On your marks: top tips for shooting action

Want to capture definitive sporting moments? Here's all you need to know about taking spectacular action shots with your Canon camera.
A female athlete in a purple vest leaping over a hurdle.

Action photography sets a unique combination of challenges for photographers and their kit: the world is full of movement, but how do you capture it in a single image? Successful action photography requires you to understand some essential camera settings and features, and the impact they have on your photos. Mastering these will enable you to record blurred images to convey motion, or 'freeze' the image to capture a moment in time. There are also action techniques you can try, such as panning and tips specifically for anyone looking to photograph water sports or shoot action video.

It's also really beneficial if you're shooting with fast and lightweight kit. Canon has designed a comparatively compact and affordable range of highly capable cameras and lenses that can deliver excellent results when shooting action, including entry-level telephoto lenses that enable you to get as close to the scene as possible.

Here we outline the essential settings and camera features you need for shooting action and share some top tips and techniques to help you create incredible images.

Start with Sports mode

If you're new to action photography, you can start simple by using the Sports mode featured in most of Canon's entry-level and mid-range cameras. This will configure the camera with Servo (continuous) autofocus for tracking action and fast shutter speeds to freeze motion, as well as enabling you to take a sequence of shots by keeping the shutter button pressed. Simply turn your camera's shooting mode dial to the Sports position or look for it in the Scene modes menu.

Must-have camera settings for action photography

The screen of the Canon EOS 90D showing the Tv (Time Value) settings.

To take direct control of the shutter speed, set your camera to Shutter priority (Tv, which stands for Time Value) mode. Changing the shutter speed adjusts the overall exposure, but also enables you to control the amount of blur (or lack of it) in your images.

A snowboarder leaps through the air, the sun hazy in the sky alongside.

If you're shooting subjects against a bright sky, try applying positive exposure compensation. This helps to give the main subject the right level of brightness. A mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS R7 enables you to preview the effect in the viewfinder while shooting. Taken on a Canon EOS R7 with a Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens at 14mm, 1/2000 sec, f/8 and ISO200.

Although the Sports mode in Canon cameras is a great starting point for shooting action, it can pay to get more adventurous as you learn new skills. Creative use of shutter speed, exposure and AF tracking settings will ensure you get the results you want.

Shutter speed

In Shutter priority (Tv) mode, you can select the shutter speed you want and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture to give a correct exposure. It can also be useful to switch on Auto ISO, so that the camera's sensitivity to light will automatically increase if the lens' widest aperture isn't 'fast' enough to avoid under-exposure (dark images) with very quick shutter speeds. Fast shutter speeds upwards of 1/1000 sec will enable you to freeze the action, whereas slow shutter speeds of 1/60 sec or less can add motion blur when panning, which we'll come to later.


If the light is constant, a sunny day with no clouds, for example, or indoors under artificial lighting, set your camera to Manual (M) mode. This will give you full control of your shutter speed and aperture, and enable you to ensure the correct exposure on your subject. If using one of the automatic modes when shooting into the sky, your camera will tend to underexpose your subject resulting in a silhouette. If this does occur use the exposure compensation dial to increase the exposure.

A Canon EOS R10 camera screen showing the AF tracking focusing in on the eye of a flamenco dancer.

The intelligent AF in Canon's latest EOS R System cameras can detect people, animals, birds and vehicles. In People mode, for example, the system can even pick out the human form from behind. Recognition and tracking starts with the body, then moves to the head if visible, then to the eyes. Heads can be picked out even if sports people are wearing goggles or a helmet.

AF tracking

Canon cameras have multiple focus points spread across the frame and the camera will usually focus on the subject closest to you. To be sure of where in your frame your camera will focus, try selecting a smaller group of focus points, and make sure they are kept on the subject. The deep-learning AI built into the next-generation AF systems in the latest EOS R System mirrorless cameras such as the EOS R7 and EOS R6 are brilliant for locking onto and tracking animals, birds, people and vehicles. Not only do they automatically recognise the relevant shapes, but they focus in on faces and even eyes as they come into view. Use AI Servo AF mode so that autofocus continuously tracks subjects in motion.

Perfect panning

A motorbike and rider skid along a track, leaning heavily to the side.

