Action photography has gifted the world with some of the most iconic images of all time. The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, Muhammad Ali standing victorious over Sonny Liston, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” photo of a milkman scurrying through war-torn London streets; the list goes on. And, believe it or not, you can capture epic action shots using just your smartphone. But you’ll need some tricks of the trade to do it.
With the best camera phones, you can take take pro-level photos and videos without the bulky DSLR bag.
Today’s flagship smartphones have amazing cameras, with high resolutions, AI-powered autofocus, and a bevy of advanced controls. It’s an exciting time for camera nerds like myself, and my fellow professional photographers here at Pocket-lint are equally jazzed.
If you want to snap shots of wildlife, sports, street life, and anything else that passes in a flash, go with a lens built for action.
Thus, we decided to put our heads together and compile the following guide to taking action shots with a smartphone. With the right tools and knowledge, you might just take the next iconic action shot.
How to freeze action in perpetuity with your smartphone camera
1. Use a fast shutter speed
As a photographer, I’ll be the first (but likely not the last) to tell you that when it comes to quality action shots, shutter speed is your first priority. A fast shutter speed is the only way to capture fast action with sharpness and clarity. If your shutter speed is too slow, motion blur can ruin an otherwise awesome shot. But how do you change the shutter speed on a phone, and how fast should you set it?
To tackle the first issue, you’ll need to navigate to your phone’s camera app and explore the available settings.
Many of the latest flagships, like the Google Pixel 8 Pro, have manual exposure modes that allow you to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. You may also find a “Sports mode,” which will automatically set your exposure while prioritizing a high shutter speed.
“Sports mode” works nicely for action photography, but it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with manual exposure anyway.
If your phone’s native camera app doesn’t have manual exposure, try a third-party app. For Android, there are tons of different options. A couple of the top-rated apps include Camera FV-5, ProCam X, and Manual Camera. For iPhones, you can try out Yamera, ProShot, and ProCam 8.
With the power of exposure in your hands, you can now achieve the fast shutter speed you need. Anything in the triple digits should suffice, with more fast-moving subjects like cars and tennis serves requiring even faster speeds.
Your max possible shutter speed depends on the level of light, so it changes day-by-day. Set everything up first in the environment where you’ll be shooting, with shutter speed and then aperture taking priority.
2. Use a small aperture
If you’re able to change the aperture, make it small. (This means a high f-stop number – f/8 is smaller than f/5.6.) The reason for this is simple.Smaller apertures have wider depths of field, so more of the elements, both close and far, are in focus. And for action photography, subjects move a lot. Their distance from the camera, or depth, will consequently change quickly.
F-stop is the term for denoting aperature on your camera.
Thus, with a wider depth of field, you have more room to take sharp photos without needing to worry about your subject moving out of focus.
Remember that shutter speed is still the priority. If you’re shooting in low lighting, a small aperture may not let in enough light for a well-exposed image. Cranking up the ISO to compensate isn’t a good idea, either, since it will produce a grainy photo. Thus, you’ll have to find a balance between the aperture and ISO to make sure that your shutter speed is fast, and your photo is sharp.
3. Optimize the rest of your camera settings.
With your exposure ready to go, you should now make sure the rest of your settings are poised for success. Navigating the camera settings menu, see what options can be tweaked. Set the image quality to its highest possible resolution, and remove HDR, AI enhancements, and any other filters.
Bad Photoshop skills? No worries. Google’s new Magic Editor uses gen AI to erase and replace parts of your photo. But that’s not all it can do.
You may also be able to select the file type, with RAW being the best. In this case, we want the biggest, most unadulterated photo we can get. The editing will come later.
4. Shoot in burst mode
Also called continuous drive, burst mode is when your camera takes multiple photos in rapid succession. Some cameras are capable of shooting more than 10 full-resolution photos in a second. This is a boon for action photography, since it ensures you capture the moment in at least one of the photos in the series. And if the rest are duds, you can simply delete them.
iPhone 15 is changing the game for portrait photos, with focus adjustments after the fact.
Most smartphone cameras offer burst mode with multiple rates to choose from. Even if yours doesn’t, you’ll likely find it in one of the third-party apps we mentioned in Step 1. It’s a good idea to practice using burst mode before the big shoot, since it can be a little tricky.
Also, double-check to see what kind of settings are affected by enabling it. If burst mode lowers the quality of your photos, you might want to stick with single shots.
5. Anticipate the action ahead of time
Photographers refer to this anticipatory planning as “leading.” Instead of playing catch-up with your subject as it zooms across the frame, try anticipating where they’ll be when the moment is right to snap the shot. For example, if a skateboarder is heading for a jump, aim your frame at the position where they’ll make the jump rather than tracking them during the lead-up. As another example, if a pole-vaulter breaks into a sprint, center your frame around the bar and anticipate when they’ll make the leap; don’t pan your camera as they run across the track.
Should you struggle to catch the shot at the perfect moment, consider clicking the shutter a fraction of a second before you see your subject reach the desired position. Human reaction speeds aren’t as fast as camera shutters.It sounds simple, but it can actually take years of practice and experience before you master the art of anticipation.
6. Practice composition
Photographic composition is basically the way you arrange your shots. It’s what makes photography an art form, since you get to use your creativity to decide what elements to include in the frame and how they’re positionally oriented. Thus, it’s all about personal taste, and there are no hard rules for how to approach composition.
That being said, there are a couple tricks of the trade that can help add some pizzazz to your action shots.
To start, practice shooting from different angles. For example, action shots in which the subject is airborne, such as an acrobat in the middle of a front aerial, can be captivating when shot from a low angle looking up. Such an angle will eliminate the floor and background elements while emphasizing the open air behind them.
Or, if you’re photographing a diver mid-dive, get as close to the surface of the water as possible and shoot straight-on.
