Essence of Photography: Freezing Action

Capture sports and action by using a fast shutter.

August 18, 2021

F/2.8 | 1/1000 second | ISO 2500

What makes a good exposure? It is a photo that is not too dark and not too bright, but looks very similar to the way you see it with your eyes. When you use an auto mode on the camera (like a phone for example), you don't have to think about all the settings that are used to create the exposure.

This works in many cases, but what if you want to do something different, like freeze a fast moving object in your image. This requires some additional knowledge about how to control the light that reaches your cameras film or digital sensor.

The main way to set the exposure is through the aperture and the shutter speed. The aperture (or f/stop) is the hole in front of the lens that lets light through to the sensor/film. The smaller the hole, the less light can come in.

Shutter speed is how long light is exposed to the sensor/film. A "long shutter" means the camera takes longer to make the image.

Consider that the longer the shutter stays open, moving objects will appear to blur through the frame. Think of a moving car. If you took a photo that lasted one second, the car would move visibly from one place to another in that time. In the photo, the car would appear like a blurred shape along its movement path.

If you want your subject to be crisp and to "freeze" the action, you should use a fast shutter speed such as 1/250 of a second (denoted like 1/250") or faster.

This will ensure fast moving objects appear frozen in the frame vs blurred or moving.

Remember that a fast shutter means less light can come into the camera. You will need to compensate this by using an aperture (f/stop) that lets in more light. This would appear like a smaller number such as f/2.8 or f/4 vs a larger number like f/16.

If your camera has a "Shutter Priority" mode, you can use that to select a fast shutter speed and your camera will automatically select the brightest aperture setting to get the right exposure.

Your camera may also have a dedicated "sports mode" which in essence tries to use the fastest shutter speed possible for the given light of the scene. This is a good setting to use to practice freezing action.

Fast Shutter Examples

Below you will find some examples of freezing action in a photo, along with the f/stop and shutter speed used to create that photo.

This backflip was captured with a shutter of 1/6400" (one sixty-four thousandth of a second). That is a very fast shutter and more than capable of freezing action. You can see that even the clumps of sand are frozen in the air.

f/3.2 | 1/6400" | ISO 400

If you look at the settings for the girl jumping (below), you will see a wide aperture was used (f/2.0) as it was likely getting dark out and necessary to let enough light in to freeze her in the air.

If you are trying to practice freezing action, this is a fun and easy way to get started. Set your camera with a fast shutter speed and find a friend who is willing to jump in the air.

f/2.0 | 1/320" | ISO 800

On a sunny day, it is easier to freeze action because there is a lot of light and you can use a fast shutter speed.

f/6.3 | 1/320" | ISO 200

In the photo below, the photographer did a good job freezing the players jumping in the air for the football. Notice the shutter speed was 1/160" (one one sixtieth of a second) which is nearly too slow to freeze action. You can see that the football looks a little blurry in the air. A faster shutter could have been slightly more effective.

f/4.5 | 1/160" | ISO 100

Freezing subjects is not just used for sports and action photography. You can also freeze moments in nature that we don't get to see as clearly with our eyes because it happens too quickly. In this photo, two birds (a crow and a kestrel) were fighting and diving at each other.

Here it looks like the birds are frozen in the air as they fight. Notice that the crow (black bird on top) was moving so quickly that even with a fast shutter (1/500"), it still has some blur around its wings.

f/5.6 | 1/500" | ISO 400

In the next photo we see a swan dipping in the water with its beak. The fast shutter speed (1/1600") freezes the water as it splashes.

f/5.0 | 1/1600" | ISO 200

A fast shutter froze a wasp flying near a butterfly and flower. Note that the wasp is small and moving quickly which results in some motion in the wings and body. With an even faster shutter, the wasp would have appeared to be completely still and frozen with the wing shapes visible.

f/5.6 | 1/640" | ISO 400

Flash Photos

In addition to a fast shutter, another way to freeze action is to use a flash or studio strobe. In a darker scene, the camera exposure settings may not be able to both light up the scene, and freeze the action. In this case, using a flash creates a quick burst of light which freezes the moment.

In this photo, the shutter speed is not very fast (1/25") but the flash helped to freeze the moment of the boy jumping in the air.

f/5.6 | 1/25" | ISO 400

Flash or strobe photography is sometimes called "High Speed Photography" and can be used to freeze things like a bullet flying in the air, or a drop of liquid making a splash.

f/16 | 1/160" | ISO 200

What is ISO?

You may notice along with f/stop and shutter speed, there is also a value called ISO. This is a carry over from the days of film and describes the sensitivity of the film to light. A lower number like ISO 200 is used in bright conditions as it lets less light in. A higher number like ISO 1600 lets in more light but may make the image appear grainy or noisy.

In low light, ISO can be used as another way to let more light in along with a low f/stop (f/2.0 - f/4.0 for example) in order to get the right exposure.

All together, aperture + shutter speed + ISO form what is called the Exposure Triangle. To create the proper exposure, these numbers must be adjusted in combination to let in the right amount of light for the scene. With automatic settings on your camera, you don't have to always adjust each one, but it is good to have an understanding how they work together and how each setting can be used for different types of effects like freezing action.

In the image below, the photographer managed to capture this bull rider, but because it was so dark outside, he used a very high ISO (6400) to get a proper exposure. Otherwise the image would appear too dark and you could not see the rider or bull.

You can see the quality of the image is impacted as it looks "grainy" like there is noise or sand on the image (see the dark area in the top right or crowd in the top left where it is most prominent).

Sometimes it is a tradeoff to capture a great moment, even if the final image quality is not 100% the best that it can be. There is also good software / apps that can edit out digital noise and fix some photos with high ISO.

f/4.5 | 1/320" | ISO 6400

Challenge yourself to learn how to set the shutter speed and see how different shutter speeds affect the image. You can also use a very slow shutter to create a long exposure which is another type of photography effect.

Essence of Photography is a series of tips, tutorials, and visual inspiration on a variety of photography skills and techniques.

You can practice these skills and more by purchasing a deck of Photo Cards from Zoom In Reach Out, a non-profit with a mission of teaching to see the world from a different perspective.

All photos in this article were posted to the Aminus3 Photography Community and are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

Click on any photo to see a larger version or to leave a comment for the photographer.

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TOPICS: essence of photography

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