15 Tips to Get Started in Sports Photography

Sports photography is a fast-paced world, and for that reason, it can be intimidating to those who haven't tried it. I want to tell you that there is no need to fear. Even if you struggle at first, you can learn to do very well shooting sports.

Below are 15 tips based on what I have learned photographing sporting events. I've shot a wide range of sports, from basketball, to downhill skiing, and even wheelchair fencing. These tips are generally true across all of these sports. Keep in mind that they are tips and not rules; you may make a great image by completely ignoring any of these. However, if you have an opportunity to shoot sports and don't know where to get started, or if you already shoot sports but are looking for help, give one or more of these tips a shot.

Shoot a little wider than normal

I've learned this one the hard way a few times. When shooting sports or any kind of action, you are dealing with moving subjects. This means that your compositions may become less than perfect as the subjects move. For instance, in basketball, if you frame the shot of a person taking a free throw, the second they jump to shoot, their arms and the ball will be out of frame. Shooting a little wider will help you capture everything, and allow you to crop to a good composition later on.

Use Aperture Priority mode

In order to freeze motion, you'll want a fast shutter speed. Why then, would I recommend aperture priority and not shutter priority? It's because setting my aperture to a wide setting, such as f/2.8, is going to give me the best possible shutter speed. If I use shutter priority and set my shutter speed to 1/500″ for instance, my camera will adjust the aperture to give me a balanced exposure. In some conditions, that may give the aperture of f/2.8. In others, it may give something else, like f/4. If I take the opposite approach, then in the first scenario, I will still have aperture of f/2.8 and shutter speed of 1/500, but in the second, brighter scenario, I will keep the f/2.8 aperture and my camera will give a shutter speed of 1/1000″. In addition to better shutter speeds, keeping a consistent aperture keeps a consistent look in your photos, and making sure that you are shooting fairly wide will help keep your subjects seperated from what is sometimes a busy background.

Why not shoot in manual? Well, of course, you can, and I know some of you insist that it is the only way to shoot. Manual makes a lot of sense in an environment where the light is consistent throughout, or if your light meter is not comprehending the scene well. Just don't be fooled into thinking that you have to shoot in manual. I shoot in manual plenty, but for most sports, I turn my dial to “A.”

Show some motion

In general, when shooting sports, the goal is to freeze motion. As I mentioned, using a wide aperture and then setting an iso appropriate for the light level of the environment is the best way to do this. Depending on the sport, shutter speeds should be from the 1/500″ range to even the 1/2000″ if any automotive equipment is involved. Despite wanting to freeze motion, though, sometimes its good to let a bit show. Try to keep enough of the subject sharp that the image itself doesn't look blurry, but showing some motion in hands, feet, or a bit of a trail behind the person if they are running can give the photo some energy. Completely frozen race cars, for instance, just look like they are parked.

If you are shooting a high speed sport, panning is another technique you can try. Set your shutter a little slower (try 1/250″ and adjust from there), and follow your subject with your camera as you take the picture. You should have a fairly sharp subject with what looks like a moving background.

Focus on your subject's eyes

Of course, focusing on your subject's closest eye is a general rule of portraiture, and not necessarily a sports tip. The reason why it is important though is because everything is moving. It's hard to keep focus on the eye sometimes. When shooting sports, I put my focus point either in the center third, or the top third, vertically speaking, depending on where the eyes will be. In a sport like basketball or football, I would use the top third, unless you are shooting wider shots. As far as the horizontal focus point position, I usually select the center, and keep my subject in the center, knowing that I will crop a composition later. The exception to this is if I'm following action from one end of an area of play to the other, and I know that my subject will be in the right or left third. Once I have my focus point set, I keep my subject's eyes as close to that focus point as possible, moving my camera as the action moves.

Use the continuous/servo focus mode

Most cameras have two modes for the autofocus motor: one that focuses and then locks, and the other that focuses and continually adjusts as long as the shutter button is half pressed or the AF On (back button) is pressed. You'll want to use this second mode, often called servo mode, continuous focus, or AF-C. This allows you to follow the action with your focus point, and as long as your focus is engaged, the focus will adjust with the action.

