Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Action photography: shooting on the move

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Action photography: shooting on the move
31 Dec
When it comes to shooting a moving subject, most photographers fall into one of two camps: ‘snipers’ or ‘machine gunners’. But is one better than the other, asks Keith Wilson?

With its neat line of red-tiled, semi-detached homes, Myrtle Avenue, Hounslow, may seem like a typical suburban London address. But should you drive into this street between 6am and 11pm, you are likely to be greeted with the unmistakable roar of passenger aircraft descending to the south runway of Heathrow Airport little more than 100 yards away.

At the busiest periods, planes pass overhead at a rate of one a minute, giving Myrtle Avenue the unenviable title of being ‘probably Britain’s noisiest street’. But for aviation enthusiasts, Myrtle Avenue is a renowned location for plane spotting. Every day, dozens of spotters, many from overseas, gather at the open green space at the end of the road to log and photograph the aircraft.

Fortunately, the residents of Myrtle Avenue and its neighbouring streets are given some respite by Heathrow’s policy of alternating the airport’s two runways for take-offs and landings. At 3pm every day plane departures and arrivals switch between the north and south runways.

While residents may see the Boeings and Airbuses as a barely tolerable sufferance, plane spotters view this west London cul-de-sac as a paradise: Hatton Cross underground station is walking distance away and a nearby petrol station provides plenty of refreshments. Many of these enthusiasts bring chairs, blankets and picnics, as well as their cameras and lenses to photograph the biggest passenger planes flying into Europe’s busiest airport.

Heathrow plane landing


Although the largest aircraft block out much of the sky as they pass overhead, these are not subjects for ultra wide-angle lenses. It is the sheer size and closeness of the larger planes that delivers an impressive impact when photographed and this effect is lost if the plane is reduced when framed with a wide-angle such as 24mm, 20mm or smaller. Instead, aviation photographers prefer the standard telephoto zoom, typically a 70-200mm. Longer focal lengths of 300mm are also popular for framing an incoming aircraft from further away to allow shooting to commence a few seconds earlier for more freeze-framing attempts.

Another appealing aspect of photographing passenger planes at a busy airport is that incoming aircraft are frequent and follow the same flight path on their descent; so, there is no shortage of opportunities to perfect your technique.

Professional aviation photographer, Lloyd Horgan, is more used to shooting low-flying military jets as they practice their manoeuvres in the valleys of northwest Wales, but some of his advice is transferable to the camera-wielding spotters at Heathrow. The weather, he says, is always an important factor as it affects the lighting conditions and ultimately the shutter speed employed to ensure fast-moving aircraft are sharply focused. ‘Light has always been an issue,’ he says. ‘Some people will raise the ISO, but I prefer to have the shutter speed down. Obviously, there’s more risk of losing the shot but you’re not getting a really grainy image.’ He also thinks missing some shots is worth it so long as you come away with one ‘keeper’.

Plane landing west london


Since steam locomotives were replaced by diesel engines and electrified main lines, plane spotting seems to have overtaken train spotting as a popular subject for the camera. However, the allure of steam has not vanished completely as tourist steam railways thrive and continue to attract hordes of photographers. Images of steam locomotives crossing tall multi-arched viaducts such as the famous Ribblehead Viaduct in North Yorkshire remain as popular now as they did in the heyday of steam, and the sumptuous black and white prints of American steam trains flash-lit at night, by the late O Winston Link, are highly sought after by collectors of fine art photography.

When it comes to shooting any moving subject (not just planes, trains and automobiles), most photographers fall into one of two camps: ‘snipers’ or ‘machine gunners’. Snipers are those who follow the subject through their viewfinder and wait for the moment when they think the composition is right before pressing the shutter – in single shot mode – sometimes just a couple of times.

Machine gunners, meanwhile, have their shutter set on continuous release and will hold the shutter down while tracking the subject as it passes in front of them. There is no right or wrong method, but for fast-moving subjects such as planes, most photographers choose the latter approach. Lloyd Horgan comments: ‘I’ve always shot at 5fps and I’ve always kept it that way. If you up the frame speed too much you tend to lose a jet, so you either track ahead or track behind it and 5fps seems to be a reasonable limit for not missing anything. I know a lot of people get hung up on autofocus tracking but I’ve never used it, and I’ve never found a need to use it either. Keep it simple.’

jack anstey unsplash


There are plenty of other subjects in urban areas that make eye-catching action images. Bicycles are a more photogenic means of personal transport than cars because the rider and bike are distinctly visible and linked, while also being on the same plane of focus. Britain’s cycling boom in recent years means cyclists are seen frequently on city streets and lanes, local parks and designated cycle ways in built-up areas. Whether photographing a cycling road racer or city commuter, a popular technique is panning, which deliberately depicts action blur in the picture to emphasise the subject’s speed and movement.

For most panning photos, a longer focal length lens is the most common choice, but ultimately this decision depends upon the subject-to-camera distance and having enough space around the subject to make it easier to keep it within the frame while tracking. The lens also needs to be one that can be comfortably held when maintaining a smooth lateral movement while following the subject as it moves across in front of you. For a racing cyclist following a marked course in a road race, set the camera’s AF to continuous (AF-C) mode and keep the lens focused on the same focus point, say the cyclist’s head or shoulder, for as long as you are panning, keeping the subject wholly within the frame.

