5 High-speed Photography Tips

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Did you ever wonder how a wildlife photographer captured a running cheetah in a photograph so clear that it looks like the cat's suspended in time? Have you been amazed at a photograph of a bullet passing through an apple or a baseball warped around the edge of a bat in mid-swing?

High-speed photography like this is within your reach. Freezing a moving subject goes beyond fast cameras, though. Even the simplest cameras have manual and automatic settings that can help you get that perfect high-speed shot.


In this article, we offer five tips we've learned from the pros. Check out these tips, and then practice them with your own equipment so you, too, can create some amazing freeze frames.

Let's start with a tip about the most common camera component associated with high-speed photography: the shutter.


Select the Right Shutter Speed for the Action

The splash of a single drop of water, captured using high-speed photography techniques.
The splash of a single drop of water, captured using high-speed photography techniques.
©iStockphoto.com/Juergen Schonnop

One of the most basic concepts in photography is shutter speed. A camera's shutter speed indicates how long the camera's shutter opens to allow in light and create the photograph. In film cameras, this term is synonymous with exposure time, or the time that the film is exposed to the light.

Slower shutter speed may not keep up with the speed of a moving subject, causing a blurred image. Some photographers create these blurs intentionally to convey a sense of motion in photograph. In high-speed photography, though, you'll want to freeze that moving subject so that it appears suspended in time rather than in motion. For that, you'll need a fast shutter speed.


Cameras represent shutter speed in a fraction of a second, with "1" as the numerator. Photography guides can help you select a shutter speed that works best for the subject you're capturing and the direction it's moving relative to the camera. Here are some suggestions we found from photographer Tom Ang:

  • A person walking toward the camera: 1/30
  • A person walking at a right angle to the camera: 1/125
  • A cyclist at average speed moving toward the camera: 1/125
  • A cyclist at average speed moving at a right angle to the camera 1/1000 to 1/2000
  • An automobile at average speed moving toward the camera: 1/1000
  • An automobile at average speed moving at a right angle to the camera: 1/4000

These suggestions offer a starting point, but you'll probably want to adjust to higher or lower speeds based on your specific setting. If you have a digital camera with a preview screen, you can see the results and make shutter speed adjustments between shots as necessary.

Also, keep in mind that faster speed does mean less light captured to create an image. If the subject isn't already in bright light, don't choose a shutter speed that's faster than you need for the action you're capturing. With that in mind, our next tip covers how to use your flash to capture that perfect split-second shot.


Use a Flash

Nikon Speedlight products are a popular choice for adding a fast flash to your photography.
Nikon Speedlight products are a popular choice for adding a fast flash to your photography.
Image courtesy of Nikon

If you've ever been in a dark room while a strobe light was flashing, you've probably noticed the phenomenon that light creates at each flash: Objects in the room seem frozen in time at each flash, and each image created is slightly different from the next when those objects are in motion.

According to professional photographer Chris Williams, using flash is a great way to start out exploring high-speed photography. "The bright and really short burst of a flash will stop just about anything in its tracks at any shutter speed," Williams says. A flash of light could be an effective alternative to using fast shutter speeds, too, especially if your camera has limited high-speed capabilities.


Williams goes on to point out that the distance you are from a subject makes a difference in whether the flash is effective. "Light from flash doesn't have a great range," he explains, "so it is used for subjects close-by. For example, water dripping, or an insect buzzing around."

Your camera will likely adjust your flash speed and output level automatically. Once you're comfortable using your flash for high-speed shots, though, you might consider adjusting these manually. For example, the editor of Popular Photography magazine, Miriam Leuchter, recommends a very fast duration (about 1/8000 of a second) to catch quick, darting motions. Leuchter combines this with a lower flash output (1/16 power or less). Williams, however, points out that a lower output means less light for the photograph.

Besides tweaking shutter and flash settings manually, letting your camera make some automatic adjustments could also improve your high-speed shots. Let's take a look at one of those next.


Choose Shutter Priority Over Aperture Priority

Aperture refers to focal length, or the size of the lens opening when you take the photo. The larger that opening, the more light the camera takes in during the shot. This is measured in f-stop values, written as f numbers in a slash notation. Common f-stops include f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and f/16. The larger the number in the f-stop, the smaller the aperture. Thus, f/22 is a much smaller opening in the lens than f/4.

When it comes to photography, aperture and shutter speed are inseparable. As you increase the aperture, you'll need a faster shutter speed to avoid getting too much light in the shot. Likewise, smaller apertures require slower shutter speeds to ensure the photo has enough light. Freezing a shot in high-speed photography often means sacrificing aperture for the sake of a higher shutter speed.


Fortunately, your camera probably has automatic modes that balance shutter and aperture settings for you. Many cameras have the option to select between two of these modes: shutter priority and aperture priority. In high-speed photography, you'll want to select shutter priority. Then, you can adjust your shutter speed to fit your subject, and the aperture will adjust automatically based on how much light's available for the shot.

