Sports action photography

Action photograph - HRH Prince Philip in the water obstacle at Lowther

Hints and tips on taking great carriage driving photos

Photographing carriage driving events can be great fun and by following a few basic rules, you can come home with some fantastic photos.

You don't even need an expensive camera - just be in the right place and press the button at the right time.

In this article, we give you some advice on how to make your pictures even better and avoid disappointment.

Type of camera

There are two main camera types to consider - a compact camera and an SLR (Single Lens Reflex). They differ mainly in size and price, with the more expensive SLR cameras having many more facilities. Excellent photographs can be taken with both, but the added features of the SLR camera are a definite advantage when capturing fast moving action.

The CCD sensor in a digital camera
can contain in excess of 50,000,000
individual colour detectors.

CCDs and Megapixels

The quality of digital cameras is measured in megapixels. The sensor inside the camera converts light falling on it into an electrical signal, which is then saved on a memory card. The sensor is called a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) and consists of literally millions of individual red, blue and green receptors - very similar to those in your eye. The more of these receptors there are, the sharper and more detailed the picture will be. Modern digital cameras have 10 Mega-pixels (10 million pixels) or more, which gives a picture comparable in resolution to 35mm film. High end SLR cameras may have 25 Megapixels.

Comparing image sensors

Professional SLR cameras Mid-range SLR cameras Compacts
35mm film (36x24mm)  APS-H (29x19mm) APS-C (24x16mm) 8x6mm
Professional SLR cameras use an image sensor which is the same size as 35mm film. All existing 35mm lenses can be used as normal with these cameras. Mid-range SLR cameras use an APS size sensor, so lenses will appear to be longer focal length than they would be on 35mm film. Canon cameras use APS-H and Nikon as well as a number of other makes use APS-C (but there are some exceptions). A typical compact camera will use a sensor only 8x6 mm.

Compact cameras

Compact cameras have the great advantage of small size. They literally fit in your pocket and you can happily carry one with you all day. Prices start around £100 and the quality is pretty good, with 10 Megapixels or more being quite common. Most settings are fully automatic, so there's very little to do apart from pointing and pressing the button.

A typical compact digital camera with a
zoom lens. Expect to pay £100 to £200.

There are three main disadvantages of compact cameras when they are used for action sports photography.

  1. Most compacts lack a proper viewfinder. What you are trying to photograph appears on a screen on the back of the camera. Since most sports events take place outdoors, bright sunlight makes it very difficult to see the screen and be sure of exactly what you're taking.

  2. Compacts have non-removable lenses. You're stuck with what's on the camera. Often, to get good action photographs, you have to physically move closer to the subject - which is not always possible. If you are buying a compact for photographing HDT, make sure it has a good optical zoom. You should NEVER use the digital zoom function on a compact.

  3. Because of the way compact cameras work, they do not take a picture at the instant you press the button. There is always a small delay which, if you're dealing with fast action, can be a real problem and you have to learn to anticipate. With most compacts, you can half-press the release button first, which will let the camera set itself and get ready, then press it fully once the subject is in the right place.

SLR Cameras

A mid-range SLR camera with a "standard"
zoom lens. Expect to pay around £400 to £500 for
this type of camera, inc. the lens.

At first sight, SLR cameras have the disadvantages of greater weight, complexity and cost, which is why a lot of people choose compacts instead. However, anyone that is enthusiastic about photography will soon realise that the SLR route is the way to go. These cameras are actually designed to take action photographs.

The biggest advantage of an SLR camera is the ability to change lenses. Each lens is tailored for a different job, and for the type of action photography that HDT involves, you will be looking for a telephoto lens.

SLRs also give you much greater control over all the settings, with a fully manual mode possible, although you will need to have some understanding of what to do.

Most SLR manufacturers have models ranging from the consumer end right up to professional equipment. The more you pay, the more quality and facilities you get. But even entry-level SLRs will outperform compacts when it comes to action photography.

