Timing Action Photography


When we take action pictures, we’re trying to record an event. The instant that the photo physically represents is meant to describe the entire event. An “Event” isn’t a baseball game or tennis match, it’s an individual encounter between a batter and the ball or a tennis player hitting the ball. The storytelling limits of a photograph depend on how long the exchange is. In the case of a baseball pitch, it’s just as long as it takes for the ball to get from the pitcher to the batter. Once the batter hits the ball, or the catcher catches it, the event reaches a conclusion. In basic terms, you can break down an event into a couple discrete segments. Beginning, duration, conclusion. The image that the viewer sees is different for each phase of the event. Since the image doesn’t record the entire event, you rely on the viewer to create the rest of the event based on the image that you present them.


It took a bit of experimenting to get the timing of this picture correct.  I wanted a closeup of the catcher with the ball in frame.  Without a visual queue to trigger a picture, I had to estimate when the ball would be in the correct position.

As you take pictures of a game, you become attuned to the action, and can predict how each actor will react and how they participate. That point guard likes to shoot from the key, that pitcher tucks his arm in a little during his delivery. Once you have a good sense of the rhythms that the players use, you can begin to choose which part of the event you want to record, and what queues the player gives just before that instant. For a point guard, you can take the picture at the moment that he starts to jump, while he is in the air, just after he has released the ball, or when he is falling back to the court. Which stage of the shot you choose to capture determines how much tension or action your final image will have and what story you tell. Photographing the point guard as he is rising on his toes to make a jump shot captures a lot of tension, but not as much action. Photographing the shot after he releases the ball captures a lot of action, but less tension.

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I focused with the right focus point in my viewfinder.  By leaving room in front of the pitcher, the viewer can see the ball enter that space, and it literally leaves more room for them to imagine the outcome.

In most photographs, people have more tension in their bodies before and during the event than they do afterward. Muscles are tense as the guard is jumping, but once the ball is released, he relaxes, and is just a falling object. All of the tension that he used to start the shot has been transferred to the ball. Photographing the guard just as he releases the ball, but before he starts to fall, is the point where action and tension converge. A lot depends on what you want to convey in your image, though.


Taking a picture when the player is in the air can convey more action to the photograph and allow the viewer to imagine several outcomes from the event.

The viewer creates the meaning of a photograph, the photographer just captures the image. There are some things that the photographer can do to increase or decrease the possibilities available to the viewer. The timing of a picture has a lot to do with how many imaginary paths are available to the viewer. When you think about a basketball player taking a shot, you inevitably construct the event from your memories. A “Basketball Shot” contains several movements and actions that you are expecting based on your memories of watching basketball games. Most people imagine a jump shot when they picture a basketball shot in their minds. The player jumps, releases the ball, and it goes into the basket. The choice of which instant to capture in the sequence determines what emphasis the photographer places on the entire event. The picture represents the entire memory that the viewer has, and can confirm or disrupt their preconceived notions of how the event plays out. A picture taken just as the player is starting to jump doesn’t have enough information to convey the entire event to a viewer. The player could be passing the ball, avoiding a defender, or taking a jump shot. It’s not until a little later in the sequence that a jump shot become inevitable. For the photographer, there is a short window where the jump shot is inevitable to the viewer. After that instant, the picture begins to lose energy as the shot progresses. The trick is to take the picture at the point where the shot is recognizable to the viewer, and the picture has enough energy to propel the viewer’s imagination to construct the rest of the event.


This picture is a miss.  I wasn’t able to get a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion.  I keep it as a reminder of things to look for in an action sequence because the pose is so iconic.

The brute force way of getting the perfect shot is to set your camera to shoot continuously and just hold the shutter down while a player takes a jump shot. Then it’s just a matter of discarding all but the right shots. That’s a good technique when each event has to be captured perfectly, like professional sports photography. It doesn’t inform your photography at all, though. The other issue with continuous shooting is that most cameras lock the settings and focus at the beginning of the sequence. If you’re wrong at the beginning, all subsequent shots will be equally wrong. Also, the study of subjects, the way they interact with each other and their environment, is lost.


Capturing the instant before a goal is scored or the goalie makes a save leaves the outcome up to the imagination of the viewer.  This venue was very difficult to take pictures in.  The hue of the light was good, there just wasn’t enough of it, even when I bumped my ISO up to 800.

When I was learning how to play tennis, my coach emphasized the follow through. To me, it seemed like a useless part of the swing. What does it matter that my racket is in the wrong position when I’ve already struck the ball? The ball is on its way, but I’m still back there trying to make my wrist rotate in the proper way. The follow through is an important part of the swing because thinking about it shapes the rest of the swing, even though it doesn’t have much affect on the trajectory of the ball by itself. Thinking about the different parts of an action shot, and choosing which one to capture is similar. Observing the way that people move and the way they transfer energy gives your photography a new insight into your subjects. It’s not something that you can express overtly in your pictures, but it is something that viewers intuitively understand, because they experience it in their own lives. Since photography is an artificial way to record intuitive experiences, the photographer has to think about the moving parts of the picture in order to mimic what we all see naturally.

2008-01-04_139The trigger for this picture was the player in the foreground.  He was about to obscure the pass by moving in front of my lens.  Instead of waiting for the pass, I had to take the picture a little early.

The best way to start taking action pictures is to simply study the way that your subjects move and try to break those movements down into discrete parts. Look for the parts that convey the most tension in the player and the most action in the event. The confluence of tension and action in a photo can be different depending on your angle, so it’s important to reevaluate the best instant to capture whenever you go out to take pictures. Once you have identified the instant you want to capture, look for the queues that precede it. These queues become triggers that you can use to time your photographs. When I’m taking wedding pictures, especially group pictures, I don’t focus on all the subjects. Getting everyone to line up and smile at the same time is nearly impossible. Instead, I focus on a couple principle subjects, and take pictures whenever they are in the right positions. The groom and bride in the right position is enough of a trigger to make me take a picture. After the session, I can discard the ones where uncle is picking his nose. A basketball player, with all those moving parts, is similar to a group photo. Instead of trying to queue on the whole, find an individual part that can act as a photographic trigger. The motion that you’re waiting for will vary depending on your reflexes and the speed at which your camera can take a picture. Sometimes, one foot leaving the ground at the beginning of a jump shot can be a trigger, other times it’s the point where the player raises the ball above his head in the middle of the shot.


I positioned myself on the outside of a curve in this bicycle race because the cyclists coasted around the turn.  Their legs weren’t pedaling, so they show up better in blur/motion shots.  It’s important to be observant of the human mechanics involved in any sports photography.

It takes a bit of experimentation to find the triggers and the parts of the whole that produce the best pictures for you. Once you’ve identified photographic triggers, though, you’ll find that it makes the next photo session easier because you know the general movements that you’re looking for, and what part of the event sequence they occur in. As mechanical beings, our movements are similar to each others, but subtly unique. It’s the photographer’s job to illuminate the differences while maintaining the similarities. It’s the similarities in the way we move that provide a basis for the viewer to understand our pictures, but it’s the unique subtleties that make each picture special.

2 Responses to “Timing Action Photography”

  1. mostlymonochrome Says:

    My experience of action shots is that bright sunlight is essential to get the shutter speed down to 8000th of a second, also knowing what is actually about to happen in the sport is handy too.

  2. Doc Says:

    One of my favorite holiday traditions is getting together with my college sorority sisters and their sons and decorating cookies. We all have boys around the same age and they loves decorating the cookies for Santa and we love catching up! It's our &qtgi;ouft" to each other and we all look forward to it each year!

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