Fast action photos are very exciting to watch. They tend to give off a sense of motion, urgency and speed, which when photographed carefully can, to a large extent, transgress the boundaries of a two dimensional photo and capture the imagination of the viewer.
Panning to follow subjects in fast action photos
One of the best ways to shoot fast action photos is by using the technique of panning. Panning essentially means following a fast moving subject as it travels across the frame and capturing a picture in which the subject is in sharp focus whereas the background is blurred out. The final effect, like in the picture below, does imitate movement in a two dimensional frame.
How is it done? Panning involves following the subject with your camera as it moves. While it is impossible to travel at the same speed as the subject, it is possible to follow it using a lateral left to right (or right to left depending on the direction of the subject) movement of the camera (panning). This is why it is best to use the panning technique for subjects that are mostly traveling in a straight line and preferably parallel to you.
Modern digital cameras have advanced image stabilization systems (How Does Your Camera Image Stabilizer Work?) which automatically engage to counter any movement of the hands (camera shake). But the same image stabilization system can become a hindrance when you’re panning, because the movement is considered as ‘shake’ and the camera will try to correct it. To counter this problem Canon developed the Image Stabilization Mode 2. In this mode if you pan for a specific period of time the camera stops countering for the intentional horizontal movement. It however continues to correct for any movement that is perpendicular to your panning movement, thereby offering a sharper picture.
Canon’s much-revered Image Stabilization Mode 3, available in a few selected lenses, takes this a step further by engaging the correction function only when the shutter is fully pressed. It thus allows a much smoother panning and much sharper action photos.
Shooting a stationary subject against a fast moving background
This is an interesting way to capture the essence of ‘movement’ in your photos. In the above picture the person waiting at the train station is shot against a backdrop of a moving train. The focus is the person while the passing train is blurred in the background (How To Creatively Use Depth Of Field In Your Photos). The whole picture gives the essence of movement while keeping the focus on the stationary subject.
Using slower shutter speed in normal everyday photos
Using a lightly slower shutter speed in normal everyday situations can also give the perspective of motion in your photos. Action photos is all about capturing movement and you can do that either by slowing down or increasing the shutter speed to achieve the desired effect. In the above picture an everyday street scene was captured using a slightly slower than usual shutter speed. Notice the blurred image of the performer towards the center of the frame. You can also spot blurred images of people moving on the streets while others who are speaking and thus relatively ‘still’ appearing sharper in the frame.
Using a faster shutter speed to freeze movement
Finally, the easiest way to capture fast action photos – using a fast shutter speed. This is a no brainer as all you have to do is yank the shutter speed to something like 1/400th or even faster, frame and click. The result is you will freeze the movement in a ‘time-cocoon’ for all eternity. This technique is used to intentionally freeze movement and not necessarily to capture the ‘essence’ of movement in your action photos. Sometimes this approach can mislead and represent a slow moving subject as not moving at all.