Try Auto ISO

Auto ISO is a feature that serious photographers tend not to use, but I think it makes a lot of sense in sports, especially if I'm shooting in changing light conditions and my light meter is performing well. Here's how I approach using Auto ISO with aperture priority. Change all the specific, italicized numbers to fit your situation.

  • Aperture: I have a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. This will let in a good amount of light and I am happy with the amount of depth of field that it provides, so I will use an aperture of f/2.8 in aperture priority mode.
  • ISO: Set to 100 (lowest setting).
  • Auto ISO minimum shutter speed: 1/500″ is what the particular sport I am shooting calls for.
  • Auto ISO maximum ISO: I will tolerate images up to an ISO of 12800.

Now, I don't have to think about exposure at all while I'm shooting. I will get an aperture of f/2.8, a shutter speed of at least 1/500″, and the lowest possible ISO that will give me those settings. If you haven't tried out Auto ISO, it is not a feature for beginners only, so give it a try.

Know where you can be, and find a good spot

If you are photographing a sporting event, it's good to be clear on where you are allowed to be. The last thing you want is to be in the way, or to put yourself somewhere where your risk getting hurt or damaging your gear.

Once you know where you can be, try to figure out where you should be. Determine where will give you the best shots on the subjects, especially given whatever focal lengths you have to work with. Also. consider what the background will be. You want to eliminate distractions and points of high contrast from the background. Having fans in the background is a great option, too, if you can make it happen.

Find the story of the game

Think of yourself as being on assignment for the local paper. If you had to write the headline, or tell the narrative of the game, using only your images, what would you shoot? Action shots are great, but the best ones are the ones that encapsulate the emotions or stories of the event. Looking for reactions of players faces, looks of determination, or capturing athletes doing things that require a high level of skill will help to accomplish your storytelling.

In other words, its possible that after a while, everything you're shooting is going to look more or less the same. Try to break out of that by capturing the truly remarkable moments. You'll have to keep an eye out for those or you may miss them.

Keep an eye on the crowd

Passionate fans can make for great photos. They can also help with the storytelling I mentioned in the last tip. If you have a second camera body, keep a wider lens on it, or at least have a wider lens on you, so that you can capture crowd reactions and celebrations. The fans are a huge part of so many sports, so its important to keep them in mind while you are shooting.

Follow the action

Try to follow the action of the game by changing vantage points. Doing this will allow for different elements of the game to come out. A telephoto shot of the star player will have a different feel than a wider shot of the team from a closer position. Use positions and focal lengths that will tell the story of the game. You may find one spot that you really like and stay there, but unless you are sure that you don't want to move, try some different options.

Try longer focal lengths

In my last tip, I mentioned mixing things up a bit, but in general, longer focal lengths are going to give better results in sports photography. Due to the higher compression in the scene, and shallower depth of field, you'll get better separation between your subject and the background. It can also make the athletes feel larger than life, which is usually helpful in a sports photo. You'll need to consider if you can handhold your lens, or if you'll need some help from a monopod. You'll also need to consider if you have enough light to use a longer lens, since they require faster shutter speeds.

Use continuous shooting/burst mode, but shoot in bursts

Most cameras have a shooting mode called continuous shooting or drive mode where pressing and holding the shutter all the way down will capture photos constantly, rather than taking just one photo. Some cameras even have this function at multiple rates of photos per second. This is a really helpful tool in sports photography because you don't know when exactly a great moment will happen. Someone may be getting ready to throw a ball or take a shot, and using a continuous shooting mode helps you be sure that you will capture the precise moment that you are after.

When using a continuous mode, be sure to shoot in bursts. Don't just press and hold the shutter. There is a hardware based reason for this. Cameras typically take photos faster than the photos can be written to the memory card, so the camera has a temporary memory space, called a “buffer” that holds the images as they are being written to the card. This buffer can fill, and then your camera won't let you shoot. Shooting in bursts eases the pressure on your buffer.

