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5 Tips for Capturing “Instagram-Worthy” Action Images | marietta photographer – atlanta photographer

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5 Tips for Capturing “Instagram-Worthy” Action Images

marietta photographer – atlanta photographer

Kennesaw Child Photographer - Mount Paran Christian School 2nd/3rd grade basketball team huddle after the championship game

Not happy with how your child’s soccer/baseball/cheerleading/dance recital pictures turn out?  Tired of your subjects looking blurry or out of focus?  Feeling like the images are always too bright or too dark, too yellow or too blue?  

The key to getting consistently great images straight out of the camera, no matter what you are photographing, is a good understanding of the exposure triangle and its effect on the images that you are capturing. 

Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle is made up of aperture (how wide the lens is opening to let in the light), ISO (how sensitive the sensor is to the light), and shutter speed (how fast the shutter opens and closes to let in the light).  All three of these elements work together to properly expose an image. 

A wider aperture will let in more light, but will shallow the depth of field creating more background blur, where a more closed aperture will produce a larger depth of field making the background more in-focus; a higher ISO will make the sensor more sensitive to light, meaning that your images will be brighter with the same aperture/shutter speed combination than images with a lower ISO; and a faster shutter speed will freeze motion in the images (ie. a person running or a moving car will look frozen in place) where a slower shutter speed will cause moving objects to appear blurry in the images (think waterfall pictures with the blurred running water or cityscapes where the buildings are in focus, but the car’s headlights are blurred lines of light).

Understanding the basics of how these elements work together will greatly improve your photography, and hopefully, get you more comfortable with shooting in manual mode.

Now that you understand a little bit more about the exposure triangle, let’s talk about how to use it to capture “Instagram-Worthy” action images:

Marietta Sports Photographer - Stingray Allstars Marietta Red and Peppermint cheerleading

1. Use a fast shutter speed!

Have you ever tried to take pictures at your child’s soccer game thinking that they were going to be amazing, only to find out once you viewed them on the computer that they were all blurry?  This blur is most likely caused by having a shutter speed that wasn’t fast enough to freeze the motion, which causes the subjects to look streak-like and not well-focused.  I make sure that my shutter speed is AT LEAST 1/1000 to ensure that my action images are sharp and free of this motion blur.  

You can see below how different the fan blades look at various shutter speeds from 1/4 of a second all the way up to 1/2000 of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the more clear the fan blades appear.

Marietta Family Photographer - Shutter Speed teaching model graphic

2. Bump up your ISO.

Let’s say that you change your settings to make your shutter speed faster, but then you notice that your image is now too dark.  This is where you can bump up your ISO to a higher number to make the camera sensor more sensitive to the light that is coming in, which will brighten the images.  This way, you can have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion, but still have a bright-enough, properly exposed image.  Typically, with an outdoor setting, the sun will provide enough light to prevent the need for a high ISO, but if you’re photographing a basketball game, cheer or dance competition, or other indoor events, you will need a higher ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed.  Some photographers are hesitant to bump up their ISO because the higher the ISO, the more noise (grain and/or splotches of discoloration) you will get in your image. However, an underexposed (too dark) image at a low ISO will have more noise than a properly exposed image at a higher ISO, so I am never hesitant to raise that setting to get the images that I need.  I try not to go higher than a 3200 ISO, but I will on occasion if absolutely necessary to correctly expose the image.

Kennesaw Sports Photographer - Stingray Allstars Marietta Red Level 2 small youth competition cheerleading Halloween Jam showcase - back handsprings
Atlanta Sports Photographer - Stingray Allstars Marietta Red Youth 2 Small pyramid transition at Cheersport Nationals in Atlanta, Georgia

3. Close down your aperture.

I photographed my daughter’s cheerleading competition several years ago and had my aperture set wide open (f/2.0) from a recent portrait session.  I forgot to change it before they went on stage, and sure enough, the depth-of-field was way too shallow for the action and movement that I was trying to capture. Many of the images were either out of focus or the focus fell on something unintended due to my daughter’s quick movement on stage.  When you are photographing subjects that are constantly moving, as in children’s sporting events, a more closed-down aperture is necessary to provide less room for missed focus.  When the depth of field is very shallow, any slight movement out of the focal plane will cause the subject to be out of focus.  Unless you have the reaction time of superman, it will be awfully impossible to consistently capture a moving subject in focus with an aperture wider than f/2.8.  My sweet spot is f/3.5, but I certainly would be happy with anything between f/3.5 and f/5.6.

You can see below how the background changes as the aperture changes. A wide open aperture of f/1.8 will produce a blurry, creamy background, but if the subject moves backwards or forwards even the teeniest, tiniest amount, he will be out of focus. Conversely, a smaller aperture of f/16 produces a background that is more in-focus and detailed. There is much more room for movement without missing focus because of the greater depth-of-field it produces.

