The secrets of taking good pictures: Ready, set action

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

September 4, 2011 11:02
3 minute read.
The beach at sunset

Children playing on beach at sunset 465. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.

If you own a compact digital camera you will have noticed how difficult it is to capture action, especially when taking pictures of children moving and playing.

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Compact cameras use a “contrast detection” focusing mechanism that quickly focuses the lens to infinity and back. The camera’s microprocessor, a sophisticated computer, returns the lens to the place of greatest contrast, which is where the subject will be in focus. This only takes a moment and is fine for stationary subjects, but makes it hard to focus on movement.

Compact cameras also suffer from a brief lag between pressing the shutter button and taking the shot. The combination of focusing lag and shutter lag explains why taking snaps of moving children is rarely successful.

SLR cameras use a sophisticated “phase detection” focusing system that can instantly focus on a moving subject and even keep it in focus. They also have hardly any shutter lag. They are a far better choice for taking action shots of children.

Capturing action

It is possible, however, to take great action shots using your compact camera by using a simple trick called “focus lock”.

Try pressing the shutter button gently until the camera focuses on an area the children are likely to pass through. By maintaining this gentle pressure the camera will stay pre-focused, ready to shoot as soon as the children cross the spot. Focus lock effectively eliminates focusing lag.

You can also take the shot a fraction of a second before the children cross the spot to eliminate shutter lag. Both these techniques used together will turn you into a sharp shooter.

You will be amazed at the spontaneity you can capture just by the intelligent use of your fingertip.

It’s far more important to know how to use these simple techniques of handling your compact camera rather than fiddling about with confusing buttons and menus and loosing the shot.

Photo critique

David Septimus sent me this excellent picture of the Long Island Railroad. He has taken a lot of care over this shot. The composition is very carefully considered and he has toned it grey green and sepia, but retained some color from the original picture too. It has a quiet moody atmosphere and it’s easy to imagine the sounds of a distant train approaching from far down the line.

My method of assessing pictures consists of asking and answering these three simple questions:

What works?
Careful composition; strong perspective pulling my eye into the distance; moody feel enhanced by careful toning.

What does not work?
My eye keeps being drawn to the plastic bag and rubbish in the center. Although the shot is picturesque, the size and position of the bag suggests an element of urban decay.

Could it be improved, and how?
It lacks a primary focal point to engage the attention, help to tell the story, and provide added interest and depth. I have retouched in a child to indicate the sort of extra element that could give the picture more depth and suggest the contrast between innocence and industrialization.

I reduced the size of the bag and adjusted some of the lighting too.

Of course picturesque children will never turn up just when you need them most. Whoever said that photography was easy? Certainly not me!

Send me your picture 

If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback. Send one picture only, at a reduced size to 

He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at:

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