preview image showing skier
Harry Guinness

Moving subjects, like your dog running about or your kids playing sports, are some of the hardest things to photograph well. It’s all too easy to end up with bad, blurry photos that show nothing at all. Here’s how to take good photos of moving subjects.

For the purposes of this article, it doesn’t really matter whether you shoot with a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera, or with a smartphone. Many of the tips and tricks are the same, and both kinds of cameras have their own advantages and disadvantages for action photos. Whatever your moving subject and the gear you have to hand, we can help.

Light, Camera, and Action

image showing skier on bright day
Lots of light makes action photos easier to take. Harry Guinness

When you take a photo, your camera records the light reflecting off everything in the scene in front of you. To take a “well-exposed” shot (basically, a photo that looks sort of like how your eyes saw things), it needs to be able to record enough light. It does that by either letting more light hit the sensor at once, or by recording the amount of light hitting the sensor for longer.

Unfortunately, when you’re taking a photo of something that’s moving quickly, your camera can’t take the photo for too long. If it does, whatever is moving will become a blurry streak. This is why you get blurrier photos in the evening or at night: There’s less light for your camera to work with.

When it comes to taking good action photos, the first and simplest step is to do it somewhere bright. Doing it outdoors during the day works best, but taking your photo in direct sunlight in the early evening can work well for you, too.

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Of course, it’s possible to take action photos at night or indoors, but it’s a lot harder to get right this way and can require expensive extra gear like off-camera flashes. If you’re just starting out taking photos of moving subjects, do yourself a favor and do it in good light.

All About the Camera Settings

There are three main camera settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. While all of them are important, shutter speed is the king of taking photos of moving subjects.

Shutter speed is how fast your camera takes that photo. If the shutter speed is 1/10th of a second, the photo records everything that happens in that 1/10th of a second. If something is moving quickly, it will appear blurry.

image showing blurry moving skier
If your shutter speed isn’t fast enough, your subject will be blurry. Harry Guinness

On the other hand, if the shutter speed is 1/4000th of a second, the image gets taken a lot quicker. No matter how fast something is moving, it’s likely to appear frozen in place.

photo showing sharp moving skier
Harry Guinness

With dedicated cameras, you can directly control the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This means that you can use a wide aperture and a high ISO to force your camera to use a fast, motion-freezing shutter speed—or even dial in the exact values you want for each setting.

With smartphones, the aperture is a fixed value, and the shutter speed and the ISO are set automatically by the camera app. If you want to be able to set them manually, you’ll need to download a third-party app or enable a special mode.

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If you’re following my advice and planning to shoot in bright daylight, auto-mode will probably work well for you. If you want to take action photos in slightly trickier situations, it’s worth being able to set a specific shutter speed, as your smartphone will often default to one that’s too slow to freeze movement.

How to Focus on a Moving Subject

Even with your camera set up to use a fast shutter speed, your work isn’t done. You need to get the focus right.

Depth of field can be a complicated subject in photography. When you take a photo, the lens manipulates the light so that a section of the scene appears in sharp focus. How big that section is depends on the kind of camera you’re using, what the lens focal length and aperture are, and a few other factors.

photo showing pigeon in front of a bus demonstrating depth of field
Notice how the bus and the background are slightly blurry. That’s because my camera was focused on the pigeon, so the depth of field didn’t include the background. Harry Guinness

If you’re using a dedicated camera, setting the aperture wide enough to use a fast shutter speed makes the area that’s in focus smaller. This makes getting your subject in focus a bit more challenging, but there are two good options:

  • Use autofocus to track your subject as it moves.
  • Manually focus on the part of the scene where you know that your subject is going to be, like, say, the ramp that your child is going to jump over on their skateboard.
photo showing skier at night
If you know where your subject is going to be, you don’t need autofocus. Harry Guinness

If you’re using autofocus, then you’ll need to learn how to control the different modes, points, and other settings. For more on both options, check out our articles on how to get the most out of autofocus with your camera and how to take photos that are always in focus. If you’re not careful, autofocus will just automatically focus on the wrong things.

If you’re using your smartphone, things will be a lot easier. One of the downsides of smartphones is that they don’t really do shallow depth-of-field images. For action photos, though, that’s really a plus. Almost all of the image will be in focus, so tracking your subject won’t be as hard for the autofocus system. (It also helps that smartphones have incredible CPUs). Roughly 99% of the time, as long as your shutter speed is high enough, you’ll be able to shoot moving subjects without any blur.

It’s Not One and Done

A small sampling of my missed action shots.

There’s a large element of luck to taking good action photos. For every amazing sports photo that appears on the front page of a national newspaper, the photographer took hundreds or even thousands of bad photos—often on the same day. To get the best photos of your moving subjects, you have to maximize the amount of chances you take to be lucky.

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The simplest way to do this is by taking bursts of photos. Why try and time the perfect moment to press the shutter button when you could hold it down and pick the best photo afterward?

dogs running on the beach
I have literally thousands of photos of my dogs. I only share the few best ones. Harry Guinness

This is another situation where smartphones are at their best. An iPhone has a faster burst speed than all but the highest-end sports photography cameras. You can just hold the shutter button and be nearly guaranteed a good shot.

With dedicated cameras, burst mode requires a bit more thought. The shot buffer can quickly fill up, so you will only get a couple of seconds at the maximum burst rate. You’ll need to time things a little more carefully. For a full guide to getting it right, check out our article on how to take better photos in burst mode.

And using burst mode isn’t the only way that you can pump your numbers. If you miss the photo, just try again. If you need to, restage the action scene. Nobody will know that you didn’t get it right the first time. You can also just walk a little further up the beach and keep taking photos of your dog. It might take you a few hundred missed shots to get the perfect one, but that’s just how it goes.

Other Tips and Tricks

photo from mixed ability rugby world cup
Harry Guinness

Like with most things, a little practice goes a long way. The more you try taking photos of your kids running around, the better you’ll be at taking great photos.

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In terms of composition, it normally looks better to have your subject moving through the center of the photo rather than being at the edge. This means that you need to plan ahead of your subject as you take photos.

Also, make sure that you’re actually tracking your subject with your camera. Don’t just hold it in one place.

What lens you use will affect the photo a lot. Telephoto lenses can make for more dramatic photos, but you will need to use even faster shutter speeds, and you might have a harder time getting focus. With wide-angle lenses, you can get close up.

How your subject is moving also affects things. If they move in a straight line through the image, it’s easier for you and your camera to anticipate the photo. On the other hand, if they’re bouncing around erratically, you might just need to rely on burst mode and hope.

One tool that a lot of photographers forget to use is their voice. Communicate with your subjects, tell them what you want them to do, and don’t be afraid to stage things. You’re not looking to win a Pulitzer prize—you just want a cool photo.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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