There’s a thrill to catching the peak moment of a sporting event or other action, capturing an instant too fleeting for the eye so you may later study and appreciate it in a photograph. Making good sports and action photographs isn’t easy and will test your visualization and camera operation skills. But, when you nail the shot it can be deeply satisfying. Let’s take a look at how you can “up your game” when shooting sports and action.
Getting good sports and action photographs is all about being in the right spot and clicking the shutter at the right time. A knowledge of the sport will help you do both. Where you position yourself is critical. If you’re shooting a football or soccer game you will know that the endzone or goal is where scoring will happen and action apt to be more intense. But, if you position yourself there and a good bit of the action happens at the other end of the field, you’ll be missing a lot. If you’re shooting dirt bike racing, you might want to consider a spot where riders come through a tight corner or leap into the air at a jump. If the sport is baseball, a spot where you can see the action at the plate or at first base might give you the greatest chance for a good shot.
In addition to getting a good vantage point to help get the greatest number of good shots, knowing the sport so you can anticipate what will happen next is very valuable. If for instance you know that when a football team sets up in a particular formation the quarterback is apt to throw a pass, you can be ready on the shutter button for that action. Whatever the sport, a good idea of what might happen next and being ready to capture that action is invaluable.
Another important rule to keep in mind is to keep your “chimping” to a minimum. Too many photographers have missed that great shot at a sporting event because while they were busy looking at their LCD screen something remarkable happened and they missed it.
You should also consider your angle relative to the action and what is apt to be in the background. You will often see pros shooting football down low shooting up. There are two reasons for this; one is to minimize the background clutter. If the sky is your background that can help. The other is to emphasize the “power” of the players. An angle lower than the player looking up makes them look more massive and powerful and the action more impressive, something you want when shooting football players as well as many other athletes.
If you are lucky, you will be able to get as close to the action as possible. It would be great at a football game to always be able to be on the sidelines or at an auto race to have a pit pass. That’s not possible most times, which bring us to the next point… equipment.
Being able to fill the frame with the action is key to making impressive sports photos. A shot where a football receiver catches an impressive pass isn’t nearly as thrilling if he is just one of a field full of players in a wide shot. You want a tight shot of him and the defender leaping for the ball. You want to be able to see the expressions on their faces. If you are lucky to be on the sidelines, you might get that with a 200mm lens. If you’re further away, you better have a longer lens than that. A typical NFL professional photographer who would be on the sidelines might have two bodies, one with a 70-200mm lens for closer shots, the other with maybe a 400mm f/2.8. (Nice if you can afford it, that 400mm f/2.8 will come in at around $10K). Many serious amateurs do however have a 70-200mm lens and if you put a teleconverter with that, you still can make some nice shots.
What you don’t want to have to deal with is a point-and-shoot camera. Yeah, some of them have pretty impressive zoom lenses, but what will kill you when shooting sports and action is the shutter lag. When you press that shutter button you want instantaneous shooting. If instead you have to wait even a ¼ second for the camera to fire after you press the shutter, often the peak action will be gone. Learning to anticipate the “moment” and starting the shot a fraction of a second before can help, but even so, a camera with significant shutter lag is apt to be an exercise in frustration when shooting sports and action.
Anticipation and Continuous Shooting mode
So we talked about knowing your sport and we also discussed shutter lag. The key to getting that perfect moment is dealing with both. Most modern DSLRs and high-end mirrorless cameras will have a continuous shooting mode. Go to that mode, hold down the shutter button, and the camera will shoot rapid-fire, machine-gun style images. The best cameras can shoot around 15 frames per second, prosumer level DSLRs shooting about 4-8 frames-per-second (fps). If you’re buying a camera primarily for sports photography, this specification is something to consider. Whatever the rate, to increase your chances of getting that perfect moment, anticipate the action and start shooting a fraction of a second before it. Fire away until the moment has passed. A couple of things to know however; You will shoot a LOT more images when shooting in continuous mode so have a large storage card. Also, have a “fast” storage card, one which is capable of quickly writing images to the card. Read up on storage cards and consider the specs when buying them if you plan to shoot in continuous mode very often. Also learn how many shots your particular camera will store in the buffer before it has to pause to write them to the card. If you’re ever shooting in continuous mode and after couple of seconds the frame rate slows way down, this is what has happened. The buffer has filled and the camera is writing to the card. Practice so you gain a sense of what is possible with your camera and card combination. Also know that continuous shooting mode will drain your camera battery much faster so take that into account.
