How to Pick the Best Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO Settings for Action Shots


Jordan Powell – CreativeLive Influencer – @powelldigitalmedia

Some of life’s most captivating moments happen in the blink of an eye — or the snap of a camera. And, if you’re lucky, you actually capture them. But if you’re just starting out in photography, essentials like how to pick the best aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for your camera and environment can seem vexing, which results in blurry, dark, and unusable photos.

Instead of muddling through and missing the magic moment, take a few tips from CreativeLive instructor John Greengo, who knows what’s up when it comes to picking the right exposure values. Check out his tips for setting your aperture camera setting, shutter speed, and ISO for action shots.

Light Meter
Your light meter should, ideally, read zero. The problem? It’s almost impossible to use the exact exposure values you want while maintaining a zero reading –– and in John’s example, the light meter is problematically two full stops in the negative. The solution? Figuring out where to make sacrifices in your exposure settings, and then committing. Think about what you can fix in post, and then capture what you can’t.

Shutter Speed
To get a crisp image of a lightning-fast subject, your shutter speed should be pretty high up there –– somewhere in the 2000 mark. Sure, you could adjust the shutter speed lower to let in more light and zero your meter, but that defeats the entire purpose of your picture. It’s hardly a worthy action shot if the subject is blurry. Opt for a quick shutter speed, then brighten up your photo later.

Since the background and foreground aren’t the subject of your image, having them in focus isn’t key. A shallow depth of field will ensure that the point of action is crisp and clear, so go ahead and set your aperture to f4. It’s the best setting for your shot, and adjusting it definitely won’t troubleshoot your light meter problem, because a higher aperture = less light.

Your ISO can vary depending on your environment, but optimally, it should be at 100 when taking action shots. However, because your light meter isn’t balanced, changing the ISO is the easiest way to level things up. So, go ahead and keep your shutter speed and aperture levels where they are, and increase your ISO to 200, or even 400 or 800, until the light meter reads zero. The photo may turn out a little grainy, but as you get more adept, you’ll find the sweet spot.

Photographers always say that getting the shot is a matter of timing, light, and patience — and getting action shots is no exception. You can’t expect to adjust all these values while an eagle is zooming into the water. Instead, take some time to scout out your location, dial in your settings in advance, and then wait it out until something cool happens.

Still asking yourself, “what is aperture?”. Check out our Ultimate Resource Guide on Aperture.

Check out our Advanced Lighting Techniques class with Red Bull Photographer Michael Clark

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Mehera Bonner is a freelance lifestyle and entertainment writer. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and two children.