthusiastic fan at the rodeo

So go out and practice, on your pets, your kids, whatever is moving and get yourself a piece of the action!

Nicola, The Pikey Project 

Next blog: How to get great ‘Jump Shots” Woohoo!

One Comment

  1. Ellen Lemmox

    I love your blogs every week, they keep me going through a rather duller suburban existence; lovely to hear more each week

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