What other settings do we want to consider when shooting sports and action? We’ll assume for the moment your objective is to freeze the action. (We’ll talk about purposely blurring the action later). To achieve that, you will want to shoot with as high a shutter speed as is practical.
First, consider you are likely to be shooting handheld. (Shooting action from a tripod is usually difficult, though sometimes with especially long lenses, photographers will use monopods or sometimes a gimble-head arrangement, (particularly popular with wildlife shooters armed with long lenses and having to wait for long periods for that just-right moment.) If you are shooting handheld, you will want to remember the “inverse focal-length rule.” Your minimum shutter speed should be at least 1/focal length. So, if you’re shooting a 70-200mm lens fully zoomed out at 200mm, a shutter speed of 1/250th would be a good choice. Yes, stabilized lenses or cameras with In-Body-Stabilization (IBS) can allow you to go lower than that, but know that a fast shutter speed will help insure you don’t have a less-than-sharp shot due to camera shake. Also know when to turn the image stabilization mode off or adjust how it performs. Some systems will have modes allowing you to pan and not have the system fight you while still maintaining vertical motion stabilization. Learn your lens and camera so you know when and when not to use the stabilization system.
Understand that image stabilization is designed to compensate for camera movement. It does nothing to freeze the motion of your subject. That is purely a function of shutter speed. So, how fast a shutter speed do you need to freeze the action? As with so many photography questions, the answer is – it depends.
Some of the considerations when deciding how fast your shutter must be to freeze the action are:
- How fast is the action? Are we talking a dancer on stage or trying to freeze a pitched baseball? How fast the action is will vary greatly and you’ll have to develop a feel for what shutter speed it will take to freeze it.
- How close is the subject to the camera? A jet flying through the sky is moving at hundreds of miles per hour yet from a distance it appears to just hang in the air. The proximity of the subject to the camera will change the required shutter speed to freeze it.
- In what direction is the object moving relative to the camera? Objects moving perpendicular to the camera view will appear to move faster than those moving directly toward or away from the camera
You will need to determine how fast a shutter is needed for freezing the particular action you are shooting. Here however are some starting places:
|Freezing Distant Ocean Waves||1/250|
|Most Sports / People running||1/500 – 1/1000|
|Vehicles (Panning will allow slower speeds)||1/800|
|Birds in Flight||1/2000|
|Splashing water (close to camera)||1/4000-1/8000|
If your objective is to freeze, (or blur) action, you will want to take control of the shutter speed. The Automatic modes will allow the camera to make that choice, not what you want. Many cameras have a “Sports” mode. Usually that will default to the highest shutter speed possible with the given light conditions. Better, but you’re still letting the camera choose. So what’s left? The semi-auto modes or manual. Let’s discuss the merits of each. Remember that the “Exposure Triangle” is always at work: Aperture + Exposure + ISO = Exposure. Adjust one and one of the remaining two will need to be adjusted to maintain proper exposure.
Aperture Priority Mode (Av or A) – Aperture Priority seems to be the go-to mode for many, even sports photographers. Locking in the Aperture allows control over the depth of field. Sport photographers often want to blur the background for less cluttered images so a wide aperture, (i.e. f/2.8 or f/4) allows that. Also, setting a wide aperture forces the shutter speed to bump up, something desired for freezing action. Keep in mind however that depending on available light, the ISO may need to be increased to keep the shutter fast enough.