When sacrificing aperture for your high-speed shots, you should also note the change in your depth of field (DOF). The DOF refers to the amount of the shot that will be in focus. If your aperture is larger, your DOF will be smaller, meaning less of the photo will be in focus. Note this when framing your high-speed shots: You should select a focal point for the shot that ensures your subject will be in focus, even if other portions of the shot are not in focus.

Even if you have the perfect combination of camera settings, you still have to press the button and take the shot. Are you fast enough to capture your subject? Our next tip can help reduce the delay between action and snapshot.


Consider a Triggering Device

Photographing a bullet in motion is almost as difficult as catching one with your bare hands. A triggering device substantially increases your odds of getting the perfect shot.
Photographing a bullet in motion is almost as difficult as catching one with your bare hands. A triggering device substantially increases your odds of getting the perfect shot.
©iStockphoto.com/Jelena Popic

At HumanBenchmark.com, you can test your human reaction time. The test captures the time in milliseconds it takes between seeing a color change and clicking your mouse button. According to the site's data, average reaction time is 215 milliseconds, though our tests averaged about 265 milliseconds.

No matter how fast your camera's shutter speed, this reaction time can affect how quickly you can freeze high-speed action for a photo. To eliminate this factor, you'd need a trigger to help cut down or even eliminate that reaction time. We discovered the following trigger ideas in our research:


  • Another person who isn't operating the camera can act as a spotter, notifying you just before something comes into frame. This could be useful when capturing a skier who's about the swoop around a sharp corner, for example. Your spotter can watch for the skier while you focus on framing the shot. Then, when your spotter calls out to you, you can react before you even see the skier yourself.
  • You can purchase a light beam tripwire to trigger your camera -- the beam registers the subject's movement and triggers the camera, taking the human lag time out of the equation. At Popular Photography's Web site, PopPhoto.com, photographer Scott Linstead described how he used an infrared tripwire and a super-fast flash to capture award-winning photos of wildlife in midair. The devices Linstead used will set you back a bit, though: The Phototrap Model 33 tripwire device will run you about $460, and each Nikon Speedlight could cost up to several hundred dollars, depending on the model you use [source: Linstead].

To wrap up our countdown, our last tip is the most important thing to consider when it comes to capturing great high-speed photos.


Know Your Subject

Imagine you're going to photograph a baseball player just after he's hit the ball and starts running. Would you aim the camera at third base? How about the outfield? If you know baseball, you'd aim at first base or along the first base line where the player will be running.

That brings us to the most important tip for capturing high-speed photography: Know your subject. For example, if you want to be a sports photographer, you should know the sport you're shooting, as in the baseball example above. Photographer Chris Williams, says, "Great sports photographers know the sport so well, they can be 'pre-focused' and ready before the action happens."


Subjects outside of sports may be less predictable, but you can look for patterns. For example, children playing on a playground may seem chaotic at first glance. However, if the children are playing on a slide, for example, you can guess their pattern: climbing the steps, sliding down and running around the slide to climb up again. A game of tag will present more of a challenge, but you can still pick a spot where most of the kids seem to like running.

If you know what to expect, you can also pan with the subject as it moves. This will freeze the subject, though it will probably blur anything in the background or foreground that isn't moving at the same pace. For instance, if you're photographing a car driving past on a busy street, you know it will trace the path of the road ahead of it. If you pan the camera with the car for the shot, the landscape and other vehicles will be blurred while the car appears frozen in time.

These tips should help you in your high-speed photography adventures. The rest is up to you. Get to know your subject, practice with your equipment, and then get out there and take great photos! Check out even more great high-speed photography information on the next page.


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More Great Links


  • Ang, Tom. "Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digitial and Film Cameras." Alfred A. Knopf. 2008. pp. 78-79.
  • Ang, Tom. "How to Photograph Absolutely Everything: Successful Pictures from Your Digital Camera." Dorling Kindersley Limited. 2007. pp. 58-59
  • Bryan, Wright. "VIDEO: 'World's Slowest Fastest Camera' Captures The Movement Of Light." NPR. Dec. 13, 2011. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/12/13/143666285/video-worlds-slowest-fastest-camera-captures-the-movement-of-light
  • Leuchter, Miriam. "Take Your Best Shot: Essential Tips & Tricks for Shooting Amazing Photos." Welden Owen, Inc. 2011.
  • Linstead, Scott. "How To: DIY Tripwire Photography." PopPhoto.com. Bonnier Corp. Mar. 13, 2009. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.popphoto.com/how-to/2009/03/how-to-diy-tripwire-photography
  • Meredith, Kevin. "Hot Shots: Tips and Tricks for Taking Better Pictures." RotoVision SA. 2008. pp. 186-188.
  • Rowse, Darren. "Aperture and Shutter Priority Modes." Digital Photography School. 2010. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/aperture-and-shutter-priority-modes
  • Rowse, Darren. "Introduction to Aperture in Digital Photography." Digital Photography School. 2010. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/aperture
  • Wignall, Jeff. "Focus on Digital Photography Basics." Lark Books. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 2010. p. 60
  • Williams, Chris R., Photographer. Interview on Feb. 1, 2012.