Action Sports Photography – How, Why, and When

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When you think of sports, what do you think of? Do you think of an actual game involving teams and positions? What about a specific season or the time an event takes place? Well, that may be great for some sports, but let me tell you about the beauty of action sports.

Action sports can happen anytime and anywhere. You don’t need to schedule seasons or even schedule a specific time for teams to meet. Action sports are spontaneous. They can start at the drop of a hat. I started to ponder why that is, and well, it’s probably because the athletes themselves are spontaneous.

So, you want to shoot action sports photography? Well, it involves understanding a few things first. Figuring out the basics of action sports photography will help you as you begin a steep learning curve once you actually start shooting.

Some Gear You’ll Need

Even if you’re a photographer who is focused on great composition instead of learning about photography gear, you still need to look for some specific pieces of equipment if you are starting out. I’m not going to tell you to buy a DSLR that will break your bank account. In fact I’ll give you two options to get started that have one thing in common, fast frames per second (FPS).

When I think action sports photography, I think of fast movement, and then I think of FPS. I want extremely fast FPS because I want to capture everything in one photo burst. Whether it’s a skateboard flipping…

Ruben Rodriguez water tower gap skateboard jump

…or a motorcycle flying through the air, I want at least 10-20 photos within a few seconds so I can pick the best image out of the bunch.


There are two cameras that quickly come to mind. For those on a budget, check out the Sony Alpha a6000. At just about $550 you can take amazing images at up to 11 FPS. Yes, this is a mirrorless camera, but it’s definitely good enough to invest in. The second is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. Now, the Canon is way more expensive, but it shoots at 10 FPS.

For some lenses, you will have to be the judge, but I’ll get you started. Some professionals in action sports photography prefer prime lenses, some prefer zoom. It’s personal opinion, but I’d look into a wide angle lens, telephoto, and a mid-range lens. You can see all of the best lenses on the market on my recommended gear page. And for other action sports photography gear (some which I use) you can check out this post!

Don’t Be Afraid

Rule number one of action sports photography: don’t talk about action sports photography… sorry, Fight Club reference.

Rule number one is be willing to take risks. Chances are you will be involved in some high risk, high reward shoots. Action sports athletes are pushing their limits whenever they practice and perform, so you need to do whatever it takes to get the perfect shot. If they are doing risky things for you, don’t ask them to do something again unless it’s absolutely necessary. Be sure you’re taking enough risks to get quality shots the first time. If they take risks, you should be too.

Telling a story photo
Telling a story photo

You also need to learn to be extremely flexible whenever you’re involved with shoots. I’ll give you an example. One night I went into a local indoor rock climbing facility to photograph some of their staff as they climbed. They were doing some very difficult climbs. Before we started the shoot, I walked around and looked for some great angles and ideas.

When the shoot began, everything changed. They knew the lines they wanted to take for each climb and told me which angles would look best. I decided to try both lists of shots. Want to know which shots were bad? Mine. Eighty percent of shots from our planned climbs were from their suggested angles. By the end of the shoot we decided that I was in control of the camera and lighting, and they were in control of the angles and climbs.

The moral of the story is that you will be dealing with people who do what they do all of the time. They know what they do better than anyone else. Would you let someone tell who doesn’t know about cameras tell you how to shoot? No! The same goes for action photography shoots. Be willing to work with your subjects and take their suggestions.

Shooting Basics

To get you started with your action sports photography, there are a few camera basics that I always start with, and a couple rules I always set for myself (I use the word “rules” loosely because I have been known to break them).

  1. Always shoot your action sports photography at a shutter speed equal to or above 1/250. Action sports move quickly and so should your shutter speed. Freezing action requires a very fast shutter speed. That’s why 1/250 should be as low as you possibly go.
  2. f/8-f/11 – Use an aperture that is going to give you crisp focus while letting in some light. If you use a wide aperture, your camera’s focus might miss the subject. A small aperture probably wouldn’t let in very much light. f/8-f/11 is the happy medium.
  3. A varying ISO – The ISO is used as the last resort. Use it to balance the available light accordingly.
  4. Continuous focus and shooting – Using continuous focus and continuous shooting together will give you optimal FPS, and track your subject while you shoot. There’s an entire post on how to do that HERE!
  5. High Speed Sync – If you’re using a flash (which some pros must do), be sure to use your flash in high speed sync. This tells your flash, “Hey, we are shooting really fast, so keep up!” Want to know how to program your flash for high speed sync? Read how HERE!

Action Sports Photography Shoots

One of the most interesting things about action sports photography is that you can actually organize shoots with athletes. In no other sport can you set up shoots for live action. Whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, or any other team sport, you have to shoot live action during a game. In action sports, you can set up a shoot anytime, anywhere!

The other great thing about organizing your own action sports photography shoots is that you have the ability to work one on one with the athletes to make the photograph amazing! The trick is to make your enthusiasm about the shoot contagious. If you get excited about the photos, the athlete will too! Explain the composition to them so they can get excited about the photo shoot like you are. Professional skateboard photographer Matt Price gives some great advice about action sports photography shoots in this interview!

Looking back on different action sports photography shoots I’ve been a part of, they are some of the most fun times I’ve had organizing photos. Action sports athletes have a passion for what they do that’s incredibly contagious, and their energy can be seen in your photos. For more sports photography tips, visit this page!