It is important to keep the panning movement going for a second or two after you have stopped pressing the shutter button as this ensures you are maintaining a steady hold and even movement. By examining the images on the monitor, you can judge the level of background blur and subject sharpness and make adjustments to your shutter speed in time for the next attempt. A good ‘starting point’ shutter speed is 1/30sec and you can then make adjustments to your speed either side of this to compare results. A slower shutter speed will lead to increased blur and a greater sense of movement. Panning is a technique that can be applied to virtually any moving subject regardless of size or speed. Remember too, that depth of field becomes an irrelevance when panning a moving subject, so feel free to alter your shutter speed by using aperture priority mode and adjusting the aperture setting accordingly.

sunset plane


While some modern transport vehicles have evolved rapidly over the years – especially aircraft – others have barely changed, particularly where animals are the main driver. Horse drawn carriages and ceremonial coaches continue to be used for traditional festivals and pageants, attracting major crowds and cameras. In poorer nations, donkeys, mules and camels continue to be the beasts of burden, vital for moving materials, supplies and people between villages and more distant outposts.

Photographing these subjects is less about action and more about the setting and surroundings. Rarely do these animals move faster than a slow trot when on the trail with their handler, thereby allowing photographers more time to frame a picturesque composition and time their exposure more precisely. In these instances, shorter focal lengths, including wide-angles, become first-choice lenses. For example, a wide-angle shot of a Bedouin camel train winding across an orange sandy desert is a classic travel image with its overriding sense of place and glimpse into a tradition and culture far removed from our own.

To another remote location, the ice and snow of the high Arctic, where the dog sledge, another traditional means of everyday transport, still prevails. Yes, motorised skidoos are also used to zip across the ice, but running out of fuel, freezing parts or engine break downs make them a higher risk and less reliable than a team of husky dogs dragging a wooden sled across the coastal sea ice.

Panning techniques can be used here too to convey speed and movement, providing the photographer is low down to the ice and close to the snout of the leading dog of a sled following close behind. This degree of proximity to the ‘engine’ of a vehicle with its live, panting face is unusual in this type of photography but it provides an opportunity to engage with a subject in a way that isn’t possible with inanimate vehicles.

The chance to shoot more closely with a wide-angle lens also reinforces the meaning behind war photographer Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim: ‘If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Capa was advising photographers to get physically closer to the subject rather than switching to a longer lens to do so, but had he been on the green at Myrtle Avenue photographing incoming aircraft, even he would have resorted to using a longer lens.

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items


When a tripod is too cumbersome to carry around and set-up, a monopod can make all the difference, doubling as a walking pole when out and about, as well as adding extra support to reduce movement during slower exposures and panning. The Vanguard VEO 2 CM 264 (£100) is a lightweight carbon fibre monopod with a maximum payload of 6kg – enough for a full-frame DSLR with mid-range telephoto zoom. It extends to a maximum height of 160cm and folds down to just 54cm.
Click here to order via Amazon

Nikon D5
CAMERA: High speed DSLR
You see the plane approach from the horizon, moving straight and true but the speed is deceptive and suddenly it’s nearly above you. You have to be quick to get a picture. This is where you need a high-speed pro DSLR like Nikon’s D5 (£5,600 body only) to maximise your chances. On its release, the D5 was Nikon’s fastest ever DSLR – it boasts a rapid-firing 12fps continuous shooting, sustainable up to 200 frames! With an array of 153 focusing points across the viewfinder this is a camera designed to keep up with the fastest of subjects.
Click here to order via Amazon

Tamron 70 200mm VC USD A009jpg 1347349157
After the standard 24-70mm zoom, many photographers’ next purchase is the fast aperture 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom. The Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 (£1,250) is notable for a constant f/2.8 aperture throughout its focal range. It includes an ultrasonic silent drive motor and improved vibration compensation.
Click here to order via Amazon


• Set your widest aperture in order to maintain a fast shutter speed to make sharply focused images of incoming aircraft.

• For panning, select continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode and keep the lens focused on the same focus point for as long as you are panning, keeping the subject wholly within the frame.

• Use a monopod for added stability, particularly when using telephoto lenses, or in breezy conditions. Or use image stabilisation or vibration reduction mode, if your lens has one.

• Venture into any restricted areas. This is especially applicable near airport perimeters, railway platforms, highways and race tracks. Such areas are designated for your own safety as well as the security of others.

• Shoot directly into the sun. Check the position of the sun in relation to your subject and always meter off a mid-tone such as surrounding grass, wall or even the back of your hand. Lock that exposure reading in place before re-composing.

• Ignore the weather forecast as this action photography of this type is nearly always outdoors. The weather forecast will tell you a lot about the quality of light to expect, which will be crucial to how you expose your pictures.

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


An overlap between populations of grizzly bears and Indigenous groups…


Climate change is having a huge impact on the oceans,…


The first COP26 draft agreement has been released


Marco Magrini explores the complex issue of carbon markets –…


The youth found marching outside the COP26 conference in Glasgow…


Energy day at COP26 was all about coal. Marco Magrini…


The world is reliant on the climate models that forecast…


Geographical editor, Katie Burton, spends the day at COP26: finance…


Lawyers are using the power of the courts to challenge…


Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society…


Will China's climate pledges be enough to achieve Xi Jinping's…


Net zero. It’s the phrase that polarises scientists and environmental…