How to photograph moving subjects

Capture moving subjects at any speed with this quick guide on how to set up your camera and focus accordingly

How to photograph moving subjects

Stationary subjects are pretty easy to photograph. Simply compose the image, focus the lens, set your exposure and take the shot. Photographing moving subjects, however, adds new challenges to the equation.

For a start, the composition keeps changing when your subject begins to move around the frame. If you then follow your subject with the camera, the background is likely to change as well.

Then there’s the issue of focusing. If the distance between the subject and the camera changes you need to adjust your lens to compensate.

Thankfully modern cameras have autofocus systems that make this relatively straightforward. Some cameras, such as the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, feature AI technology that helps your camera recognise subjects quicker and stay focused on them within the frame.

But even with these advances in technology, you still need to make sure that you’ve selected the right options and that your active AF point is placed over the right part of the scene. It’s quite a challenge.

In the guide below we’ll spell out some of the key considerations for capturing moving subjects in focus.

01 Pick a subject

Photograph moving subjects

There are plenty of suitable subjects around, but we recommending picking one or two and concentrating on them for the week so that you develop a deeper understanding of how it moves, the impact this has on composition and how your camera responds.

Part of the reason that professional sports photographers get great shots is because they understand what they are photographing so they know where to shoot from and how the action is likely to develop.

Sport makes a great subject and there’s a huge variety of it available to shoot. Local marathons and cycle races are a good starting point if you’ve not shot much sport before because there are lots of people to photograph (so you get lost of opportunities) and the subjects move in a fairly predictable direction, making it easier to track them.

Sports like football, hockey and rugby are a bit more challenging because the players’ movements are less predictable, but they are fun to photograph.

Likewise, you can apply the same principles to animals. Your dog or animals like horses are a bit more predictable, or coachable, and might be good moving subjects to start with.

02 Get ready

Although you can shoot moving subjects in single shot mode and when focusing manually, you’re likely to have much more success if you set your camera to shoot continuously using continuous autofocus mode.

These options can drain your camera’s battery quite quickly, though, so make sure it’s fully charged and take a spare if you have one.

You should also use the fastest memory cards that you have and format them to delete any existing images and prepare them for the shoot.

Before you start shooting, take a few test shots with your camera to find out how many you can capture in a single burst before the rate dies down or it stops all together.

Shooting raw files gives you greater scope for adjusting images post-capture, but it can limit the number of images you can capture in a burst. If you find you need to extend your camera’s burst depth, switch to shooting just JPEG files.

Long, fast lenses are often the best option because you don’t have to be very close to the action and, as well as blurring the background, a large aperture enables fast, movement-freezing shutter speeds to be used.

Shoot in shutter priority or manual exposure mode so that you can set a suitable shutter speed. Auto sensitivity mode can be useful as the camera will increase the sensitivity as necessary to allow the short exposure.

Don’t underestimate the shutter speed required to freeze a moving subject, 1/1000sec or faster can be required to get some subjects such as footballers pin-sharp.

03 Focus

Setting your camera to continuous AF mode will enable it to continue to focus the lens between shots for as long as you press the shutter release button. The challenge is to keep the active AF point over the subject.

Mirrorless cameras introduced a Tracking AF option, which is designed to move the AF point as the subject changes position. While in the early days walking pace was often their limit, over time algorithms and AF tech has improved and cameras have got much better at coping with very fast moving subjects.

What’s more, Eye AF and Animal Eye AF modes have been introduced in recent years, with face and subject recognition. Pretty much every manufacturer from Sony to Nikon to Canon and others has introduced its own version of this.  These modes have been further upgraded via firmware updates to provide real-time tracking, even with very fast subjects.

Other cameras have options that allow you to dictate which focus points will be used to track a subject if it moves away from the first point.

This may be a small group of points or every point that’s available. Check your manual to see what options your camera has and experiment with them.

Even if your camera has the ability to track a subject it’s usually best to try to keep the starting AF point, the one that you originally selected, over the subject. Use gentle, steady movements to follow your target.

If you’re using a heavy telephoto lens, try shooting with a monopod. This can help steady things,  taking out some up-and-down wobble as well as bearing the weight.

04 Set your exposure

You camera’s general purpose Matrix, Evaluative or Multi-zone metering system may deliver perfect exposures, but centre-weighted metering (preferably linked to the active AF point) is often a better choice when shooting moving subjects because it ensures that your subject is correctly exposed.

However, if your subject is very light or dark you may need to adjust your exposure compensation accordingly.

Best camera settings for moving subjects

The key camera setting to focus on when photographing a moving subject is shutter speed. And with your shutter speed you can adjust it to freeze motion or to capture motion blur, depending on the effect you want to create.

To freeze subjects such as people, dogs, waterfalls – things that are fast but not terribly fast – start with a shutter speed of 1/125sec or 1/200sec.

To freeze faster objects like cars, trains, birds of prey, push your shutter speed up to at least 1/500sec as a starting point and adjust from there.

To blur the motion of people and most animals, start at 1/30sec and work down or up from there depending on how much blur you want to create. To blur water you’ll want to go as slow as 1/8sec as your starting point.

With cars and other very fast subjects, your shutter speed depends on their speed. Try shooting at 1/125sec and see what kind of motion blur that creates.

Again, these are all just starting points. Each subject will need its own fine-tuning.

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