Shutter Priority Mode (Tv or S) – Shutter Priority would seem the logical choice for sports and action. Decide and lock in a shutter speed and let the aperture float. This can work, but in varying light the depth of field will vary as the camera adjusts the aperture. In bright light you might get something like 1/1000 @ f/8, good shutter speed but perhaps too much depth of field to blur the background.
Manual (M) – Manual allows you to choose and lock in all settings, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. This is fine, IF the light doesn’t change. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and the light where the action is playing out will be pretty constant. If so, Manual Mode will provide good shot-to-shot consistency and might be a good choice. However, if the light changes, you need to be watching your settings and be quick to change them. This can be tricky when shooting fast moving action and varying light in a sports situation.
Auto ISO – I’m an old film shooter and so the idea of changing ISO shot-to-shot is a relatively new concept to me. When you put in a roll of film you had to stick with the same ISO for the entire roll. Now, you can change the ISO with every shot or, even let the camera do it automatically. So, maybe you might want to try a combination of things. On some cameras you can go to manual mode, lock in both the shutter speed and aperture, and allow the ISO to float. You will also want to set the camera so you control the highest permissible ISO. Allow it to go too high and you will have noisy shots.
I have had good success using Av (Aperture Priority Mode) in combination with Auto ISO. The Aperture is locked, the Shutter speed will usually stay set and the ISO floats. You will need to experiment with your camera to determine how Auto ISO interacts with the other settings in each mode.
Let’s look at some photo examples and examine how settings were used to control the action in the images. My friend Ken Miracle, who I interviewed for my How to Photograph Birds in Flight article, typically advocates keeping the shutter speed as high as possible. He is also usually shooting with long lenses. He is fortunate to also have good cameras where high ISO settings are not a problem introducing noise. So it’s not unusual for him to have a setting like 1/6400 @ f/5.6 ISO 800. I have also seen photos he’s done in lower light with settings like 1/2500 @ f/6.3 ISO 8000. I’m primarily a landscape photographer and so any ISO over 800 and I’m freaking out a bit. But, to keep that shutter speed high and the photos of birds in flight tack sharp, he has no qualms kicking up the ISO. In fact in his article he says his typical camera set-up is:
- Aperture Priority Mode (Av on Canon, A on Nikon) or Manual (M)
- Single-point or Grouped-Point Continuous Focus
- Center-Weighted Metering
- Continuous High-speed Shutter
- Lens at its widest aperture
- Minimum of 1250/sec. shutter speed
- Auto ISO (depending on the camera)
Focus Modes for Sports and Action
You’ll note Ken’s choice of focus mode is Continuous. He shoots a Nikon. On my Canon cameras, this is called AI Servo mode. (I believe the AI is an abbreviation for Auto Intelligence). Anyway, the idea is that the camera, once a focus point is chosen, will track and keep an object in focus. This is invaluable for fast moving subjects when doing sports and action photography. The images I show here of the whitewater kayakers and dirt bike racers were done with this mode. I marvel at old film camera photographers who, with only manual focus, could shoot these kinds of things! I wouldn’t be without AI Servo mode for sports photography.
Another focus mode on Canon cameras is AI Focus. The manual says this is used when the subject is stationary but might move unexpectedly. The camera locks focus much like while in One-Shot focus mode but if the subject moves, it switches to AI Servo, tracking the subject. I can’t say I’ve used this mode much, but I guess there might be circumstance where it would be useful.
You will note Ken’s metering mode of choice is center-weighted. Consider he is often shooting birds against a bright sky, so this makes sense. Which metering mode you choose for your sports or action photography will of course vary depending on your subject and background. I personally try to stick with Evaluative, (Matrix on Nikon), for most shooting though I may switch depending on various factors.
Freezing Very Fast Action
When the action is very fast and you want to freeze it, you want a very fast shutter speed. Such was the case with my “splash” photos. I wanted to shoot as fast as I could and fortunately, made the shots in the mid-day summer sun. With plenty of light I was able to get shutter speeds of 1/2000 and even up to 1/8000th of a second, the limitation of my camera. Have a look at my article on A Beginners Guide to High Speed Photography to understand the means by which these photos were made.
