Taking Better Digital Photos With Auto Settings Part 4:
Auto Focus And Action Shots

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Know your flash's range. This is a very important technical aspect, that is mastered by experience.

Using the auto mode on a digital camera gives you a point and shoot camera that allows you to concentrate on the subject while the camera makes the necessary settings to give you a well exposed and properly focused image.

But like most automatic features, knowing how they function will help you keep the camera from getting fooled in those special situations that often yield the most dramatic photos: including when your subject is backlit or off-center or moving rapidly.

The Decisive Moment

Sports and Action photography is all about timing. It's about reacting. It's about being in the right place at the right time and it's about execution. The saying goes "If you see the action you missed it." This basically means if you wait for the soccer player to head the ball then press the shutter release, the ball most likely will be sailing out of the frame. You have to push the button before the action so that the shutter has time to open and close.

Required Equipment

"Its not the equipment but the photographer who makes the picture" is generally a true statement. However with sports and action photography, having the wrong equipment means not getting the shots you want. The further away, the longer the lens is needed to capture the same image in the frame. Generally, each 100mm in lens focal length gets you about 10 yards (9 meters) in coverage. This coverage means that on a vertical format photo, a normal human will fill the frame fairly well.


There are two primary means of focusing a camera: Follow Focus and Zone Focus.

Follow focus is where you keep your camera on your subject. This works very well on side to side movement, where the camera to subject distance is not changing rapidly. You might use this method for football, auto racing, or other events where you turn side to side following the action.

The second method is called zone focus. Here you expect the action to take place at a particular place, at the goal mouth on a hockey rink, or at the jump point on a long jump event at a track meet. You can focus on the area you want to be sharp and when the subject moves into the zone, you then take the photo.


Faces - The face is the primary source of emotion in a shot and that emotion is what makes or breaks a shot. Shots of the subject's backside just don't cut it.

Vertical/Horizontal - You can hold the camera in the traditional way where the long side of the film is horizontal to the ground or Landscape. If you turn the camera so that the long side of the film is perpendicular to the ground, you are now shooting vertical or portrait format. Think about the shape of humans. They are taller than they are wide. To fill the frame with a person playing a sport, they fit the frame better while holding the camera vertically.

Rule of Thirds - There is a common photograph rule called "The Rule of Thirds", which says that if you divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally (like a tick-tac-toe grid) and place the subject where the lines intersect, the resulting photo is more interesting. Lead your subject into the frame. If you are shooting a football player running left to right, leave more room on the right side than the left to imply that he is going somewhere. Shooting the player leaving the frame is poor composition.

Know your Sport, Know your Players

Each sport is different in the techniques used to capture the moment. It's very important to know the sport you are shooting. You have to understand some basic fundamentals of the game or you will become very frustrated.

Baseball - Baseball is one of the hardest sports to shoot. The action is unpredictable. You wait and wait and then when you are half asleep, something happens. You have to wait and be patient. Baseball games are long and you will get opportunities.

Basketball - Unlike baseball, basketball is the easiest sport to shoot. Action is contained in a 100 foot x 50 foot area. There are two objects (the nets) where the action always heads.

Football - Football is an easy sport to shoot but may be one of the most equipment intense sports. Most of the time, you will be shooting at night. Motion is predictable and a student of the game can almost predict the plays to allow you to get ready.

Soccer and Hockey - Auto focus was invented with soccer and hockey in mind. These two sports involve rapid changes in direction. Soccer is a game where you need long lenses. The ice wrecks havoc with your camera's meter. You will need to overexpose by at least one stop in ice rinks to get white ice. This takes away from your available shutter speed.

Track and Field - Track and Field meets are a lot of fun to shoot. You get a lot of variety of shots, multiple opportunities to shoot most participants and events and there generally is a lot of emotion displayed during a track meet. Use follow focus to catch runners and they move past, or zone focus if you are working on the finish line or pit.

Gymnastics and Figure Skating - With the exception of the floor program, most of the gymnastics events are kept in a small area which makes focusing easy and the movements are predictable so you will probably want to zone focus most of the events. Figure Skating combines the problems of gymnastics with the problems of hockey. You are limited by your access to off ice and you have to compensate for the white surface. Auto focus is a good idea for Figure Skating, though some success with follow and zone focusing can be achieved.

Motorsports and Racing Events - These sports are generally fairly easy to photograph. They usually occur during the daytime and you can get away with longer slower lenses and you can follow or zone focus easy enough.

Freezing Action Shots

Freezing the action requires fast shutter speeds. For subjects coming to you or heading away, their apparent movement isn't as great. Many people make up some of the action freezing by getting the action coming toward them. Giving the illusion of movement. Many new action photographers worry about freezing action, trying to get the crispest shots possible.

Your eyes don't freeze the action precisely, so why should your pictures. A blurring bat or an elongated ball leaving a blurry arm implies movement. As long as most of the body and the face are crisp a little motion in the hands, feet, and projectiles is acceptable and in many cases desired.


Shots that lack emotion are ho-hum. They lack energy. They lack story telling ability. If there is no emotion, then there is little desire to view it.

One final note. Don't rush your action assignments. Spend some time, and expect to shoot lots of shots. Only through practice and looking at the results and going back to it will you get the timing and skills needed to capture great action photos.

About the Author

The Editors at www.TakeBetterDigitalPhotos.com are committed to bringing you the most useful information about the rapidly evolving field of digital photography from a hobbyist perspective. Visit the Quick Tips page for techniques you can use at your next event or photo opportunity.

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