SLR cameras come in two formats, depending on the size of the image sensor. At the high end, there are "full frame" SLRs, which have a sensor that is the same size as a 35mm film frame. Most consumer SLRs will have a "cropped" or "DX" sensor, which is smaller, about 2/3 the size of a full frame. This is also known as the APS-C sensor. This smaller sensor is less expensive, but tends to have fewer pixels and is less sensitive (because the pixels are smaller). The main difference is that you need different lenses for the two sizes of sensor. In broad terms, a 300mm lens on a full frame camera will become a 400mm lens on a cropped frame camera.

Mobile phone camera. Forget it !!

Mobile phones

Although many mobile phones feature cameras, some with 6 or even 10 megapixels, they are really not the right tool for action photography. The main problem is that lenses on mobile phones are of very poor quality, far too small in size and have fixed focus, zoom angle and iris. The settings are fully automatic and the image processing which the phone needs to do is very crude. All this results in poor pictures, compared to even a basic compact camera. You will find that most websites, magazines or publications will not accept photographs taken with a mobile phone.



A telephoto lens will get you close-up pictures without
having to get too near the action. A good lens is even
more important than the camera body itself.

As we mentioned earlier, the great advantage of SLR cameras is the interchangeability of lenses. Most cameras can be bought either with a general purpose or "standard" lens included, or as a "body only", where you then buy the lens to suit your purpose. For action photographs at driving events, you will need to have a telephoto lens, i.e. one with a focal length greater than that of a standard lens. This will enable you to get good close-up action photographs without having to be physically too close.

Lenses get more expensive as the focal length increases, as well as larger and heavier. A 300mm lens, or a zoom lens that goes to 300mm (e.g. 70-300 zoom) is a good compromise between size and cost and the ability to get good close pictures.

Lenses vary greatly in price. More expensive lenses will have better optics and a larger maximum aperture - i.e. they'll let in more light, which is very useful if you're taking action photographs. Expect to pay from £250 upwards for a telephoto lens.

Camera settings

To get the most out of your camera, you will need to understand and be able to alter its settings. Take some time to read the manual. Almost all cameras will have a fully automatic "point-and-shoot" mode, which is fine for happy snaps of friends on holiday, but you should try to understand what your camera is doing if you want to get good results with sports action photography.

Image quality

Digital cameras often have a number of settings that determine the quality of the final picture in terms of resolution (no. of pixels) and compression (JPEG quality). For best results, you should select the highest settings available.

Focus setting

All modern digital cameras will have some form of auto-focus, which should normally be perfectly good for action photographs. In most cameras, the focus will be activated when you half-press the shutter button. Fully pressing the button will then take the photograph. With moving subjects, it is important not to half-press the button too soon. By the time the you actually take the photo, the subject will have moved out of focus. This is particularly important when the subject is moving towards you.

When setting up your camera, make sure the auto focus sensors looks at the central area of the picture. In manual mode, you can usually set this up. Many cameras in the fully automatic mode will be set up for taking pictures of people, and so may look at other areas of the picture and you may easily end up with the background in focus but the subject blurred. You should switch off functions like face recognition and any other "gimmicks" that the manufacturers may have included.

Do not confuse out of focus pictures with with ones that have blurring due to fast motion. These are two different things. In pictures where the subject is out of focus, there will usually be some other part of the picture that is in focus - like the background. Unfortunately, pictures like this look bad and will not be suitable for publication.


This picture is over-exposed. Too much light has been allowed to reach the camera sensor. Colours are washed out and detail in the white parts has been lost. Very little can be done to recover this picture.

Underexposed - picture is too dark and detail in the dark areas is lost. Some recovery may be possible using photo processing software.

Correct exposure. A full tonal range has been reproduced.

White balance

White balance (sometimes also called "colour balance") adjusts the colour of your picture. There will be a number of settings, including indoor light (tungsten), outdoor light (daylight) or fluorescent light. There is usually also an AUTO setting. As most driving trials action takes place outdoors, leaving your camera on auto white or setting it to "daylight" will be perfectly acceptable.

If you are photographing an indoor event, white balance becomes more of a problem, as arena lighting tends to be different colour from daylight. In this instance, you will probably be best off leaving the camera on the auto white setting. You may also have the option of doing a manual colour balance, which may produce better results. Take a few test shots and see what they look like.

