LEARN: How To: Digital Camera Tips
In This Guide
1. Introduction
2. Exposure Lock & Flash
3. Action Photos
4. Advanced Exposure
5. Conclusion


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Photo Glossary
Exposure Guide
Histogram Guide
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Point-and-Shoot Digital Camera Tips

Part 3: Action, Sports, Kids, and Pets

Many compact digital camera owners complain they have a very hard time taking pictures of subjects in motion. Sports and action photography are tough, no matter what kind of camera you have. And I include kids and pets in the sports and action photo category. They're all quick and unpredictable and most compact digital cameras aren't equipped to handle them well. Instead of getting frustrated with the camera, it's better to understand the limitations and learn photo techniques that will work no matter what camera you're using.

Point-and-shoot digital action photo sample Point-and-shoot digital action photo sample Point-and-shoot digital action photo sample
The three phots above were taken with pocket-sized digital cameras. The key to most digital action photos is pre-focusing and timing them carefully.

I've divided this part of the article into sections for what I consider the most important action photo techniques. My examples will focus on mountain bike photos, because we have a lot of cyclists using this site and that's a subject that I'm very familiar with.


Pre-Focus
Use the focus lock / exposure lock feature I described earlier to lock the focus on the spot where you plan to take the picture. This will reduce any lag time between the time you press the shutter release button and when your photo is actually taken. It also encourages you to plan your shot and planned photos generally work better than spontaneous ones.

Pan
Panning is when you follow your subject with the camera, taking the picture, while the camera is moving. Panning helps you capture subjects that might otherwise be blurry, by matching the speed of their movement. An optical viewfinder helps with panning. So if you have one, definitely use it to follow your subject. If you don't have one, do your best to keep your subject in the LCD, moving smoothly, and following through after you take your picture. Just like throwing a ball, following through after the picture is taken is important to keep your pan smooth and precise.

Digital camera panning samples
Panning Sample Photos: The photo on the left was taken with the photographer holding still. For the photo on the right the photographer followed the cyclist and took the picture while moving, or "panning."

Timing
Learn your camera's shutter-lag delay so that you can compensate for it. Even though cameras have improved a lot, they all have some shutter-lag. Even the fastest professional digital SLRs have it. It's just imperceptible. Your point-and-shoot camera has some shutter-lag, even if you don't normally notice it. Some of the techniques I've already mentioned will help minimize it. But you still need to be aware of it if you want to time your action photos correctly. Before you take an action photo, do a test and pay attention to the lag. Note how long it is so that you can "preshoot" to compensate for the lag.

Flash
Flash may help with action photos, if you're close enough. Remember that your digital camera's built-in flash is good for 10 feet or less. But if it's dark and you're close enough, it will help you freeze action. Use the techniques about and force the flash on. Plan your shot, pre-focus, and pan. The flash will freeze your subject and the background will blur from the pan, making your subject stand out from the background quite nicely. This is a technique I love to use for mountain bike photos in the woods.

Flash and Pan
Bringing it together:
This image combines all of the techniques detailed above. I pre-focused on the part of the trail where I wanted the photo, panned, and used the flash. Notice how the flash makes the subject pop out from the dark, redwood forest background.

Click on the image for a larger version.

I do a lot of point-and-shoot digital mountain bike photography. I've been practicing and refining my technique for years. When I take a mountain bike photo with a point-and-shoot digital camera, I plan my shot carefully. I choose the spot where I want my subject to be when I take the picture, I pre-focus the shot; and I plan where I'm going to start my pan, push the button, and stop panning. I try to pick a recognizable spot on the trail that will be noticeable through the viewfinder or LCD so I can better time pushing the shutter release button. The spot where I push the button is always a little before the area I actually want the picture taken. The distance depends on the camera's shutter-lag and the speed of the rider (or other subject). For a downhill racer I might need 20 or more feet to compensate for the shutter-lag. For a cyclist pedaling uphill, I might only need 2 or 3 feet. I usually set up for about 10 feet and reshoot if I miss the shot. Don't be afraid to make people do something over. A lot of great photos are the result of multiple takes.



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