April 24


3 Simple Tips for Photographing Action

By Dan

April 24, 2012

Kayaking Tunnel Falls, Gore Canyon, Colorado River
Kayaking Tunnel Falls, Gore Canyon, Colorado River

You show up at the river in your twenty year old (Choose one: Toyota or Subaru) with a pack full of camera gear, a case of blank memory cards and enough energy and excitement to power a small city. Your adrenaline rises as you scramble down the rocky trail in your Tevas with the faded nylon straps, grasping at small bushes and branches as if they might help steady your footing as you skid over loose dirt and pebbles on your way down to the bank.

The roar of the class V rapid grows in your ears and blocks out nearly every other sound as you get closer. You can almost smell the frothy mountain water, the same water that you were skiing on sixty miles up canyon just a few weeks ago. Every couple of minutes, a few stray drops cut loose from the river and land on your bare arms that are ripped from carrying heavy camera gear and adventuring in the outdoors.

A hundred yards upstream, a group of kayakers are just putting in to run the rapid. You quickly drop your pack and pull out your camera, slap on your big lens and make a few test shots until you’re confident about your exposure, making sure that you’re shutter speed is high enough to freeze the action.

So how do you ensure that you get the shot? Better hurry with your analysis of the scene because here they come!! Don’t worry, I’ve done this before- I’ll give you some quick pointers. Here are three simple tips for photographing action. Yes, you can apply these techniques to other sports besides kayaking. Now good luck and have fun!

1. Get Closer

Don’t be afraid to zoom that big lens all the way in, that’s what they’re made for! Use it like you mean it. Bring that action right up close!! Let your viewers feel like they can almost smell and drink that water! Get them right into the middle of the whole mess and show them the tight details. Let them think that they’re about to trip over your subject! I guarantee, it will take their breath away.

Kayaking Upper Narrows, Cache la Poudre River, Colorado

2. Zoom Out

Ok, enough of the close stuff, now zoom out and give us the whole scene. Let us see your subject in context of their entire environment. Adventure sports are as much, if not more, about the adventure, than the sport itself, so let us get a feel for the dramatic expanse of the natural world where these people are enjoying their time in the outdoors. After all, you love it here just as much; show us what’s so great about this place or this activity.

Whitewater kayaking, Cache La Poudre River, near Fort Collins, Colorado
Whitewater kayaking, Cache La Poudre River, near Fort Collins, Colorado


3. Keep Shooting

Feeling good? Think you’ve got some awesome shots so far? You’re doing great, but don’t stop yet, keep that motor drive working. Keep burning frames until either your subject is gone or the light is gone, or both. Chances are good that as good as the stuff you’ve already shot might be, there’s a totally killer image just waiting for you to grab, only you won’t know when it’s going to appear until it jumps right in front of your eyes.

It will probably take you buy surprise, so you’ll have to keep your eye trained on the subject and your finger at the ready, because it will only happen once. You won’t actually know when (or if) it will even happen until it’s staring you right in the face for a mere spit second. It’s that moment that separates the big boy and big girl photographers from the amateurs. You either get he shot or you don’t

Dave Zinn kayaking Poudre Falls, Cache la Poudre River, Colorado
Dave Zinn kayaking Poudre Falls, Cache la Poudre River, Colorado


Did you get it? Awesome!! Great job! Feels good doesn’t it? Now pack up, head on down the canyon and meet me at the (insert favorite watering hole.) The first pitcher is on me!

About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.

As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

  • Hi, Dan. I shoot a lot of kayakers/white water because I live 6km from the Minden Wild Water Preserve, the venue for a lot of the Canadian Championship races and the site of the upcoming Pan Am Games. Your shots and write-up are great.

    My suggestion would be to try other stuff too: for instance, slow down that shutter speed and pan with the kayaker: the swirling water gives a dynamic feel. Here are some examples: http://www.faczen.smugmug.com/gallery/8542984_uQc6k#!i=570182220&k=NxHRi (scroll forward a couple of pages for more).

    And try getting REALLY close and breaking out that wide angle lens too: http://faczen.smugmug.com/Monthly-Photos/2011/Monthly-Photos-September-2011/18921788_K23MC9#!i=1475401108&k=nK7KwZ3

  • It’s those slippery stones and dirt you need to be really careful about! I wasn’t and broke my leg last December, just before Christmas. Still recovering but am back out on the trails again now, albeit very tentatively. Thanks for the tips.

  • Great tips! I enjoyed your pictures. That was adventurous photo shoot. I like the zoomed out photo. The incredible view is more appreciated, so beautiful. The “get closer and keep shooting” photos took my breath away. It’s like you risk your life when shooting these.

  • Great tips. I’ve been working on wakeboard shots as a hobby for a while, and though I’m happy with my results, I think your tips will help me find the next level! Thank you!

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.

    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.