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We also recommend experimenting with distance. Wide shots provide greater context to the scene, and they offer wiggle-room to make sure you don’t accidentally crop out the action. Close-up shots are trickier, since the magic moment can end up occurring outside the frame. However, they can also be more dramatic as they capture greater detail and facial expressions. With practice, you can add both wide shots and close-ups to your toolkit.
4 phone accessories and gadgets to help take the perfect action shot
JCRobot iSleeky L7C Pro Gimbal Stabilizer For Smartphone
A budget-friendly solution for buttery-smooth tracking
$67 $80 Save $13
The iSleeky L7C Pro is a smartphone gimbal with premium tech, like face tracking and fast charging, and it comes at an accessible price.
- Easy to use and set up
- Price-friendly compared to other phone gimbals
- Intuitive, ergonomic design
- Robust, durable build
- AI-powered tracking is accurate and responsive
- Battery life doesn’t last very long
- The tracking requires connecting to the app
Smartphone gimbals are usually pretty expensive, and for a good reason. They contain some fancy engineering, with smart software and multi-axis mechanical systems. The iSleeky L7C Pro has all those fancy features, and yet its price is surprisingly affordable. What’s the catch?There really isn’t a catch beyond the excellent bargain on offer. The iSleeky L7C Pro is comparable to the DJI OSMO, with AI-powered face and subject tracking via the app. It also boasts fast-charging while you use it, and you can fold it up into a compact size when the shoot is over.
Tripod phone mounts offer hobbyists and professionals alike stability and versatility for the best shots.
For action photography, it excels. The app is loaded with presets and templates, like “Dolly Zoom” and “Motion Timelapse,” which work flawlessly to make quality content effortlessly. You don’t even need a second to shoot, since the handle doubles as a mini tripod. Simply place the gimbal on the ground, set up your preset or mode, and start your performance. The 3-axis rotational system is smooth and accurate, ensuring you’re always front and center.
Neewer 67mm ND2-32 Magnetic Phone Lens Filter
Capture the daytime action without the glare
Neewer is the name when it comes to quality phone accessories at bargain prices, and this ND filter proves that with gusto.
- Compatible with wide range of phones
- The magnetic lens mount fits other lenses, as well
- Light reduction range of up to 5 stops
- Professional quality
- Includes a cold shoe mount for attaching lights and mics
- Case removal is basically required
- The mount is only compatible with specific magnetic lenses
Even when shooting with a fast shutter speed and a small aperture, your action photos can still end up overexposed when the sun is shining bright. To fix that, ND filters help reduce light intensity without causing an imbalance to the color profile. They’re like sunglasses for your camera. And this smartphone ND filter from Neewer leads the pack.
The adapter fits phones of almost every shape and size, yet it attaches securely and easily across the board. It’s compatible with other lenses, too, and the magnetic base lets you swap compatible lenses in and out with ease. This is ideal for action photography, since adaptability is a key component to capturing fast-moving subjects.
The ND filter itself has a light reduction range of 1 to 5 stops, so it can handle extremely bright environments. You can really feel the quality, too. Its metal outer ring and scratch-resistant glass are hefty in the hand, with a weight and feel that speaks to the durability. Pop it onto your smartphone the next time the sun threatens to overexpose your shot, and you’ll be ready for action.
KiwiFotos Phone Camera Grip Holder with Bluetooth Shutter
Get a grip on your handheld shots
$15 $20 Save $5
This simple accessory adds a ton of control to your handheld shots, with an ergonomic shape and a remote shutter for snapping away.
- Also functions as a tripod mount adapter
- Bluetooth shutter button connects easily
- Reduces hand shake
- Extremely affordable
- It uses a button-cell battery, so it’s not rechargeable
- You may have to remove your phone case to put it on
The KiwiFotos smartphone camera grip is a simple tool with profound utility. It fits just about any model of phone, and once in place, it makes your slender smartphone feel like a full-fledged SLR camera. That means greater control over your shots, and you can forget about fumbling with your phone’s ill-placed shutter button. Indeed, this grip has a Bluetooth shutter release, letting you snap away to your heart’s content.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. It also has a “cold shoe adapter,” which allows you to add flashes, microphones, and any other accessory with the standard mount. Plus, the bottom boasts a ¼-inch tripod-mount thread, meaning it functions as a smartphone tripod mount adapter, as well. At this price, and with this level of utility, the KiwiFotos smartphone camera grip is one of the best investments you can make for your action photography.
Andobil MagStick Selfie Stick Tripod with Wireless Remote
A tripod, monopod, and selfie stick all in one
This MagSafe-compatible tripod is as versatile as it gets, with an easy-to-adjust design, a remote shutter, and a wickedly portable size.
- Lightweight and portable
- Quality construction
- Extends to 63.5? and collapses to 12.3?
- Remote shutter connects via Bluetooth
- Holds phone securely
- A bit on the expensive side
- Tripod legs are short, so it’s not very stable in high winds
The Andobil MagStick is more than a selfie stick. It’s an action photographer’s best tool for fast-moving subjects, with a remote shutter built right into the handle. But more than that, it’s a tripod, a monopod, and a handy way to frame your shots. It’s not cheap, but the price is definitely worth the investment.
What makes the MagStick exceptional is its extendable range. At its tallest, this phone tripod stands at an impressive 63.5 inches. That’s over 5 feet tall, and it collapses down to a mere 12.3 inches. The result is one of the most portable “selfie sticks” you can buy. But calling it a selfie stick might be a disservice.
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It’s MagSafe compatible, meaning it can charge iPhones wirelessly. This means longer shoots without worrying about battery levels. Best of all, the phone holder attaches via a standard tripod mount, so you can fix it to any tripod you want.