Tips for Freezing Fast-Moving Action

Fast-Moving Action - Skier

When a subject is moving fast, it can be difficult to ensure they are tack-sharp in your pictures. Here are some techniques, from basic to advanced, that help eliminate motion blur and ensure sharp subjects even when they’re moving fast.

Use a fast shutter speed. Okay, I know this one’s obvious, but for the newbies, it’s an important reminder. The number one way to stop fast-moving action is to use a fast shutter speed. That may mean opening up to the widest aperture on your lens (say, ƒ/2) and cranking up the ISO to allow for a fast shutter speed. Exactly how fast will depend on the movement, but suffice it to say 1/250th is the beginning of “fast” and it continues all the way to 1/8000th and beyond.

Fast-Moving Action - Peak Moment
Look for the peak moment, where the action naturally freezes for a moment.

Position is important. With the subject moving straight at the camera, or away from it, the change in size on the sensor will occur at a much slower rate than a subject moving laterally across the frame. In practice, this means that instead of sitting at the side of a racetrack and trying to shoot the cars as they fly by from left to right, sit at the end of the straightaway in the corner and shoot the cars as they drive straight toward you. This technique works well in many other non-racing situations too. Simply try to position yourself, or the moving subject, such that its movement is toward the camera or away from it, rather than side-to-side across the frame.

Look for the peak moment. At the peak of an action, often the action itself stops. The moment a basketball guard is at the top of his jump shot, for instance. At that instant, the player is neither going up nor coming down, but seeming to float there perfectly still at the peak of his jump. This is the perfect time to try to capture the action because it’s a brief instant of stillness in this otherwise fast-moving game. These instances occur in virtually every other sport as well. If you can find the peak, you can often find a moment of stillness—and that’s much easier to freeze.

Fast-Moving Action - Use a Flash!
A flash can be faster than your shutter helping to freeze the action.

Use a flash! Let the flash stand in for a fast shutter speed. Because the flash can be strong enough to override the ambient lighting, and because the flash is so much faster than practically every shutter speed you have, it only makes sense to use the flash as a key light to create a strobe-only exposure that will by default freeze fast moving action. This is especially true when using strobes designed for short flash durations—like the Paul C. Buff Einstein monolight, for instance, which sports a flash duration as fast as 1/13,500 in its Action mode.

Pan with the motion. If a downhill snow skier, for instance, is flying by at 80-miles-per-hour, you’d do better to pan with her as she flies down the hill than you would to pick a frame and try to capture her with a still camera as she blasts right through. Instead, if you pan with the movement of the subject, you can actually get away with a slower shutter speed and still make the subject tack sharp. In fact, a slower shutter speed can actually come in handy in situations like this because it permits you to blur the background and keep the subject sharp, further enhancing the effect of motion in a still frame. This technique works best with a telephoto lens, as long as you’re able to keep the subject within the frame—which gets trickier as the focal length increases.

Go with the blur! You know the adage, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em!’ Well if nothing is at your disposal to freeze the fast motion, succumb to it and make a picture featuring beautiful motion blur and let it show how much speed and motion are there in the action. A slower shutter speed, or moving camera, or a combination of both can make for beautiful, motion-filled photos. After all, sometimes a bit of blur says “fast” better than a shot with every movement frozen in place.

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