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5 Inspirational Sports Pictures that Freeze Time and How to Take Your Own

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This post is part of a series called You Can Do This!.
5 Inspirational Night Shots and How to Make Your Own
5 Inspirational Travel Photographs and How To Take Your Own

Photographing sports is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and very rewarding when you get it right. Here we’ll go through some tips and practical advice to get you started when capturing action.

Preparation is Key

You’ll only really get one chance to shoot a sporting event: even if the team re-play, it won’t be the exact same game, so it’s important to get it right.

By its very nature, sports photography is fast-paced and tricky, but also exciting and can give you an opportunity for some truly unique images. Knowing what kit to use and how to use it will mean you can devote all your attention to photographing the day with the confidence that you’ll come away with some great shots.

What You Need

Permission to Take Photos

If the sporting event is public, it might appear as if you can pop along and take photos. This may well be the case, but never assume. Private venues often require permission for you to photograph, particularly if you’re not intending to stand or sit with the rest of the crowd. They may also have their own photographer who pays for the privilege of being there in the hope of selling prints later, so there are a few things you need to consider:

  1. Ask the venue first and get permission—you may even get a better spot because of this!
  2. Find out if there is a ‘house’ photographer, introduce yourself and even ask for tips if it seems appropriate.
  3. If children are playing, then no pun intended but that’s an entirely different ball game. If you’re taking wide, team shots then that’s generally fine, but you shouldn’t take pictures of identifiable children without a consenting guardian’s permission.

Pick an Appropriate Lens

A telephoto lens is the usual choice for this type of photography. You want something with a flexible range that will let you get close ups of the action, without having to get too close.

Popular zoom lenses that don’t cost the earth, are usually in the region of 200-300mm. A lens longer than this is usually quite expensive and there are other considerations, such as being able to keep it steady!

The aperture of your chosen lens will also matter. With budget lenses, the longer focal lengths are restricted to quite narrow apertures which is not conducive with the fast shutter speeds and light that sports photography requires. Lenses with in-built image stabilisation are also a plus.

Find a Good Spot

A good place to shoot from is essential. Being behind the goal at a football/soccer match for example, or shooting directly into the sun are both things to avoid. Scoping out the venue beforehand will help. As will knowing the sport you’re shooting—you’re more likely to know intuitively which way the action is heading, and so be prepared.

Inspiration

Ice, Ice, Baby

hockey player
Photograph licensed from Photodune.

Although this is a posed portrait and a game-play action shot, the spray of ice from the skate is a nice ‘action’ touch. The slanted angle helps with the interest of this image too, as the neutral colours of the uniform and background could easily have made this a dull picture.

Everybody Jump

jumpong man
Photo licensed from Photodune.

This is nice, unusual perspective for a running/jumping shot. We don’t often see runners from below and this really adds height and drama to the photograph. Everything here is in sharp focus but I think it would have worked equally well with the city being blurred too, creating a suggestion of it rather than showing it clearly.

Electric Slide

football
Photo licensed from Photodune.

Although clearly staged and heavily post-processed composite image, this is still a great ‘action shot’. It’s hard to know how much has been added in after the original photograph was taken but there’s no doubt that the lighting, focus and composition all make this work really well visually.

Top of the World

skiing
Photo licensed from Photodune.

What’s not to love about this skiing picture? The bright, contrasting colours are great, the action is tack sharp and the photographer was even shooting into the sun, fab!

Zoom Zoom Room

race car
Photo licensed from Photodune.

This is a great example of using a slightly slower shutter speed to get a sharp subject and blurred background. Using AF-C mode will have helped to track the car and I’d guess that using burst mode here would mean the chances of getting a great shot are massively improved. Leaving a bit of room on either side of the subject leaves some room for the implied action to spill out beyond the frame.

Technique

A Fast Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is key if you want to freeze objects in motion. Preferably, shoot in Manual Mode with your camera, but if you’re not confident, try Shutter Priority. This will let you select the shutter speed and allow the camera to adjust the other settings accordingly.

Sports photographers generally agree that 1/500th of a second is the very least needed to capture sharp action images. Take some test shots before the event itself to see what works.

Conversely, if you want to capture some blurry background while your subject is in focus (think of a racing car driving past a crowd here) then using slower shutter speeds such as 1/100 or slower can work really well.