It can be tricky choosing the right shutter speed for panning shots. When shooting fast racing cars or motorcycles with a telephoto lens, start at around 1/60 sec, review the results, and adjust the shutter speed as necessary to give good motion blur in the background while keeping the main subject sharp. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/160 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © Richard Walch

While fast shutter speeds are great for freezing motion, they can sometimes drain the excitement from action shots. For example, if you shoot a racing car flashing past using a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec, it will look like it's standing still. Slow the shutter speed to around 1/60 sec and pan the camera to add motion blur and convey a true sense of speed.

Panning is when you move the camera lens to follow a subject that's moving parallel to you. It's often combined with slower shutter speeds, so the subject is sharp while the stationary foreground and background are blurred. To practise, use the viewfinder and pivot from your hips to keep the motion smooth. If your lens has Image Stabilisation (IS), check the side of the lens for an IS Mode switch and set it to IS Mode 2. This sets the lens to ignore the panning movement and compensate only for movement that is perpendicular to the panning direction.

Use AI Servo AF and Continuous shooting mode, keeping the shutter button fully pressed, to take a burst of shots. Effective panning can take practice and patience, but a good tip is to continue your panning movement even after you've finished taking the shot or sequence of shots. This gives you a better chance of keeping the moving subject sharp.

How to shoot water sports

A canoeist twists their way through white water, their oar raised in the air on one side.

There always used to be an element of luck in capturing the definitive split-second in action photography. Cameras such as the Canon EOS R6 and EOS R7 have phenomenally fast continuous shooting rates, so you can take a burst of shots and be confident of capturing key moments. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/4000, f/3.2 and ISO200. © Samo Vidic

Surfing, kayaking and other water sports make striking subjects for photography. The thrills, spills, jumps, turns and speed mean getting great results requires effort and patience. On the plus side, when sailing boats, kayaks, jet skis and the like are following a set course, you can better anticipate what's going to happen next and be prepared. As with most action photography, you'll generally need a telephoto or super-telephoto lens so that you can shoot from a distance.

Camera settings for shooting water sports

Capturing the water correctly is key to getting great water sport action shots. Water sports are often shot with high shutter speeds freezing the water droplets into crystal-like ice sculptures. Set your shutter speed to 1/1000 sec and faster to freeze the water.

When shooting over water there tends to be lots of light as it is reflected back off the surface, this allows you to keep your shutter speed high and ISO low, giving you the flexibility to choose the aperture depending on the size of the subject in your frame. Look for positions where the competitor is making a turn or a jump. Both these actions shoot water droplets from the surface and inform the viewer about the direction, speed and nature of the movement, bringing the image to life.

Accessories for shooting water sports

To keep your camera safe around water use a dedicated waterproof case. These hard shell cases will keep you shooting underwater to a depth of 40 metres, so splashes won't be a problem. The cases also have sealed buttons around them so that you can still access all the camera functions.

It's a really good idea to start out with a fully charged camera battery and a memory card with plenty of free space so you won't have to open the case when you are out shooting. A few small silica gel bags inside the case will keep the humidity down.

If you are not planning to go underwater, use the lens hood to minimise flare and a protective filter to avoid damage to the lens. Canon's EOS R System cameras are also weather-sealed to protect against spray and splashes.

Seeing the bigger picture

A close-up of a rower's feet, clad in red shoes and pink socks, in the bottom of a boat.

Something as simple as a pair of sports shoes, a worn saddle or a match ball can help tell a story. Look for anything of interest and shoot some close-ups to add an extra dimension to your action photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 59mm, 1/640 sec, f/2.8 and ISO250. © Matthew Joseph

Great sporting shots aren't just about winners. It's the little details – the match ball, the referee, the emotion of a single fan in the crowd – that add richness and depth to your portrait of the event. In these instances, your standard or Auto settings should be adequate.

Shoot wider views that show the whole environment of the sport and crowd. If you look at newspapers, only a few shots are detailed close-ups of the sporting action. Instead, many are wider shots that put the sport in context showing the location and crowds of fans.

