So your kid just started playing pee-wee football, or maybe you are a portrait photographer who just landed a sports gig. Maybe you’re shooting your first assignment for the college newspaper. In any case, while sports photography isn’t for the faint of heart, here are four technical tips to get you started on the right path.
These tips assume you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera; you probably won’t want to shoot sports with anything less.
1. You'll Need That Long Lens
The lens that comes with your camera, usually something in the range of 18-55mm or 18-135mm, isn’t enough for most sports. You’ll find that you’re too far away from the action to capture anything useful. Most dual-lens kits include something in the range of a 70-300mm f/4-6.3 or so, and while that’s a fine starting point for outdoor sports, you’ll struggle in both range and low-light ability with that setup. Consider 400mm a good starting point for sports such as soccer or football, and consider faster lenses such as an f/2.8 if you know you’re going to be indoors or shooting at night. Note, though, the more than $8,000 price difference between the faster and slower lenses.
Again, I can’t stress enough that the kit lenses that come with your camera won’t cut it for sports photography.
2. Use a Higher ISO
While a shutter speed of 1/250 or 1/500 is probably enough to freeze a subject in action for day-to-day activities, in many cases it’s not even the bare minimum for sports. I try to shoot for 1/1,000 where I can, and even faster if possible. This often means goosing ISO beyond what I usually do for other subjects, but that’s OK. Even cameras that are a few years old, like a Nikon D750, have a great performance at 4,000 or 5,000 ISO. Smaller-sensor cameras, such as a Canon 80D aren’t too shabby at 3,200 ISO either. Don’t fear the high ISO. It's better to get a sharp photo that’s a little bit grainy than to introduce motion blur you can’t fix by shooting too slow a shutter speed.
In that vein, use manual settings to keep your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture consistent throughout your shoot.
3. Use Continuous High Speed Shooting
All interchangeable lens cameras have what’s called a “continuous shooting” mode. This means that the camera will continue shooting photos as long as you hold down the shutter button. This can come in handy as you track fast action, such as a soccer player moving a ball down the field, or when you want to capture the precise moment a baseball hits a bat.
The more frames per second your camera can shoot, the better the chance you’ll capture just the right moment.
Depending on your camera, you may want to shoot in JPG mode instead of raw so that your camera won’t hit the buffer limit and stop shooting at a key moment.
4. Learn How Continuous Autofocus Works
The first step is to take the camera off of full autofocus. Generally, cameras will come out of the box in what’s commonly called “single shot” autofocus or an “intelligent” mode that will decide between modes for things that move and things that don’t. Neither of the default modes will do a good job of getting you a good keeper rate for photos. If you’re a Canon user, find the “AI Servo” mode or “AF-C” if you are a Nikon or Sony shooter. These modes are for things that move; they’ll constantly track a moving subject through the frame as long as you’re half-pressed on the shutter, as opposed to locking focus one and not changing until you initiate focus again.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can choose your autofocus point on the camera and force the continuous autofocus to work on that one point as you plant it on a moving athlete, though most beginner-level cameras make you dig through a menu to change this setting, making it difficult to change on the fly.
Advanced cameras have the ability to enable “back-button focus” to a button on the back of the camera, and this will separate your shutter from your focus, giving you more control about when you want to enable your focus.
Your First Time Probably Won't Be Awesome
The first time I tried shooting sports, it wasn’t pretty and likely your first attempt won’t be either, but at least you’ll avoid some of the mistakes that I made when I first started shooting this genre.
What are some of your best tips for sports photography? What mistakes did you find yourself making at the start? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.