shutter speed

Action & Sports Photography Settings Tips from Aperture to Manual to Shutter Priority Exposure Modes

Florida high school baseball action shot using aperture priority - Nikon D300 Nikkor 80-200mm @ f/4 ISO 320 1/3200I am a self-taught photographer with a careful ear for picking up photography knowledge from a variety of sources.  If you browse my work you can see that you can teach yourself to make photographs that people will eventually pay you for.  However, I spend a long time grinding away teaching myself, starting with making thousands of images in Japan over a 6-month period when I first got a DSLR, then for several years back here in Florida.  I would not recommend this method!  That is why I have been offering 1-on-1 photography lessons to teach people in 2-hours what it took me 2+ years to formulate and define.  Taking a lesson or class from a competent photography teacher is a great way to jump start your shooting skills.

So the weekly photography tips I post on this site are part of sharing the practical photography knowledge I gained grinding through those years out in the field, and the knowledge I continue to increase by now shooting paying jobs as a full-time pro photographer.  

In this post you can see action and sports shots that span this window of knowledge.

The baseball photo above was made I believe on my very first sports assignment, so you can say it is the epitome of beginner's luck!  Looking at the settings I used for the shot I would definitely yell at myself for that now.  I was shooting action in aperture priority, probably never the best choice, had my ISO at 320 during daylight, and the shutter speed was way faster than it needed to be.  

Horse jumping in Venice Florida - Aperture Priority - Nikon D300 Nikkor 80-200mm @ f/5.6 ISO 400 1/1600Early on in my time in Florida I also photographed horse jumping a good bit.  You can see by my settings I was making progress, even though still using aperture priority mode.  My ISO was still above the minimum even during daylight, but if I recall at that time I thought I needed that very fast shutter speed of 1/1600th to freeze the action, and to get a good exposure I had to increase the ISO.  Clouds would come and go and settings often needed to be tweaked, but choosing aperture priority and letting the camera adjust the shutter speed on the fly was definitely not the way to go.  I should have been using shutter priority mode.

Triathlon cycling in St. Petersburg Florida - Manual Exposure - Nikon D300 Nikkor 80-200mm @ f/4 ISO 640 1/1250Now we are jumping ahead two years to when I photographed the St. Anthony's Triathlon in St. Petersburg Florida.  I was now comfortable and competent shooting action & sports in any exposure mode.  Why did I choose manual mode then?  At this time the cyclists were coming by in consistent light (no sun going behind clouds).  I was photographing them as they passed by the exact same spot on the road too, therefore there was only one set of settings that produced the best exposure.  So I locked those in with manual exposure mode.  Why did I use the settings I did?  Well the cyclists were going really, really fast so 1/500th was not freezing them, so I used 1/1250.  I used f/4 because that fast shutter speed required I let a lot of light in, but I wanted to retain some depth of field and better sharpeness, so I did not use the maximum aperture of f/2.8 of my lens.  So having aperture and shutter speed restricted by the nature of the subject matter, to get the exposure I wanted I then had to increase my ISO to 640.  This was not the middle of the day, but rather just shortly after sunrise.  As the sun went up, I could gradually decrease the ISO I was using.

Pelican in flight - shutter priority - Nikon D300 Nikkor 80-200mm @ f/5.6 ISO 200 1/1250In this pelican shot you can see my full progress in shooting action shots.  I was using shutter priority mode, had my ISO at its lowest setting, and set the shutter speed to be plenty fast enough to freeze even the bird's wing tips.  The camera was choosing the aperture for me on the fly, and getting consistent f/5.6 results allowed for very good sharpness and depth of field.

So now I would recommend using only manual or shutter priority mode for sports and actions shots.  If no lighting conditions are changing, then lock things in with manual.  If lighting is changing due to shifting cloud cover, or the subject moving across different foreground and/or background light, then use shutter priority mode.  

Of course the minimum shutter speed to use for any action shots, or any moving subjects, is 1/500th and you must also use AF-C (Ai Servo) focus mode.  Both of those are musts.  As you can see from my above examples, though, other settings and parameters remain variables, and there may be multiple ways to get the same shot, but some settings combos are much better to use than others!

DSLR Photography Tip - adjust shutter speed first to fix exposure

If you are photographing a still subject, you should be shooting in manual mode with your DSLR (if you do not know how, I offer 1-on-1 photography lessons that will).  Therefore, you have an aperture you want to shoot at in order to get the best DoF for your subject.  So if your initial shot does not have the exposure you want (underexposed or overexposed), then you should adjust shutter speed first in order to fix the exposure, not aperture or ISO.

In my example photographs above, both images are straight out of the camera at the exact same settings, save for the shutter speeds.  At 1/500th the image is underexposed, which is not surprising since at default daylight settings I only recommend 1/320th as a max shutter speed and today is very overcast with a tropical storm passing by (note the dock is almost underwater!).

I did not change my aperture as I want to maintain the DoF f/11 offers, and I did not adjust the ISO as I kept that set at the lowest in order to maintain the best image quality.  On pretty much every DSLR, even if it has only one dial on the camera body, in manual mode that dial defaults to shutter speed for a reason...because you change shutter speed the most often.  In the photo of the dock, I adjusted the shutter speed from 1/500th to 1/125th to get the exposure I wanted, leaving all other settings the same.