Be on the lookout for something unusual or extraordinary. Often the best sports images are the ones that make you look twice and question how something happened. Much of this is down to the luck of being in the right place at the right time but the skill is in being prepared for anything. Shoot around the action – by this we mean also focus your attention away from the main action. Competitors preparing their equipment, spectators, mechanics, etc, also provide interesting subjects and tell the story of the event.

Tips for capturing action in video

Canon's cameras are equally adept at capturing high-quality 1080p, 4K or even 8K video footage, so it's well worth putting this to good use.

When you first arrive at an event, film some wide-angle shots to set the scene. It helps to avoid zooming too much while recording. Often, it's better to pause, change the composition of your scene, plus the framing and zoom, then restart filming. When panning with your camera to capture the location or follow the action, ensure you stop your pan before you stop recording to help with editing your footage together.

Rather than fix your position and put the camera on a tripod, try moving the camera with the action. You will find this easier with a wider shot. If there are several competitors one after another, then try different focal lengths for each. Remember it's fine for a distant subject to get larger in the frame as they approach the camera, so set the zoom to make sure that when the subject gets really close, they are still in shot.

Best cameras for action photography

A man in a wetsuit sits on a rock on a beach, holding a surfboard, shot from a lower angle.

Many Canon cameras have a vari-angle or tilting rear screen. Use this instead of the viewfinder for composing your shots and you can hold the camera up high to shoot over people's heads in a crowd or from ground level to get a more interesting perspective. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.8 and ISO100.

A man stands at the edge of a racetrack holding up a camera with a large super-telephoto lens to his eye.

The in-body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) in the Canon EOS R6 and EOS R7 works particularly effectively in combination with the optical IS in super-telephoto RF lenses, because the two types of IS will counter different types of camera shake. This enables consistently sharp handheld shots without the need for a tripod or monopod.

Anyone with a Canon camera can launch into action photography with the kit they already have, but if you're considering an upgrade, here are some of the best buys for shooting action.

Canon EOS R7

The mirrorless EOS R7 shares many of the same technical innovations as Canon's pro-level EOS R3, but is built around an APS-C format image sensor, which effectively boosts the reach of telephoto lenses by 1.6x. That can be a big bonus in action photography, enabling you to cover the distance with a relatively compact and lightweight lens, such as the Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM. Other benefits of this small, fast and powerful camera include the vari-angle touchscreen and a high-tech AF system that includes 'intelligent' recognition for people, animals, birds and vehicles, while body and lens stabilisation work together to minimise camera shake. The EOS R7 can also shoot at up to 30 frames per second (fps) for stills, as well as capture 4K movies at up to 60p.

Canon EOS R6

Perfect for advanced action photography, the EOS R6 builds all of the AI autofocus tracking features and IBIS of the EOS R7 into a pro-spec full-frame body. With some lenses, you get an incredible 8-stops of IS and the camera can shoot at up to 20fps. Video highlights include 4K movie capture, plus HD capture at 120fps for high-quality slow-motion footage. Again, there's a vari-angle touchscreen for shooting from creative positions.

Canon also offers a wide range of high-performance yet compact and budget-friendly zoom and prime lenses for EOS R System cameras.

Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III

The PowerShot G7 X Mark III packs powerful performance into a small, compact camera weighing just 304g, complete with its fixed zoom lens that has a useful 24-100mm effective range. The lens' fast aperture rating of f/1.8-2.8 enables quick shutter speeds for freezing motion, even under dull or indoor lighting, along with a fast continuous drive rate of up to 20fps (30fps RAW burst). It can also shoot 4K movies and Full HD at 120fps and features a tilting touchscreen.

Canon PowerShot ZOOM

Proving that action photography camera kit doesn't have to be big and bulky, the PowerShot ZOOM is a pocket-sized monocular that can shoot stills and Full HD video at the touch of a button. This makes it perfect for spectator sporting events and for discreet action shooting. The 3-step zoom gives a wide range of focal lengths, equivalent to 100mm, 400mm and 800mm on a full-frame camera.

We hope we've given you a useful set of action photography tips and techniques. Canon EOS R System cameras and their companion lenses are the perfect tools for the job, but you can also enjoy great success with Canon's range of DSLRs and compact cameras and have a lot of fun along the way. Now's the time to put these tips into action.

Written by Matthew Richards

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