Four Tips for the First-Time Sports Photographer

Four Tips for the First-Time Sports Photographer

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

For many sports, the field is quite large and you're only allowed to be at the edges. Time to break out the 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.

Much of my own sports photography uses Nikon’s AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens or the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. I follow tip number two to get the best results out of those lenses.

2. Use a Higher ISO

Getting a faster shutter speed in sports photography is important, and so going to ISO 3200 or higher is sometimes necessary.

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

Getting just the right moment is easier with high-speed continuous 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.

Of course the more advanced cameras have a faster burst rate for shooting. For instance, a Nikon D610 has a continuous shooting speed of six frames per second versus double that for a Nikon D5.

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

A fast-moving football player diving into an endzone requires precise control of your autofocus. Continuous autofocus (or AI Servo in Canon) is a lifesaver here.

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.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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Good stuff, Wasim. I'm local to you, would love to catch up to get a good look at your process.

I've become the de-facto team photog for my sons youth football team using a Nikon 70-300 lens. Thankfully, I'm able to get to the sideline but that lens on a full frame is limited; so when action is taking place nearer to the far sideline makes me a spectator and not a shooter. I'm going to pull the trigger on the 200-500 in the spring / summer after reading up on it. Yes, it's limited to daylight, but that's what these kids are playing in so the slower lens will do- I'm not a pro sports photographer. Lol.

Anytime! Send me a message and I'd love to chat more over coffee or something. D750 + 200-500 is a great combo, I use that a lot. I've also had the occasion to use a D500, and while image quality/ISO performance isn't as good, if you know you are primarily shooting in the daylight, you might want to give that a go with your 70-300 as well for a similar result. The D500 is a very, very responsive camera. I never thought the D750 wasn't responsive, but next to the D500, you can feel the difference.

I've contemplated picking up a D500 in the future for a second (and very capable body) as the reputation is there and it would provide that reach. I'll see- perhaps rent/borrow one to test, may pick one up used.

And yes, it'd be great to meet up when time permits... thank you kindly, Wasim.

Vincent, when my kids were playing high school soccer I was able to get decent shots with various Nikon DX cameras and a 70-200 F2.8. Of course you always want that extra bit of reach with a longer lens but I found it to work well for covering 1/2 of the field. I now have the D500 and use it for covering the Monster Energy Supercross professional motorcycle racing. Some of the stadiums are still a little dark for shooting but the D500 seems to handle this well. You can see some examples at my site if want.

Great shots Douglas. I think the skate park in Venice is one of the neater places to shoot, street photography, action shots, and sunsets in one bubble.

Nice post, but I tend to disagree when someone says something won't cut it, especially when that something refers to lower-end gear. I've shot sports and wildlife with my Nikon D5300 and Nikkor 18-140mm lens and have had no issues getting professional shots. Use whatever you have and keep practicing! The image attached was taken with the aforementioned gear.

I definitely agree. I am able to get very much satisfactory photos with the Nikon D3400 and a 70-300mm F/4.5-6.3. The first below is just one example. That said, I've shot with better equipment, and the difference is fantastic.The second image is one I took with the Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8, and it performs unbelievably better. Obviously, different sport, different style of shooting, but the "fancier" lens does offer it's advantages.

Just came through your article Wasim. Very helpful, I wish I had those tips when I first started Sports Photography. Thanks for sharing!