One of the most basic principles of photography is to get the photo in sharp focus. It makes sense, then, that there is nothing harder and more frustrating than trying to shoot a moving target!
This problem is never more obvious than in sports photography. Athletes dart around the playing field with lightning quick moves – a juke left, a shift to the right, and all you as the photographer have to show for it is a blurry photo. But then you see the sports magazines with awe-inspiring photographs. How do they do that?
Let’s begin with the basics: know your camera. Know where all the dials and buttons are without fumbling for them. Know your camera functions so well you can change settings in a dark room. If you are on the sidelines trying to figure out how to change the f/stop, the big moment of the game will come and go and you'll have nothing to show for it but frustration.
In addition to understanding your camera, it’s also helpful to know the sport you are shooting. Try to anticipate the action. If it is baseball and the runner is on first base, is this a good time in the game for a sacrifice bunt or a stolen base? If you think a steal is on, pre-focus on second base. Keep your ISO high and your aperture wide open (like at f/2.8) to separate your subject from the background. This will help to keep your shutter speed high (around 1/250 or faster) to freeze the action. The more you can develop your instincts for the game, the better your chances that you will be in the right place at the right time.
Check your camera manual ahead of time and have it set to continuous or burst mode. Press down the shutter and fire off shots in rapid succession without ever taking your figure off the shutter. The camera sounds like a machine gun. This is where frames per second numbers become relevant. The higher the frames per second rate, the better chance you have of capturing a tack sharp sports photo somewhere in the sequence. Burst mode can be a drain on your battery, so make sure you have extras handy and fully charged.
Most DSLR’s have four focusing modes – manual, auto, single or continuous. Select C on a Nikon for AF-Continuous – that’s where the camera constantly tracks focus as the subject moves. (On a Canon it’s called AI Servo or AF.) As soon as you press down on the shutter, the camera begins to focus. As it detects the subject’s movements, it keeps refocusing. You still might get some photos out of focus, but one of them should be tack sharp. And switch from multi-point to single point focusing. This tells your camera to focus on what is in the center rather than trying to keep everything in the frame sharp. You tell the camera what to focus on (such as an athlete’s eyes) rather than having the camera make that decision.