Photography tips: taking action shots

Bungy-jumping, mountain-biking, river-rafting – all great fun, but how can you capture the moment? Steve Davey offers his top tips

6 mins
A simple holiday isn’t enough these days. We don’t just want to visit far-flung exotic  locations, we want to go there and throw ourselves off a 100m-high bridge or into a fast-flowing river.

But amid all the white-knuckle excitement, what do you do with your camera? And how do you come back with pictures that will quicken your pulse for all the right reasons?

The secret lies in planning, and judicious use of equipment. You also have to be realistic: it’s pretty hard to get good shots of yourself taking part in an adrenalin sport. Most of the time you’ll get better shots if you photograph someone else, and then have them snap your actions in return.

You do want to get in close – and that can be a risk. Make sure that your camera is protected against water spray, flying gravel or whatever else might get thrown at it. If you are close to water then consider a waterproof housing. Some of the cheapest are for compact cameras, so if you’re taking your camera white-water rafting, pick up a cheaper compact – it will be less of an issue if it doesn’t make it.

There are also times when you want to photograph remotely. A wireless release can trigger your camera from a distance. If you are taking a camera on a bike or on some other adventure where your hands are busy then a head-mounted video camera is a good idea (though be prepared for a lot of editing). Catching a single still moment will be all but impossible.

If you are going to shoot yourself in motion, consider using a slow shutter speed to get a panning effect. Include a part of yourself or your vehicle in the composition to give a non-blurred reference point, to accentuate the feeling of speed.

Steve’s handy hints

1. Freeze the moment

Use a fast shutter speed to  freeze people in abstract positions. Select a speed of 1/1,000 or  greater (depending on the movement) and take several shots using a motor-drive setting. Shoot when your subject is in the air for the most striking effect.

2. Anticipate the action

Don’t run around following the action – try to anticipate it. Find an appropriate vantage  point, prepare and wait. You will miss some shots, but will be able to create better images of the ones that you are in a position to capture.

3. Protect your gear

Adrenalin sports involve some danger – for you and your camera. If near water, invest in a raincover or an underwater housing. These can affect the camera’s handling but keep it dry. Reaching buttons is hard, so use an automatic mode if possible. If doing something really risky, use an older, cheaper camera.

4. Highlight motion

Subjects will look stationary if you ‘freeze’ them with a fast shutter speed. Instead, try panning: use a slow shutter speed and move the camera with the subject. This will create a background blur, but the subject will be relatively sharp. Experiment with shutter speeds: 1/15 sec is a good place to start.

Three rules of shooting action shots

1. If you only remember one thing…

Sometimes you’ll have to sit out the action in order to get the best pictures of it – it’s hard to take great shots when you are hurtling around on a bike!

2. Tech tip

If you (and your camera) are moving then use a slow shutter speed for a panning effect. Include a stationary object in the frame to give a non-blurred reference point and heighten the impression of speed.

3. One for the kitbag

With a remote wireless release you can fire your camera from up to 30m away, perfect for when you want to artfully place the camera and snap your subject from safety.

Steve leads a range of travel photography tours, with land arrangements by Intrepid Travel.

Read more of Steve’s tips in our sister publication, Take Better Travel Photos

Steve is one of Wanderlust's Travel Photo of the Year judges – enter your photos now for your chance to win a trip to Papua New Guinea

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