Fortunately, most white balance errors can be corrected later with image processing software.

Exposure settings

The exposure controls the amount of light getting to the "film" or camera sensor. Too much light will "over-expose" the picture and detail in the white tones will be lost. Similarly, too little light will "under-expose" and the picture will be too dark. For best results, the tonal range of the subject has to lie within the acceptable tonal range of the camera.

All cameras have an automatic exposure mode and in most instances this can be used to produce acceptable pictures. A manual intervention on some of the settings will help to make action photography better.

Most cameras will have some way of overriding the automatic exposure. This is normally called "exposure compensation" or something similar and is denoted by a +/- sign. Make sure this is set to zero before you start shooting. Sometimes, going one or two steps in the minus direction will prevent over-exposed pictures.

The following settings affect exposure. They all interact and they all produce their own side-effects. If you change one, the camera will adjust the others automatically.

Shutter Speed

This is the length of time that the camera's shutter needs to be open to take a picture. For action photography, a fast shutter speed is needed to freeze the action and prevent the picture being blurred. But if a shutter speed is too fast, not enough light will get through and the picture will be under-exposed.

With a telephoto lens, motion blur will be more noticeable than with a wide angle. You should be looking for 1/250th of a second exposure time to avoid blur. On a bright day, this should not be a problem. If light is low, you may need to use a monopod or tripod, and reduce the shutter speed (e.g. 1/60th) but fast moving subjects may still show some blurring.

Lens aperture

Also sometimes called "iris" or "diaphragm" or "f-stop", this is quite literally, an adjustable diaphragm inside the lens, just like the iris in your eye. It controls the amount of light getting into the camera. A larger f-number means a smaller opening and therefore less light. A lens is said to be "wide open" with the iris set to maximum. This may be f-2.8. Half-way down would be f-8 and "stopped down" would be f-22.

It is worth remembering that lenses perform best in the middle of the aperture range, so f-8 is just about ideal. At its widest aperture, the pictures may lack contrast and sharpness. This is particularly true with cheaper cameras or lenses.

Aperture also affects depth of field. This is the area in the picture that will be in focus at any one time. A smaller aperture (larger f-number) will have a greater depth of field and therefore a better chance of getting your subject in sharp focus. Another good reason to avoid wide open apertures.


An "iris" diaphragm inside a lens controls the amount of light

  Large aperture (f2)      Medium aperture (f8)    Small aperture (f16)

If you are looking for a dramatic effect - e.g. when the subject is in focus, but the background is blurred, you would deliberately set a wide aperture (the widest your lens will go) but this is not always easy to achieve with fast moving subjects and you may need to take many shots before you achieve the right effect.

ISO (sensitivity)

In the days of film cameras, you could buy films of different "speeds". You would use a "fast" film in low light (e.g. indoors) and a slower film in bright sunlight. In digital cameras, the same is achieved by changing the sensitivity of the CCD sensor - i.e. the amount of amplification that the camera applies. The setting is called ISO and is often automatic.

The drawback here is that the higher the ISO, the grainier the pictures will appear. For action photography, you will mostly get away with an ISO of 400 or 800. Going higher (over 1,000) will start to produce grainy pictures. If it's set too low (100) then you will not be able to use high enough shutter speed to prevent motion blur on you pictures.

Useful hints for better action pictures

Use your camera

Be familiar with your camera. Read the manual and experiment with all the settings. Take lots of test shots of different subjects under varying light conditions, then look at them on your computer. With digital photography this is easy - just delete all your tests afterwards.

Check your settings

  • Go through your camera settings before you start shooting. Make sure everything is where you want it. Pay particular attention to the exposure settings. On a bright day, you may wish to use a little bit of negative exposure compensation to prevent over-exposure. If in doubt, make sure everything is set to AUTO !

  • Take a test shot and look at it on the screen. Does it look OK ? Can you look at the histogram ? (see the manual). You should never take your first action picture of the day without trying a couple of test shots beforehand !

A monopod will help to keep a camera
with a large lens steady.


