8 tips for taking better action photos

We think Meg Haywood-Sullivan looks pretty good in front of the camera, but what she creates behind it looks even better.

The sought-after commercial outdoor lifestyle and action-sports photographer has an impressive list of clients, including Clif Bar, The New York Times, Toyota, Urban Outfitters, Salt Optics and Patagonia.

Meg Haywood-Sullivan poses in front of a gallery of her photography; Photo courtesy of Haywood-Sullivan
Meg Haywood-Sullivan poses in front of a gallery of her photography. Photo: Courtesy of Meg Haywood-Sullivan

She’s battled frost-covered lenses shooting winter bouldering in Mammoth Lakes, California and backcountry snowboarding in Montana and has captured the action shooting an Ironman triathlete in the Bay Area. So who better to school us in photographing athletes moving fast — really, really fast — in beautiful places?

“I’ve always been drawn to shooting the relationship between athletes and the environment; it’s that intersection where moments come alive to paint a bigger picture,” she says. Get out your notebooks: Action-photography school is officially in session.

Lesson 1: Get the right camera

Whichever brand tickles your creative fancy, make sure it’s up to snuff. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
While you can capture quality action-sports shots with a standard point-and-shoot camera, a GoPro or even your iPhone, Haywood-Sullivan says she relies on a professional-level camera kit (this includes pro-level Nikon DSLRs). Whichever camera you go with, make sure it can handle the elements.

For shooting fast action, Haywood-Sullivan relies on her 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. “I love working with 50mm and 85mm prime lenses if I’m sneaking in a portrait and outdoor lifestyle images,” she adds.

Lesson 2: Invest in some accessories

“It all starts with the pack,” Haywood-Sullivan explains. “I’ve been using F-Stop Gear products for years; they’re high quality and have storage in all the right places for a photographer shooting action.” (She adds that the company makes a female-specific pack called the Kashmir UL.)

In cold conditions, she recommends a good pair of down mittens with liners: “Frostbite sucks and you won’t be able to feel the [camera] trigger if your fingers are frozen.”

When natural lighting isn’t ideal for your photos, speed lights can be great portable investments that add more dimension to images.

Lesson 3: Get off “auto”

The camera won’t (or shouldn’t) do all the work for you. Photo: Federico Bottos/Unsplash
The first step to taking better pictures? You have to learn how the camera actually works. “Flip your camera off the auto setting,” Haywood-Sullivan says. “If it’s all about freezing the action for you, try using the shutter priority mode; it allows you to be able to set the ISO.”

To reduce the graininess of your shot, set your camera to a low ISO number, then set a fast shutter to freeze the moment. To do this, you have to learn how to adjust the aperture manually.

RELATED: Simple tips for better landscape photography

“Try playing around with all the features to get a better understanding of all the different modes your camera offers. Each one has its own unique benefits,” says Haywood-Sullivan.

Lesson 4: Learn where to stand

Action sports photography oftentimes means staying out of the way of the athlete; Photo by Haywood-Sullivan
Action-sports photography oftentimes means staying out of the way of the athlete. Photo: Courtesy of Meg Haywood-Sullivan
Capturing the meat of the action without messing up the athlete? “That is one of the most difficult predicaments of an outdoor photographer,” says Haywood-Sullivan. “Oftentimes the best angles are ones that are nearly impossible or just downright dangerous.”

She says that ultimately it’s all about creativity. Try using a tree as both a foreground and a barrier, and make sure that if you aren’t visible to the athlete, there is audible communication between the two of you.

RELATED: What it’s like to be an action sports photographer; video

“No shot is worth broken bones,” she adds.

Lesson 5: Shoot the person, not just the athlete

Meg Haywood-Sullivan regularly shoots athletes in both urban and backcountry settings; Photo by Meg Haywood-Sullivan
Haywood-Sullivan regularly shoots athletes in both urban and backcountry settings. Photo: Courtesy of Meg Haywood-Sullivan
“Honestly, I can get tired of flipping through endless pages of A-plus action shots. No matter how incredible the action in the image, they all tend to blend together,” she says.

“When I’m creating a photo, I’ll run through in my head how to utilize the natural environment to complement the action and the personality of the athlete.”

Use sun flares, rocky outcroppings and different perspectives to experiment with the mood you’re trying to achieve.

Lesson 6: You are not a solo artist

At the beginning of a session, Haywood-Sullivan says, make sure everyone involved is on the same page. “If the athlete doesn’t want to wait to set up a shot, agree to a fun, mellow day shooting from the hip and snapping raw, gritty, behind-the-scenes action,” she shares.

If both people want to stack shots during a shoot, create a timeline and sketch out some shots together.

“Sometimes I’ll suggest highlighting a natural feature, then the athlete will come up with something even better,” she says. “You never know what in-between or unexpected moments might make the shoot an epic one.”

Lesson 7: Prepare for the weather

Haywood-Sullivan says using the environment can play up an athlete's personality and enhance the mood of a shoot; Photo by Haywood-Sullivan
Haywood-Sullivan says using the environment can play up an athlete’s personality and enhance the mood of a shoot. Photo: Courtesy of Meg Haywood-Sullivan
How does Haywood-Sullivan handle weather extremes? “Tough skin,” she says. “I often put my camera’s comfort over mine.”

Expecting heavy snow in the backcountry? Bring an umbrella. Battling the heat of the desert? Wear a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face and camera.

RELATED: Tips for capturing a killer action sports photograph

“If you are miserable in the elements, it will reflect in the images you take,” she explains. “Stay inspired by the environment, not incapacitated by it.”

Lesson 8: Know when you have the shot

Haywood-Sullivan says she usually knows the moment her shutter fires that she has the winning shot. “When everything aligns — the athlete lands their jump, the weather conditions cooperate and you nail the angle — it’s the most incredible feeling. It’s what we live for as creatives,” she shares.

That doesn’t mean she neglects the rest of the shots she took; take a quick browse through all of your photos in post-processing for winning shots you may otherwise overlook.