Photography: How to capture action shots

James Cannon, the photographer for our Siena photo story, explains how he balanced focus to capture this action shot at the Palio di Siena horse race.

By James Cannon
Published 16 Apr 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:29 BST
Palio di Siena.

Palio di Siena.

Photograph by James Cannon

Shutter speed: 1/1250
Aperture: f4
ISO: 2000
Mode: Shutter speed priority
Lens: EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM
Camera: Canon 1D Mark V

In this photograph we see the final lap of the famous Palio di Siena horse race, at a crucial stage as the jockeys battle for the best position to take the next corner. Twice a year, the Italian city of Siena hosts the world's oldest horse race (it dates back to 1633). It's the culmination of a four-day festival that the Sienese people celebrate within their contrada (district). I spent two weeks with a translator embedded with the team from the Drago contrada to truly learn what the Palio means to the people of this city.

I was lucky to be granted access to a restricted area of the racetrack, very close to the action, crammed between security and medical response teams. While this made angles and positioning difficult, I overcame problems with careful planning; I practised my camera settings and framing during trial races, experimenting with angles, testing the lighting and watching the movement of people around me. This meant when it came to the race I'd have a better idea of where the medics would be, where the horse guides would run and how the other photographers might work around me.

I was aiming to document emotion, energy and passion in a lifelike manner, so I chose a position that was wider than usual to get the fans around the horses in shot too. A faster shutter speed was needed to freeze the motion of the horses running the track.

As for the technical part of the story (the race itself), it was important to be able to control the shutter speed to balance the lighting of the bright sky and the shadowy, darker stadium. I tracked the focus on the subjects, panning across the frame, and tried not to worry if there was a little movement, as this is all part of the energy. I waited until I felt the composition had come together and shot a few practice frames.

A matter of seconds after I'd captured the horses navigating the corner, the race had finished and thousands of people burst from the spectator areas onto the square on the track. Emotions were high, but I'm more than happy this picture really captures the jockey's determination, framed by the excitement of the surrounding crowd.

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Published in issue 8 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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