Capturing Action With Your Camera

Rodeo WEB IMG_0415

1/1000s @ f/4.5 ISO 800 @ 200mm

La Esperanza, Nicaragua

Whether it’s a bull rider in Nicaragua, or a Great Egret in flight in Guatemala, the goal is to stop the action while preserving a sense of motion. When I’m shooting a subject in motion, especially fast motion, I almost always shoot in shutter priority mode with auto-ISO. With these settings my camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame digital camera) will select the appropriate aperture setting and ISO speed. I will usually use one-shot focus with a single focus point, and continuous shooting at 3.9 fps.

These are not hard and fast settings, but they’re a good starting point. Normally I set my shutter at about 1/1000s depending on the subject and its speed. A slow-moving subject may allow me to slow my shutter speed to 1/500s (or even 1/250s) depending on my focal length. For fast-moving birds in flight my shutter speed will often approach 1/2000s (or even 1/4000s). At these speeds my camera will open up the aperture, and increase the ISO.

When I’m tracking a moving subject I will sometimes set my autofocus mode to Al Servo AF which allows continuous (changing) focusing. My hit rate isn’t very good in this mode, often resulting in a lot of unusable blurred photos, but combined with 3.9 fps continuous  shooting I can walk away with a few keepers. Shooting action is all about the numbers, the more frames you shoot the better your odds are for getting a few good shots. Even seasoned wildlife and sports photographers play the numbers game.

The Canon EOS 7D Mark II is probably a better action shooter than my camera. Its autofocus is better, and it will shoot at 10 fps in continuous mode. The downside is it has a smaller AF-C sensor (a 1.6x crop sensor) versus my full-frame sensor. The smaller sensor can struggle in low light situations, where my camera gets good results up to about ISO 3200 (even ISO 6400 if the conditions are right). Pushing a 7D Mark II that hard usually results in some pretty noisy (grainy) images.

Action photography is fun stuff. With the motion stopped you can really view the action closeup. Look at the bull and its rider in this post; you can clearly see twists, turns, muscle definition, and expression. While it’s occurring your biological eye just can’t take it all in (physically it takes it all in, but your brain doesn’t consciously register it). It’s analogous to shooting very small subjects with a macro lens, you see more detail than your sight registers at the time. So have fun with it.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, and World Traveller

Lima, Peru


2 responses to “Capturing Action With Your Camera

  1. I really appreciate your tips on action photos Steve, but wished you had picked a more animal-friendly subject. I say this as someone who actively protests the cruelty of rodeos among other entertainment events using animals.

    • I can certainly appreciate your views on animal cruelty (and I share them). Travelling presents a number of ethical challenges, animal rights being one. Although the photo I used documents a very real cultural experience (this rodeo was for the benefit of the native peoples in the jungles of Nicaragua) I probably could have been more sensitive about the photo I selected. I will assure you that I witnessed no overt cruelty to any of the animals while I was viewing this event (and I was there all day). Thank you, as always, for your insightful and diplomatic comments (I take each and every one to heart). 🙂

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