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How to Shoot a Basic Action Shot

How to Shoot a Basic Action Shot

Action! Whether you're shooting the gridiron glory of a big football game or doing a simple pass in front of the camera, you need to know a few techniques to capture action shots.

With the camera stationary, only so much can happen within the frame without needing to readjust the shot to follow action that may spill out of it. Certainly some styles of filmmaking thrive on letting action unfold without panning or shifting the frame—early filmmaking was almost entirely stationary shots, but nowadays, panning or otherwise following the action with the camera is a dominant style in the industry. It brings viewers closer to the action, and finer details of what is unfolding onscreen are more observable.

Getting a good action shot is not hard, but it takes some patience and attention to detail—as all camerawork does! Here are a few pointers to help you get in on the action.

Plot it out.
You always want to know exactly where the action will unfold, to the extent that is possible. If you're shooting scripted action—a fight scene, a dance, a walk-and-talk—this is a cinch. Mark the action and plan your camerawork accordingly. However if you're shooting sports or some other type of event that you won't have control over or can't really mark, do as much scouting and recon as you can, watch dry-runs or practices, and be prepared to be flexible with your camerawork. For example, if you're shooting something like a car race, make sure you have a good sense of car movement on the racetrack, how much of your frame a car will take up, how fast drivers may be going, etc.

With action shots, things tend to happen fast. Too fast, that is, for the automatic focus on your camera to do any good. You don't want your camera wigging out during a shot because it can't decide what to focus on when the action is at its heaviest. Instead, switch over to the manual setting. If it's a scripted shot, mark out your focal points throughout and adhere to them as the action unfolds. If it's an unscripted shot, pick one focal point as close to where you think the action will unfold and set your focus there. For example, using the racecar example again, you might want to use part of the track sideline where you know a car is likely to whiz by as a focal point.

Set Exposure.
This may be the most important—and most advanced—bit of technique that can maximize your action shots. When you think of exposure, its role in still photography probably comes to mind. Exposure time, or shutter speed, is the duration of time the aperture is open to let light in and capture the image. With video, it's the same concept—the shutter speed denotes the length of time (in fractions of a second) the shutter is open during each frame of video. As a general rule, the lower the shutter speed/exposure, the better quality your action shots will be. Too much exposure per frame will cause your action to seem jumpy or blurred. A good rule of thumb for beginning and intermediate camera users to figure out what shutter speed to use is one divided by double the frame rate. So for example if you're shooting at 25 frames per second, your shutter speed would ideally be 1/50th of a second. If you're shooting at 30 fps, it would be 1/60th of a second.

Where the action goes, you shall follow! You want to make sure you get the action on camera from start to finish, so if that means panning, shifting, dollying, or even just running after it, that's what you have to do. If you're using a tripod, make sure it's nice and limber so that your pans will be smooth. Grease up your dolly and track for dolly shots. If you're acting as tripod or dolly, anchor your body somehow—plant your feet, brace your back—keep your arms limber and tension-free, and shoot away!

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