Marietta Family Photographer - aperture teaching example graphic

4. Know Your Lens’ Focal Length + Shutter Speed That It Needs 

Another factor that can cause blur in your action shots is the type of lens that you’re using.  Generally, the rule of shutter speed to focal length is such that you take the focal length that you are shooting with (let’s say it’s an 85mm lens) and make your shutter speed at least double that number (so it would need to be at least 1/200 -because 1/160 would be too slow (85+85=170) and increase the odds of camera shake) to minimize blur caused by holding the camera and taking the shot.

Now, of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you would already know that even 1/200 on an 85mm lens is way too slow if you’re trying to photograph sporting events, but the focal length/double+ shutter speed is a good general rule to keep in mind when trying to improve your photography.

Typically, at your child’s sporting event, you won’t be seated as far away from the action as you would be at a professional sporting event.  Therefore, I would recommend a lens with a focal length of somewhere between 50mm and 200mm, depending on how close-up you want your subject to be in the image.  I mainly use my 85mm and my 135mm lens to capture my children’s basketball, soccer, and cheerleading events.  I tend to use only prime lenses (lenses that have a fixed focal length and do not zoom in and out), which is solely a personal preference. However, using a zoom lens is a great way to get versatility in your action images, because you are able to zoom in and out of different focal lengths without having to physically move from your spot on the sidelines.

5. Setting Appropriate White Balance

White balance refers to the process of removing color casts so that objects which appear white in person, also appear as close to true white as possible in the images.  You may have noticed your images looking way too yellow if taken without a flash indoors, or maybe they had a blueish tint if taken outside in the shade.  Setting the white balance in camera before taking pictures of the sporting event is an easy way to instantly improve how your images will look straight out of the camera.

There are several different ways to set your white balance:

  • AWB (auto white balance)- Setting your camera to AWB, makes the camera do the thinking in correcting the white balance.  This setting works best during those mid-day, outdoor sporting events where the sun is high in the sky and still a very neutral color (not too warm as in dusk or dawn).
Atlanta Photography Instructor - Kelvin White Balance temperature scale
  • Kelvin– Kelvin is a scale for measuring temperature (typically a measurement for heat, but we also use it to describe color temperature).  9000-10,000K is the deep blue shade, 6000K is the temperature of cloudy daylight (think that blueish tint that comes when a cloud passes over and covers the sun), 5000K is that neutral mid-day sunny light, 4000K is fluorescent light, and 1500K is Incandescent lighting (think that warm, yellow-orangey light from lamps or candles inside).  Once you know the approximate color temperature of your light, you can set your Kelvin temperature in-camera to balance it out.  For example, if you’re shooting at sunset, and you want to neutralize those warm tones, set the Kelvin white balance in camera to be around 2500K.  However, if you want those tones to stay a little warmer (more on the orange side), set your Kelvin to be around 4000K.
  • Custom (using a Gray card)– The steps to setting a custom white balance in differs slightly with each camera model, however, the idea is the same.  A gray card is a neutral gray-colored object (I love the Lastolite brand gray card from Amazon as shown in image a) that you use as an example for what to set the white balance in camera.  You take a picture of the gray card, filling the entire frame with only the gray in the card (as shown in image b).  You’ll then navigate through the camera’s menu until you find where it says “Custom White Balance” or something similar.  You’ll then select the image that you took of the gray card when it asks for the reference image.  Once that’s complete, make sure your white balance mode is then set to “Custom,” (icon for Custom White Balance is shown in image c).  I like to take a test shot of my hand to make sure the white balance with my skin tone is how I like.  If it’s off for whatever reason, I repeat those steps above.

I hope that these tips will help you to feel more confident in capturing these special memories of your children.  As the cliché goes, children grow so fast, therefore, these photos serve as our time-capsules and will provide so much joy to you as well as the children in the photographs for many years to come.  Enjoy!

Stingray Allstars Marietta Red Youth 2 Small Cheersport Nationals Champions - Marietta Sports Photographer

KBG Photography specializes in maternity, newborn, baby, and family photography in the Atlanta area, including Marietta, Vinings, Buckhead, Midtown, Smyrna, Kennesaw, Roswell, and Alpharetta.

kbg photography

atlanta, georgia

Serving the Atlanta, Georgia area, including Marietta, Buckhead, Midtown, Vinings, Smyrna, Kennesaw, Roswell, and Alpharetta.





Serving the Atlanta, Georgia area, including Marietta, Buckhead, Midtown, Vinings, Smyrna, Kennesaw, Roswell, and Alpharetta.