Tips for capturing a killer action sports photograph

Action sports are difficult to photograph because, well, the athletes are always in action. Whether you’re out on an afternoon bike ride by yourself or shooting some of the top athletes in the world, here are a few tips to help you capture some compelling and unique images.

Communicate with the athlete

Travis Pastrana, motocross

Motosports star Travis Pastrana tweaks out an Indian air during a private shoot in California. Photo: Travis Burke

To capture the beauty and intensity of certain tricks, photographers need to use particular angles. Otherwise, the photo can almost appear dull or flat.

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If you communicate with the athlete beforehand and he tells you what trick he’s going to perform, you’ll have an easier time figuring out how to compose your shot.

Create more than just an action shot

By incorporating bright, vivid colors, an action shot and a portrait of him smiling and dancing, the diptych offers a great overall feel of what Theotis is about. Photo: Travis Burke

Two is better than one. Photo: Travis Burke

I like to put together a lot of diptychs, which are simply two photos pieced together. I usually combine an action shot with a portrait, because a portrait offers the viewer a peek inside the athlete’s character more than a single action shot would.

Here is pro skateboarder Theotis Beasley, who is not only a top street skater but is also known for being “the nicest guy in skateboarding.” By incorporating bright, vivid colors, an action shot and a portrait of him smiling and dancing, the diptych offers a great overall feel of what Beasley is about.

Have fun

Casey Sershon

If you’re having fun, it’ll shine through on camera. Photo: Travis Burke

It’s a fact that you are more creative and produce better work when you’re in a stress-free environment, and your mood can greatly affect the outcome of your images.

Here, surfer Casey Sershon and I set out on a late afternoon to get some shots from the water. The conditions weren’t the best, but we ended up being the only ones out there, which is pretty rare for where we were: Southern California.

We had a blast enjoying the surf and beautiful golden-hour light, and it shows in the images.

Get creative

Travis Burke, Matthias Giraud, BASE jumper

Bright colors and a unique angle help to draw the eye. Photo: Travis Burke

In today’s world, where we are exposed to more images than ever before, photographers have only a split second to capture a viewer’s attention before he or she moves on.

Using a unique angle and creating a “wow factor” can be key to getting the viewer to stick around. The best angles are sometimes the least obvious.

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For this shot of professional BASE jumper Matthias Giraud, I tried to think outside the box and ended up attaching my GoPro to the end of a pole so I could shoot straight down over the cliff, getting a bird’s-eye view of this intense and technical jump.

I also had Giraud wear bright colors to help his figure stand out from a rather chaotic background below.

Simple equipment is better than you think

travis burke

You don’t always need expensive equipment to take stunning images. Photo: Travis Burke

While expensive camera equipment may be a necessity in a few limited circumstances, you don’t always need thousands of dollars’ worth of fancy equipment to produce quality images.

In fact, many incredibly stunning photos can be produced using mere cell phones, GoPros and point-and-shoot cameras. Indeed, with some basic knowledge of composition, lighting and a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.

For this self-portrait image, I used a GoPro that I set up next to a puddle and then strapped a remote to my handlebars to get the shot.

GoPros are useful tools to capture top-notch shots in just about any sport because they offer an extremely fast burst mode for images, HD video capability and a seemingly endless supply of different mounts, which all allow you the freedom to be creative and try new things. The cameras are also waterproof, sand proof, shock resistant and very compact.

Shoot what you are passionate about

travis burke

Travis Burke highlining across a canyon. Photo: Travis Burke

The best images are produced when you are shooting something you are passionate about, so I personally try to participate in every sport that I shoot — even sports as extreme as highlining.

This helps me gain an understanding and respect for the people who regularly participate in the sport and for what they do on a daily basis.

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Participating also gives me insight into the tricks the athletes perform and the angles from which to shoot them, as well as a window into the athletes’ lifestyles and how to best represent them and their sports.

Keep practicing

travis burke, torrey pines

Practice makes perfect. Photo: Travis Burke

Get out there, have a blast, come back and critique your images. Get an idea of what worked and what didn’t, and have your peers give you input as well. The more you practice, the more you will understand and the easier photography will become.

Most of all, have fun and enjoy whatever it is you are doing, such as when I enjoyed my day at the Torrey Pines Gliderport in San Diego.

Keep practicing, keep learning and keep smiling. Happy shooting!