Shooting at the Speed of Light
When you really have the need for speed it’s time to reach for your flash. While most cameras top out at about 1/8000 of a second, the speed of a flash is MUCH faster and that burst of light can freeze even splashing water, breaking glass, and speeding bullets. For example, a typical Canon Speedlight at 1/128 power has a flash duration of only 1/20,000 of a second! I suggest you also take a look at my article The MIOPS Smart Trigger – A Review to see how you can put that kind of action-stopping power to work.
Slowing it Down – Creative Blur in Sports and Action Photography
To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “There’s more to life than increasing its speed.” I don’t think photography was what he had in mind when saying that, but sometimes when making sports and action photos we want to creatively blur, rather than freeze the action. We do that by slowing down the shutter speed. Just a couple of ways we can use this:
- Blurring the motion of a subject so as to illustrate motion.
- Panning with the subject but using a slow shutter so while the subject is sharp, but the background is blurred, again helping illustrate motion.
- Using slow shutter speeds in long exposure shots to blur the moving clouds or cause water to go soft and silky (i.e. waterfalls shots).
- Long exposures with Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) to make creative artsy shots like “swish pans.”
- Extended “time-exposures” allowing creative effects such as light trails. Things like vehicle motion trails, fireworks photos, or those steel wool spinning photos you see are done like this. (My “Electric Cocktail” shot was made with this technique. Using a 4-second exposure allowed me time to move the sparkler in the shot in a swirl producing the light trail. The long exposure also allows the shot to be light solely with the light from the sparkler.)
Often using a small aperture and low ISO may be enough to get the shutter speed slow enough to create the intended effect. In brighter light however when extra-long exposures are desired, photographers will use things like Neutral Density filters (ND) to cut the light coming into the camera and thus allow shutter speeds with longer durations. The result is greater blurring of moving objects.
Combining Fast and Slow
An interesting technique to show motion is to combine the blurring action of a slow shutter speed with the freezing effect of a flash. Often this is done using the Second Curtain Sync feature of a camera. This creates an “exposure within an exposure. Typically when a flash is connected to a camera, the flash fires at the beginning of the exposure and the shutter stays open for the duration of the set shutter speed. So say the shutter speed is set for 1/15th of a second. The shot is tripped, the flash fires immediately and takes perhaps 1/250th of a second at full power. Now the shutter remains open for the duration of that 1/15th of a second and ambient light continues coming in. If you made a shot of a fast moving object with these settings, you would have a frozen subject, (that being the portion lit by the flash) and the trail of the moving object lit by the ambient light continuing on in front of the frozen subject.
But that looks weird. We’re used to seeing the trail of a moving object behind the object. So, by using Second Curtain Sync and causing the flash to fire at the end rather than the beginning of the exposure, we have the motion begin to be captured using the ambient light at the beginning of the exposure and then that burst of flash at the end of the exposure, freezing the subject. That’s exactly how my shots of the bicycle racers were done using a longer exposure with Second Curtain Sync Flash. Check the caption under the photo for the shot settings.
Upping your Game
I used that phrase earlier in the article and the truth is, learning how to shoot sports and action will grow your camera control skills. In something like landscape photography, still-life, portraiture, or other less “hurried” kinds of photography you will likely have time to check your exposure, think things over, make a shot, look at it and if necessary, adjust and make another shot. When shooting sports and action, you will not have that luxury. Figure out what you need to do ahead of time and then, while the action is fast and furious, you best be right. You will not have an opportunity to make another shot and there are no “do-overs.” Miss the big play, fail to properly consider exposure factors, determine proper shutter speed or not nail focus and you’re sunk. If you’re shooting for hire, try to explain to your editor why you didn’t get the front page shot when your competition did. Bad news. On the other hand, when you do it right and get the shot at the peak of the action, there’s nothing like it. You’ve brought your skills to bear and delivered the goods… there’s nothing like it!