So remember when shooting still subjects in manual mode, adjust the shutter speed first in order to fix any exposure problems.

Photography Tip - Camera meter is only for ambient light with external flash on

When using an external flash mounted on your DSLR's hotshoe, the camera's meter is telling you the exposure for the ambient/background light.  So if your subject is standing in the shade, then you should meter off of the background light to set your shutter speed.  The aperture setting and speedlight power will be the exposure settings for your subject.  Essentially, the camera's meter does not know you have a flash on and are going to use it to expose the foreground subject (person, etc).  In shade especially, the subject should not be metered off of for setting the shutter speed.  

So when setting up an an external flash shot with it mounted to your DSLR's hotshoe, even before the subject is in place set your shutter speed to expose the background light properly.  Now place your subject where you like and set the aperture and flash power to exposure the subject correctly, and your previously set shutter speed will take care of exposing the background properly.  Try this methodology the next time you use your external flash.  Of course, your DSLR should be set to manual mode, as well as your external flash.

Default Indoor DSLR Camera Settings with external flash f/5.6 ISO 800 1/60th

Continuing my default DSLR camera settings series, in the above shot you can see the settings that I set my Nikon to as soon as I step indoors anywhere.  I am often asked by people, what settings should I use for such and such a situation, and it is always hard to tell them because slight variations in light, subject, etc. can have a big effect.  However, in my experience I pretty much always use these settings along with my external flash on my DSLR in any indoor shooting environment:

aperture:  f/5.6

shutter speed:  1/60th

ISO:  800

For the settings on your hotshoe mounted external flash, most of the time I find a manual power setting of 1/4th is good for lighting the intended subject and allowing the speedlight to recycle fast enough for successive shots.

As you can see the first shot was in a dark ballroom, and this shot is in a fairly well lit office, yet I used the same settings.  These default indoor settings with an external flash will not light up a large room, but will still expose the subject well (the dancers) and if the room does have good lighting and is not too large, the default indoor settings can light up both the subjects and the background.

So the next time you are shooting indoors, give these settings a try and you should be very happy with the results!

Default Sunny Day DSLR Camera Settings f/11 1/320th lowest ISO

My DSLR photography students often ask me what settings should I use?  Well, that is a very hard question to answer as there are any number of factors that would determine how one would set the five settings necessary to produce a well exposed and sharp shot.  So for this photography tip I offer my default sunny day settings.  If it is a sunny day, before I leave the house I would set my DSLR to the following in general:

aperture:  f/11

shutter speed:  1/320th

ISO:  (lowest for your camera)

Of course there are factors like what lens you are using, what type of subject, etc., etc., but if you are looking to make a shot like the one above on a nice sunny, Florida day, try starting with the default settings above.

1/60th sec minimum shutter speed for handholding still shots - photography tip

Handholding 1/60th of a second is the minimum I feel safe with and only when using a focal length 50mm or shorter -photo made with an iPhone 5When a shot comes out blurry, the usual culprit is shutter speed.  Therefore, it is critical to make sure you are using a minimum shutter speed that you can handhold reliably.  For me, that is 1/60th of a second.  There are many conditions that apply to this, but basically if you are using an 18-50mm lens, photographing a still subject, not using a tripod and not using a flash, then the minimum shutter speed you should set on your DSLR is 1/60th of a second.  This is also why shooting in manual mode is a great help as you will purposefully set your shutter speed to what you know is the minimum (1/60th).  If you shoot in aperture priority mode, the camera may set a shutter speed below that resulting in a blurry shot.

  • 1/60th of a second minimum for any still subject shot

Some people may be able to reliably handhold a slower shutter speed, and yes sometimes I do attempt it myself, but I know that for sure 1/60th with a focal length 50mm or under and a still subject will produce a sharp image.  So if your still subject photographs are coming out blurry, set your shutter speed to 1/60th minimum, use good shooting technique and you will be able to produce a sharp photograph.  

1/500th sec minimum shutter speed for action shots moving subjects - photography tip

1/500th of a sec is the minimum shutter speed I feel comfortable shooting action shots with.When you shoot in manual mode or shutter priority mode, you have to set the shutter speed on your DSLR.  Of all the things you can set on your DSLR, shutter speeds have the most choices.  On my Nikon D300 I can choose from the fastest setting of 1/8000th of a second to essentially infinity (bulb mode).  So how to decide which shutter speed to use?  This week's photography tip is for choosing a minimum shutter speed for action shots or shots with moving subjects. 

  • 1/500th of a second minimum for any kind of moving subject/action shot

For me, I only feel comfortable with a minimum of 1/500th of a second when photographing anything moving.  You may be able to get away with a little slower shutter speed for not so fast moving subjects, but 1/500th of a second gives me confidence that I will freeze most action.  1/500th is the minimum though because for faster moving subjects like competive cyclists, excited dogs, etc, then even faster shutter speeds may be required.  Basically, for anything happening in your own backyard, 1/500th should be fine.  Now you have a starting point for setting your shutter speed for action shots.