Freezing the Action :: Digital Photo Secrets

Freezing the Action

by David Peterson 19 comments

Perfect Action Shots are actually quite hard to photograph. Action shots are of moving subjects, and unfortunately most cameras aren't that good at taking photos when the subject is moving. You'll often get a blurry image (called motion blur) because the subject has moved in the frame while the shutter is open.

There are some tricks to help you freeze the action (and remove motion blur), but still give the illusion of movement.

Increase Shutter Speed

Blurry images happen because the subject (or the camera) moves while the camera's shutter is open.

With a fast moving subject (like a race car, or a child on a swing), a solution is to use a faster shutter speed. Your subject won't move as much while the shutter is open resulting in crisper images with no motion blur. If your camera has a 'Shutter Priority' mode, choose that and increase the shutter speed to at least 1/200 sec - or even more if your subject is moving fast. Try a few test shots and keep increasing the shutter speed until your image is crisp.

Follow the Subject
In this photo, the camera was following the child resulting in a pleasing motion blur effect.

If you don't have a shutter priority mode, decrease the ISO setting. A lower ISO (like 50 or 100) will decrease the shutter speed automatically because you have effectively told the camera's sensors that there is lots of light around.

The problem with a very fast shutter speed is that you not only freeze the action, but you also freeze any illusion of movement. It can look like your subject is not moving at all - particularly race cars.

Follow The Subject

The solution is to follow your subject with the camera. Shoot only when they are in the right position (like closest to you). Because your camera will be following your subject while the shutter is open, the subject will be much sharper than the background. The background will be quite blurry as it will have moved relative to the camera during the same time. The result is a very pleasing motion blur that we all associate with moving objects.

Thanks for John Barratt for the use of his photo.

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  1. joseph clinton says:

    how l i take shutter freeze in low light... i l just increse ISO and i l reduce the shutter speed but it making the pic as a motion blur its not like a shutter freeze what i want to do sir????

  2. Hellen says:

    Quick recommendation.... more images and videos in upcoming
    posts. Massive blocks of text pain my eyes and I detest it,
    rofl. Wall of text strikes for 3456 damage.... haha.

    That joke never gets old. Outstanding information though!

  3. george espera says:

    hi david,

    i've been receiving your photo tips thru email and i thank god for subscribing....i really learned a lot by following your advices and tips...i gave up reading the manual of my prosumer camera in favor of your columns because it is much easier to is somewhat difficult especially with all the different jargons being used but with you around, i'm using my camera almost everyday now.....

    more power and here's a thousand San Miguel beer (Philippines and Asia's famous beer) toast to you!!!!

  4. Dale says:

    set to high iso and fast shutter speed. but check what apeture you get as it will change depth of field and you may lose the focus. its tricky stuff but your camera should be able to handle it. A fast lens helps too.

  5. Lynn says:

    I have a Nikon D50
    How do I set my camera to take sports shots in a high school gym?
    Bad lighting and fast motion, a nightmare for a beginner.

  6. Ansel Adams says:

    Ah, decreasing ISO will decrease shutter speed (increase exposure time) since you are telling the camera it is less sensitive to light, so it needs more of it.

    Every sportshooter knows that you crank the ISO up as high as possible. The problem with consumer point-and-shoots is that you typically start seeing alot of noise abobe ISO 200. DSLRs can go to 800 or more before seeing the same noise.

  7. Wes says:

    Another tip for focusing on a subject moving closer or farther if your camera has the feature is setting the autofocus to AI Servo in the menu. The Canon Rebel XT does have this feature: Menu 1 > AF Mode > AI Servo > Set. The camera will continuously focus when the button is pressed half way and you should have a correctly focused photo!

  8. Wes says:

    Reply to Cindy:
    Your scenario is a tough one!
    You are correct in thinking that the subject would likely be out of focus if it is comming closer. One way to help with this is to use a smaller aperature if the available light allows for that. Instead of f5.6, for example, use f11 or f15 or even f22 which will give a greater depth of field (fancy term for saying a sharper foreground AND background). It might be helpful to use aperature priority for this situation.

  9. Cindy says:

    I have a Canon Rebel XT. When I want to shoot something in motion, say a dog running towards me, if I focus on him when he is away from me, what happens when it is time to take the shot as he gets nearer? Won't it be out of focus? Does the camera take into account that the subject is closer? Thanks for all the help. Cindy

  10. Gene Angeles says:

    Every bits of information recieved from here helps me to be a better user of digital camera.

    Many thanks,


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