While image quality has certainly improved over time, in terms of the resolution and dynamic range of the photos people capture, the visual appeal of the majority of photos that people share leaves plenty to be desired. Most people will approach a scene and shoot it as is, hoping the subject or action alone will carry the image. They might put some effort into framing the shot, but little else goes into it, and the lack of creativity shows. This holds true even when capturing an interesting subject.

In this article/video, we’ll start by showing you what to avoid for capturing an action photography shot, and then we’ll go through the artistic process of finding better picture angles to get to our final image. We cover these concepts and more for all cameras, including smartphones, in our new Creative Photography 101 Course.

Video: How to Level Up Your Action Photography with Better Picture Angles

Avoid the “Walk Up” Shot

better picture angles what not to do

Before we get into the steps for capturing an exciting action photography shot, let’s talk about walk up shots and how to avoid them. To illustrate, we began this session by capturing a walk up shot of our model Derek doing a backflip on the beach. The shot is framed well enough, but the background is distracting and the picture angle is average at best. Unfortunately, this is the picture angle that most people would use when walking up with their smartphones or cameras to capture the action.

Step 1. Use a Wide Angle Lens

While I tend to prioritize technique over gear, there are occasions such as this where gear lends an assist and opens up unique, creative opportunities. Start building your action photography shot by using a wide angle lens, which will allow you to move in closer and actually get into the action. For this session, I’m using a 15-35mm lens at 15mm.

Step 2. Compose the Shot

better picture angles find perspective to compose shot

Rather than relying on a perfect background, we can look for creative picture angles that use available objects in our favor. For this shot, I chose to lie on the ground and shoot toward the sky, incorporating the palm trees that the model used to launch into a backflip. The trees (along with the sand that I’ll introduce later) serve as a thematic element for the beach, but they also help frame the subject, leaving plenty of negative space in the blue sky to highlight the backflip and make the model’s outfit pop against the background.

Pro Tip: Snap a reference shot. Ask your subject (or an assistant) to step in while framing your shot so that you don’t have to repeat the action because you didn’t frame it properly.

[Related Reading: How to Get Creative with Perspective]

Step 3. Dial In Your Exposure Settings

Before you cue the action, make sure to dial in your exposure settings. If you aim to freeze the action, prioritize your shutter speed and then adjust your ISO and aperture until you get a balanced exposure. Ideally, you want to maximize your dynamic range to maintain as much of the highlights and shadows as possible. You can enable the highlight alert and use the histogram to help ensure that you’re not blowing out any highlights on your subject’s skin. I like to use live view for this step.

Pro Tip: Set your camera to burst mode (or some similar high-speed setting) so that you can shoot through the action as it unfolds and choose the best frame for your final image.

Step 4. Lock Your Focus

You don’t want your camera to hunt for focus during the action, so lock in your focus ahead of time. For this shot, I set the focus on the model’s head while he stood by for the reference shot and then enabled the focus lock feature on my camera. You can also switch the lens to manual focus.

Step 5. Cue the Action and Add Variations

All that’s left at this point is to cue the action and capture the shot. After looking at my initial capture, I liked the results, but I wanted to see how it’d look if I added another visual element. I decided to throw sand over the subject during the flip, which you can see in the final images below.

Pro Tip: I would recommend exercising caution when photographing at the beach, especially when playing with sand. Cameras and sand don’t mix well!

Final Images

Before

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After

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Settings for the Final Image: 15-35mm at 15mm, 1/2000, f/4, ISO 100 | Edited with Visual Flow Presets > Mood Pack > Hard Light

[Related Reading: The Power of the Right Lens Choice in Mediocre Locations]

Conclusion

As photographers, we really have no excuse for capturing uninteresting photos. Most everyone has access to quality cameras these days, even using their smartphones. Where people tend to come up short is technique. As you can see here, putting in a little creative effort can go a long way to build a worthwhile action photography shot.

If you’d like to dive deeper into your photography education and exercise your creativity side, our latest course, Creative Photography 101, provides frameworks for training your creativity so that you can stop settling for boring photos.