  • Find a good vantage point to take your pictures. Be aware of where the sun is and find a position with the sun behind you. It is much harder to take action photographs looking into the sun. Remember that as the sun moves round during the course of the day, you may have to move your position also.

  • Change your position from time to time. Do not take all your pictures from the one spot. They will all end up looking "samey". Experiment with high and low positions.

  • Watch the action and see which way the carriages are going. Look at the way the gates are flagged. Best action shots are to be had with the carriages coming towards you and just starting to make a turn. Try changing your position slightly between competitors to see if you can get different angles.

  • BE SAFE !! It's easy to get carried away and not see danger coming ! Do not get in a position where you will be at risk if a driver loses control or a carriage goes off course. Use common sense and obey the instructions of stewards and officials.

  • Do not distract the competitors (or horses) or officials by moving in their line of vision or getting too close, particularly during the dressage and cones. And do not obscure the spectators' view by standing right in front of them !


If you have a large telephoto lens or if the light is poor, you will benefit from a tripod or a monopod, to help you keep your camera steady. Often you may be able to rest the camera against a post or a fence to steady it. Even leaning with your back against something solid will help.


  • You should have a spare battery for your camera. At outdoor events there are no opportunities for re-charging and a camera with a flat battery is useless. There are many on-line vendors that sell replacement camera batteries. Buy a couple and put them in your camera bag. Remember to charge them before you leave !

  • Memory cards are becoming less expensive and come in high capacity sizes - 4GB and 8GB are common. Buy a few and keep them in your bag.

  • A lens cleaning cloth is another useful item to have with you. Get a proper one, which is intended for the job. Clean the lens regularly, but be careful. If there are particles of dirt on the lens, wiping with a cloth will make them scratch the coating on the glass. Blow any dirt off first, then clean with a cloth. You can get specialist lens wipes for cleaning grease and finger marks off a lens.

Take lots of pictures

With digital photography this is easy. Memory cards are relatively cheap, so just take lots and lots of pictures. If your camera has a mode where you can take several pictures in quick succession, try using it. Particularly with horses, it is very useful to be able to pick the one picture where all the legs / ears / etc. are in a good position.

Buying a camera

Once you have made a decision to buy a camera, you will have a budget to stick to. Remember that if you go for an SLR camera, the cost of the lenses can be as much as the camera body itself. There are some SLRs on the market with built-in lenses and if you budget is limited, this may be the way to go.

Read the reviews. There are some very good sites that review most of the new cameras. Ones we recommend are

Image processing

Much can be done with your pictures once you've got them home and into your computer. There is a whole range of software available that allows you to manipulate and improve digital pictures. But beware - software that comes free on a CD with your camera, although adequate for basic picture adjustment, will not produce as good a quality as proper photo processing software.

One reason is that processing digital images requires a huge amount of number-crunching power - and the best mathematical processes and algorithms have copyright licences on them, so only the manufacturers of high-end software will be able to afford to use them. Adobe Photoshop is probably the best known and most used photo processing software. Its very powerful but also expensive. Adobe Lightroom is a very good and much less expensive alternative. All these programs require some training before you will be able to use them to their full advantage.

For simply viewing pictures on your computer screen - just to decide which ones you wish to use or delete, we recommend software like FastStone Image Viewer which is free and can be downloaded from their website. It is ideal for general picture browsing.

Sending photographs

If you are sending photographs for publication, remember that it is best to send the original picture from the camera. This will normally be a JPEG (or JPG) and will be quite a large file to send by email. You will only be able to send around 2 or 3 picture attachments with each email. If you need to send more than half a dozen pictures, you should put them on a CD and post it.

Image compression is used to reduce the size of the picture file (not of the picture itself) by throwing away some of the data. The more compression is used, the more is thrown away and the harder it will be to process the picture afterwards. A picture straight from the camera should have no (or very little) compression.

Photographs need processing in different ways depending whether they are for publication on a website, in a magazine, a newspaper or a book. That's why it's best to send the original and let the picture editor apply the best treatment. Remember that a picture taken off a website will be very low resolution and cannot be used for printing.

For submitting pictures to our website, please read the publishing guidelines.