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[A Photographer’s Notes] 7 Tips for Beginner Action Sport Photographers




I have been living in Japan for the past 15 years, and throughout that time action sports photography (starting with freestyle motocross in 2006) has been a core element of my life. With the 2020 (2021?) Olympics in Tokyo the focus on Japanese action sports, and athletes have grown significantly over the last few years, there are still very few action sports photographers like myself here in Japan. 


Saying that, there are more and more photographers here in Japan looking to shoot action sports, so I thought I would give a few tips that beginners may find helpful. These are all things I wish I realized sooner in my shooting, and continue to keep in mind to this day.



  1. Learn about the sport you want to shoot before shooting. 


So you have an action sports shoot, but you don’t know much about the sport that will be performed. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone at some point in time. What is really nice about this day and age is that, through YouTube, websites like the Red Bull Content Pool, social media, and even magazine stills, there are lots of resources you can use to learn about any action sport before going out to shoot. 


So, maybe the week before your event or shoot, take a few hours and go online to see what kind of movements the athletes are likely to do. But don’t just watch video, look at photos as well. Try to understand what is the peak action of the sport, or, in other words, when is the best moment to take the image. 


Also, through this pre-event research, try to learn a little of the lingo of the sport. What are some of the popular moves or tricks? What do the athletes call the equipment that they use? The more you can learn, the easier it will be to understand the flow of a performance during an event, and the easier it will be to communicate with your athlete or performer if you are working one on one. 


  1. Learn the AF modes for your camera.


Many times flatland BMX riders drift or move while performing a long spin so I keep my AF mode to group/continuous so my camera can keep up with the change in movements.
Rider: Viki Gomez Jason Halayko/Red Bull Content Pool


When shooting action sports, I am very specific about which AF mode I am shooting in at any particular moment. Do I want to have one focus point and prefocus on a specific spot in the images and let my athlete come though the shot? Maybe I want to use a group focus point setting with continuous focus for when shooting a breakdance or flatland BMX event? When shooting a portrait, maybe your camera has a good auto-eye focus mode that you don’t even know about.  



What is important here though is that every camera has its own AF modes, and you need to learn the specific modes for your camera. My Nikon D5 has quite simple yet very effective AF modes. I know Sony cameras now have a wide variety of focus modes that, if you learn properly, could really help you nail difficult shots. 


So, again, before you go shoot, take a minute with your manual or on YouTube and explore the various AF modes of your camera. And see which ones would be best for the sport and situation you will be shooting. 



  1. Shooting in high continuous burst modes


During breakdance competitions dancers often do moves very quickly, and suddenly, so I almost always shoot long bursts of images during a move and pick the best action afterwards.
Dancer: B-Boy Hong Ten Jason Halayko/Red Bull Content Pool


With a relatively modern camera and a decent memory card it is easy to take anywhere from 9 to even 20 frames per second, continuous! This can really help when starting out with action sports photography. 


The best timing for many tricks and moves are often performed in only a fraction of a second. The best timing is to catch those moves, though it can be very difficult to succeed taking that well-timed one shot if you are just starting out. One, you might not know where the peak action is; two, it can be very difficult to get the timing right even if you know the exact moment you want to hit the trigger. 



Because of this I think it’s best to really utilize your camera’s high burst mode and take a lot of pictures of a single trick or move, and then decide later which images capture the “people action” best. This can lead to almost overshooting, but it’s better to overshoot than to miss the action. And sorting and editing images is easier than ever now. Check out this video if you want to learn more about that. [Link]


There are still many events and shoots where I have to get the best images, so I rely quite a bit on my D5’s high burst mode. Once you get used to your sport and want to start using strobes, you will need to get your one-shot timing locked down. But don’t worry too much about that at the start — just focus on ensuring you get the peak action, by any means necessary. 



  1. Learn from your subject.


Here I am double checking with the rider that I am getting the best position and timing for his trick. i always talk with the athletes to ensure a picture we are all happy with.
Rider: Ryo Katagiri



So you are out shooting with an action sports athlete or performer, taking tons of photos and having a great time. But you don’t know which photos are the best action, or you are not sure which angles show the sport in the best light, etc. It is in these situations where an open line of communication with your athlete can be the difference between a good and a great image. 



When out shooting, I will often double-check with my athlete and see which images they prefer, which images have the best action for them, and if they think the angles I am shooting are cool or appropriate. Through this communication, I have learned how to shoot many different sports, and have gotten images I would have never gotten on my own, had I not listened to the advice of the person I was shooting. 


So don’t be shy or feel stupid about asking your subject for advice when you are starting out. I find that by doing this the athlete will feel they are an active part of the shoot and will enjoy shooting with you a lot more than if you just bark orders at them and don’t ask for or take any of their advice.



  1. When possible, think about composition before shooting the image.


The rule of thirds is a simple rule of composition I use in many images and is something you can use to help create a pleasing look to your images.
Athlete: MOSA


The term “spray and pray” is common for beginner photographers: take a massive amount of images and hope you get at least one right. I know Tip 3 is kind of like that, and I don’t think this is a very productive way of improving your photography. 



So instead of spraying and praying, take a few seconds before you shoot to consider what would be the best composition for the images you want to take. Does this composition highlight your location? Does it express the extreme height or distance at which the athlete is performing? Is it interesting? 


I go into this more in this video here, but I think it is important to understand that a great action sports image is not 100% about getting the action. You still need to have an interesting and well-composed image. It’s by combining great composition with an amazing trick where you get a truly fantastic action sports image. [add link]



  1. Be aware of your peripherals, and keep your backgrounds clean.


This location actually had many things that could have been distracting such as buildings in the distance, polls, people walking around and such, but through my angle and waiting for people to walk through the image I made the image’s background much more simple and cleaner.
Dancer: B-Boy Jun


One thing that can take a great image and reduce it to only an okay image is a busy background with unneeded elements. These can be things like people’s bags, garbage, random people walking through your background, and other things that can be avoided easily if you take the time to look through your background settings before you shoot. Many times, taking a few seconds to clean up your background can really help the overall look of your image. 


Also, your choice of angle can really affect the overall look of the image. Whenever possible I will choose a graphically simple background over one that is very busy, like a busy street with lots of traffic. 



If you shoot with a 1.4 or 2.8 lens, you can separate your subject from the background with bokeh. But, even then, I would prefer a clean background over something too busy.  



  1. HAVE FUN!


Me being a dork as always while shooting.


I love shooting action sports. The sports are exciting, the athletes are amazing, and every time I go out and shoot I have an amazing time, even if I don’t happen to get amazing images.


All photographers and kinds of photography have their frustrating moments. But if you can relax, smile, and remember that photography is fun, I’m sure you will be able to work through any situation you encounter and come out better in the end.




Author: Jason Halayko

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