Extreme Sports Photography Tips

Extreme sports are action or adventure sports. They are not for the faint-hearted and have a certain amount of danger involved. These sports involve great heights, speed, or stunts. As a photographer, it helps to have a genuine interest in extreme sports in order to photograph them well.


Vary your Angles

Boy practicing extreme skateboarding

To get the most dynamic images from an extreme sports photo shoot, you ought to be extra creative with your angles – amplify them, make them extreme (pun intended) – which will in turn give you spectacular compositions! Don’t try to get too complicated, though. If you can get close to the action, use a wide-angle lens (28mm or 35mm) for exaggerated proportions and movement. A wide-angle lens will provide expansive compositions, but you’ll need to be fairly close with these small focal length lenses. Your own “vision” of how and where to acquire the action is going to be most important. Don’t be afraid to lie in the dirt to get your shot. These are called extreme sports for a reason; everything about them is supposed to be over the top.


Find the Right Spot

Downhill racer rides through the forest

Many people will tell you that the perfect photograph is all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s certainly true when shooting extreme sports. Watch how the participants handle the course before you select your spot. Turn the mode dial to TV or S (Shutter Priority) mode so you can control how you freeze the action, then pre-meter (and lock) your exposure. To get the most out of the event, use a 35mm – 50mm lens for the most advantageous field of view – not too wide (which would lead to distortion) and just beneath telephoto, so you can use a wider range of apertures.


Get Close to the Action

Extreme BMX biker

Instead of using a telephoto zoom lens – which tends to compress the overall image – move your lens and yourself closer to the subject. By moving closer, it is much easier to fill the viewfinder’s frame with your subject… in fact, consider using the frame’s edges for more creative compositions, i.e. don’t be afraid to truncate (cut-off) portions of the subject for a more riveting composition. Your main objective in extreme sports compositions is to pack as much energy into the frame as possible, and you do this by making it appear as if the subject can’t be held in by the frame’s boundaries.


Choose Burst Mode

Extreme snowboarder takes air in superpipe competition

Burst Mode is an auto-firing mode that enables you to rapidly capture action without having to wait for the shutter to recycle. It’s an effective way of shooting high intensity subjects. Set the lens to AF (Autofocus) and select continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) mode so that the lens can constantly maintain its focus on the moving subject. When photographing white backgrounds, like the snow in the photo on the left, you’ll need to overexpose the snow by at least 1 stop. This way the snow will appear white in the photo. The reason behind this is that your camera’s built-in meter determines the ideal exposure to an 18% gray. Accordingly, when the white background is metered, it will be underexposed if you follow exactly what the meter says. By pushing up the exposure 1 stop, you’ll move into the tonal range where the white is sparkling white.


Use Blur to Show Movement

Extreme downhill race - Mountain bike racer catching air

One of the best ways to enhance the dynamics of an active subject is to use blur in the image. You can accomplish this by panning with the subject as he or she moves. Turn the mode dial to M (Manual mode) and set the shutter speed to between 1/30s-1/120s. You’ll want the aperture as wide as you can get it (this will increase the effects of the blurred background) without compromising the ability to keep the subject in focus. Keep your camera on the subject and your finger half way down on the shutter to lock the focus. When ready, take the photo, remembering to follow the biker as he or she rides past you. This is called follow-through or panning, and you continue to follow the line of motion after the shutter has been released to ensure as sharp an image as possible. The resulting image should have a sharp subject with a blurred background, showing off the sense of movement. It takes a little practice to get this effect down right, but once you do you’ll elevate your action photos all the more; which is exactly what you want with photos of extreme sporting events.


Recommended Settings

Correctly setting the exposure is critical, especially when you’re photographing an extreme sporting event, because you can’t ask the athlete to “repeat that just like you did, please.” In order to be prepared, you need to pre-meter the environment(s) as much as possible beforehand. This way you won’t have to worry about the exposure when the action is charging by at breakneck speed. Use the Center-Weighted setting on the TTL meter to get the most robust and flexible exposure value. Then depending on how comfortable you are with the camera, either use M (full manual) or S (Shutter-priority) mode to take your photos. This way you’ll be able to set and control the exposure with the most accuracy. You’ll want to use shutter speeds close to or exceeding 1/500s, and an f/4 – f/5.6 aperture. In bright conditions where there is snow or on a sunny beach, adjust the exposure by one or two stops to prevent overexposure; this way you will retain the necessary shadow and highlight detail that makes for a stronger, tonally-balanced image.


Recommended Equipment

For extreme sports, a good-quality 50mm lens with f/1.4 or 1.8 and a camera that is not too heavy will allow you to move around with ease. A wide-angle lens adds versatility and can give some dramatic angles. Also, you’ll need to invest in a powerful flashgun. If you look at the sidelines of nearly every sporting event, you’ll see a slew of photographers who have powerful flash units which allow them to shoot with a low ISO (200 to 400, for less grain) combined with a higher shutter speed to freeze those crucial, dynamic moments. There’s a little used technique called High Speed Sync in which you can set your flash to be synchronized to higher than normal shutter speeds – ideal for capturing split second action. A powerful flash unit broadcasts enough wattage that it doesn’t need to fire directly at the subject to increase the available light.



Extreme sports are exciting and fast paced, so it takes an energetic and enthusiastic photographer to capture their essence. When you are photographing an extreme sports contest you want to get as close as possible to the action. Use creative angles for stunning compositions, and become proficient in panning the action to add blur to an image. Use a high ISO when shooting in low light situations. Using a 35mm to 50mm lens will capture a wider view in the frame, but you’ll need to be in close to the action or the subject will be small. Consider using Burst Mode to capture a rapid series of photos. Pre-meter the environment whenever and wherever you can, so you can concentrate on focus, shutter speed and composition (not exposure) when the action explodes in front of your lens.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.