Another reason not to overshoot is that the more frames you have at the end of the day, the more time you will spend culling, so shoot wisely.

Track the action with the shutter half pressed, or with back button focus

When you keep your shutter button half pressed, here is what happens:

  • Autofocus: If you are using continuous servo mode (and you should be), your autofocus will constantly adjust based on what your focus point is aimed at.
  • Exposure evaluation: If you are using a semi-automatic mode, such as aperture priority, keeping the shutter button half pressed will keep your light meter active, allowing the camera to calculate your settings as quickly as possible.
  • Quick shooting: Keeping the shutter half pressed means that the lightest of taps will cause your camera to start capturing. This allows for quick reactions to events around you.

Back button focus is a feature that a lot of sports photographers like. It takes focusing off of the shutter button and moves it to a button on the back. This allows you to hold down focus with your thumb, and then fire the shutter as necessary. Check out Jim's article on back button focus.

Use fast memory cards, and have plenty on hand

A fast memory card will help you to prevent your image buffer from filling up. If you use SD cards, you'll want a card that is class 10, and if your camera supports UHS, UHS-3 will give you speeds about 3x faster than class 10.

If you've never shot sports before, you will be surpised how quickly your memory cards can fill. Always be sure to have more than you need.

Use your custom modes for changing conditions

Any time you are doing two different things, whether that might be shooting with two significantly different lenses, or shooting two different events at a track & field type event, or anthing else where you need to go between settings, use your custom modes if you have them.

A lot of cameras have the ability to store a set of settings in custom modes. These modes are often on the dial, and may say something like “C1″ and C2.” These can save you a lot of time if you keep bouncing between aperture priority set a certain way, and manual set a certain way, or between any other two ways of shooting. I make use of these a lot when I shoot sports.

Let me know how it goes. Give these tips a shot the next time you shoot sports, and let me know if they served you well. Also, if you have any tips that I didn't cover, feel free to post them in the comments!

14 thoughts on “15 Tips to Get Started in Sports Photography”

  1. Great tips. I shoot a lot of college basketball games and have done some college hockey. I always shoot with auto ISO because the light changes depending where you are shooting in a gym. This is especially useful if you are using cheaper glass and have a variable aperture.

  2. auto iso is the way to when using a iso friendly cameras like most high-end modern cameras. this is also true for bird photography where both shutter speed and aperture influence the creative nature of your shot.

    1. Christopher Mowers

      Absolutely. I’ve heard a lot of people hate on auto iso, but when I’m shooting in an environment where I really don’t want to worry about my settings, it can be really valuable.

  3. I wanted to thank you for these tips for sports photography. I actually didn’t know that it could be beneficial to maybe find a story of the game, and to try to take a picture that could encapsulate the emotions of the event. I like the idea of this, especially since we are naturally drawn to stories as humans.

    1. Christopher Mowers

      Taylor, I’m glad you found them helpful! Telling stories with your photography is one of the best ways to differentiate your photography from that of others.

  4. Go where the light is best and shoot from that area 90% of the time. Faces are what sells images (both from a $ perspective as well as an artistic one). Backlit images are a cool effect, but action shots are better with sharp faces. When shooting outdoors (Baseball, Soccer, Track…etc.), while it is awesome to have an overcast day, many times you have bright sunshine. The sun is NOT your friend at noon! So, if you set yourself up in a few different areas where the sun is your friend (behind you) and let the action come TO you, your yield of useable/salable images increases exponentially.

    1. Christopher Mowers

      Tony, these are great tips! I try to position myself where I will see faces as well. Getting the expression when possible really helps.

  5. I shoot cycle races on manual (with auto iso). A few things Ive learned; always remember to check your settings. You will at some point change shutter speed for motion blur and forget to change it back. When the action slows or stops dont lose concentration, as when it comes back round you wont be ready no matter how much you think you will be. And dont lose heart when you miss THAT shot. It will happen, move passed it and make sure you dont miss it next time. Oh and set up back button focus – absolute life saver for me.

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