Aperture and ISO

Adequate light is really important when shooting at a fast shutter speed. As I mentioned above, lenses with long focal lengths and low apertures tend to cost a bomb, so you’ll have to learn to work with what you have.

You’ll need to open your lens as wide as it will go at your chosen shutter speed. . Be aware that if you do have a fancy long lens with the desired low aperture, that shooting wide open will give you a shallow depth of field. You may or may not want this, so adjust accordingly.

Depending on available light, you’ll probably need to bump up your ISO to get a properly exposed picture. How noisy this makes your image will depend on how much you increase it and how your camera can handle that. Using my Nikon D800, I can comfortably shoot at a high ISO before I start to see noise creeping in. With my D90, that number is much lower.

Indoor sports are much more likely to require you to increase your ISO as the arenas/halls are generally not well lit. It’s better for you to deal with noise in post-production than to have a blurry image which you’ll likely not be able to rescue.

Continuous Focus

Switching your auto-focus to AF-C (or AI Servo for Canon users) allows you to track your subject when in motion with a half press of the shutter button, rather than having to re-focus each time they move.

You may also want to change your focus points to Dynamic to make it easier to keep the focus on your subject. Depending on your DSLR, there can be a number of options when it comes to AF points so it may be wise to read up on your particular camera and find out which will suit your situation best.


Back Button Focus

Back-button focus replaces the half-press of the shutter button to focus, with using a button at the back of your camera. This means you’re able to lock your focus for easier re-composition, leaving you free to move left or right without having to refocus.

It can be a tricky one to get used to, but aside from the benefits it has to focusing, the back-button method is ergonomically much better too. In time, it becomes a far more comfortable way to hold your camera, shifting the weight balance for potentially steadier shots too!

Burst/Continuous Shooting Mode

This is exactly how it sounds: fire off a number of frames in rapid succession as you keep the shutter button depressed, meaning you can have a sequence of photographs and a better chance of getting exactly what you want.

The speed these ‘bursts’ are taken, frames per second, depends on the camera and its processing speed. Most DSLRs can do somewhere between 3 FPS and 8 FPS, but higher end models are capable of much more. 

With potentially high file sizes and multiple shots, the camera doesn’t have time to save the images straight away. Instead, it will ‘buffer’ until you’ve finished your burst of shots and then write them to the memory card. This can impact on how long you must wait before you can begin to shoot again.

JPEG, RAW, or Both?

Many sports photographers recommend shooting in JPEG rather than RAW. This is usually because the camera can write a JPEG to memory much quicker than a larger RAW file.

Whilst this is sound advice, I think for the non-pro sports photographers among us, RAW still gives you the best chance of getting the picture you wanted. In my opinion, having the flexibility of changes that RAW allows is of far more benefit than a faster writing speed.

Some cameras also give you the ability to record both formats simultaneously. RAW formats can't be displayed directly as an image by your computer, they need to be interpreted. Having pre-made JPEGs associated with your RAWs means you can save precious seconds (if not minutes) in the review stage. If you're working in a high-pressure situation and need to get your photos of the championship winning team in as soon as possible, this is a huge help.

Top Tips to Getting Great Sports Shots

  1. Know your sport, know your spot. If you can predict where the best action will happen, you can only increase your hopes of that perfect shot.
  2. Use a fast shutter speed to get sharp shots, sports photographers recommend over 1/500th of a second.
  3. Boost your ISO when needed: better to have a noisy picture than a blurred one.
  4. Use AF-C and Burst Mode to give you the best chance of nailing your shot.
  5. Use JPEG to speed up your writing speed or RAW if you need to make heavier adjustments in post production.

Further Resources

Final Thoughts

Achieving sharp focus on your subject is always going to be the biggest problem when you’re shooting action. A great sporting moment in a game, match or race can be fleeting; blink and you’ll miss it.

Knowing your kit well, confidently being able to change settings instinctively and understanding the sport you’re photographing are the major hurdles in becoming a good sports or action photographer.

Remember that a fast shutter speed is the key to capturing your action in sharp focus and that might require adjustments in aperture and ISO in order to create enough light, particularly when shooting indoors.

When you can predict what and where the action will happen then you greatly improve your chances of getting the desired picture so visit your venue beforehand if possible.

If your sporting event has a training or warm-up session on a day prior to the game or even earlier the same day, then it might be wise to pop along to that and try to get used where potential subjects are and what they’re doing. As with all things, practice is key and the more you do it, the better you’ll become.

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