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Stretching Your Creative Comfort Zone: Sports Photography

This post is part of a series called Sports Photography.
Beginner's Guide to Sports Photography


Most photographers have a particular niche or talent; something we’re good at, feel comfortable with and shoot often. On the flip-side, it also makes sense that most of us have something we’ve not done a great deal of (if at all) before. For me, that is sports photography. In this article, I’ll tell you about my experience of shooting fast-paced, indoor sport roller derby for the first time.

Finding a ‘Pro’ for Advice

At this bout, Newcastle Roller Girls were playing Rainy City Roller Girls on NRG’s home turf. I knew their resident photographer Zero G would be there and I was hoping to get some tips from him as he’s done this many times before. If you’re shooting out of your comfort zone for the first time, it really helps if you can have someone to give you guidance or ‘shadow’ so you can see how it’s done first hand.

As soon as I found ‘G’, I asked him about lenses. I had been planning to shoot with my 70-300mm f/4.5- 5.6 VR, as I figured I’d need the zoom but he explained to me that I’d be better off using my 135mm f/2 as the lower light capabilities would help me with a faster shutter speed and then let the action come to me rather than chasing it around the track. I’ll demonstrate the 70-300mm results later in this article. 

My First Attempt

Bearing in mind what G said, I staked out my spot with my 135mm f/2 attached. I shot in manual mode, which I don’t mind admitting that even as a professional photographer, is still rather daunting to me. I left the camera on auto ISO (the Nikon D800 is very good at higher ISOs so I wasn’t too worried about this), put my aperture on f/2.2 (I often go a stop above wide open as it’s usually slightly too soft), tried 1/250s shutter speed and got this:

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f2 at f22 1250s
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f/2 at f/2.2, 1/250s and ISO 1400

Yeah. Not so good. So, my spot was okay (I got the girls face-on), the light is fine (big tick in the aperture box) and it’s not noisy (ISO 1400 is a-ok) so clearly my problem is shutter speed. It’s just not fast enough.

Take Two

I knew I needed to change my shutter speed so I tried 1/500s leaving the other settings the same. This cranked the ISO to 2500. Getting a little high for me but still okay. This was the result:

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f2 at f22 1500s and ISO 2500
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f/2 at f/2.2, 1/500s and ISO 2500

Hmm, still fuzzy; where was I going wrong? I looked at the info screen on my camera. AF-S (single focus mode). Rookie mistake. Single focus is fine for static subjects, but when you have ladies whizzing around on skates, it's not so good. I silently berated myself and flipped to AF-C (continuous focus mode). This basically adjusts your focus so that when you find your subject, you can keep the shutter button half depressed and move with her without losing the focus. It also makes sense to move the point of focus to be one that is roughly at your subject's eye level.

Third Time's the Charm

Bearing in mind what I’d just discovered, I figured I probably didn’t need the shutter speed quite so fast. I bumped it down to 1/320s (ISO 800 – much happier with that figure) and left everything else the same.

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f2 at f22 1320s and ISO 800 AF-C
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f/2 at f/2.2, 1/320s and ISO 800, [AF-C]

Hurrah! So they’re not exactly facing the camera, but they’re crisp and clear even though they were moving. I started to churn out more of these than the previous ones and was quite happy with the results I was getting. Now I had the settings down, I wanted to concentrate more on composition and see if I could get a pleasing action shot. I started looking for peak action: moments in the bout where something exciting or illustrative was happening, or about to happen.

ikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f2 at f2 1320s and ISO 1000 AF-C
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 135mm f/2 at f/2, 1/320s and ISO 1000, [AF-C]

This was more like it. The girl in purple in the foreground is putting a star cap over her helmet whilst skating around the track and being chased by the girl in the other star cap you can see behind. Lots of action going on, some nice blurry crowd behind and everything in the foreground is crisp with no noise.

A Change of Lens

Once I’d got some shots I was happy with, I thought I’d switch to the 70-300mm and give it a go to see how the results would differ. Its lowest aperture is f/4.5 so I had no choice but to start there. I was forced into a lower shutter speed than I’d have liked, 1/200s because even at this the ISO was still at 6400 and this was only at 110mm:

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 70-300mm f45-56 at f45 1200s and ISO 6400 AF-C
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 at f/4.5, 1/200s and ISO 6400 [AF-C]

It’s harder to tell from a small image but it’s VERY noisy. It’s not even that sharp. I could see that the benefit of having zoom was totally outweighed by a ‘faster’ lens and switched back to the 135mm for the duration.

In Conclusion

I got some frames I was happy with but it hardly makes me an expert in this field now. I do however, feel much more comfortable shooting in manual – I think because this was just for fun and the pressure was off. I also have a much better understanding of what’s required for action/sports photography than I did. It does us all the world of good to get out of our comfort zone sometimes and learn some new skills. If you’re planning to do that (in any field) then here’s a list of my suggestions to make it as beneficial as possible:

  • Try to go along with an expert in that field; and don’t be afraid to ask for tips and advice.
  • Take all your lenses (or a sensible amount if you have loads) – you might actually end up using an entirely different lens than you thought.
  • Have confidence in your knowledge and in your camera – shoot in manual if you can; it’s okay to get it wrong, that’s how we learn.
  • Don’t scrap your ‘bad’ photos afterwards. Look at the metadata, learn from it and compare next time you shoot the same stuff – it will get better.

I had more fun than I expected doing this. At first, I was quite daunted. It can be scary working outside of your comfort zone; but the fact it was 'just for fun' (not for a client) took some of the pressure off - I definitely don't recommend you do something for the first time for a client. I would absolutely do something new again as it was a brilliant learning opportunity and it helped me to have more confidence in myself. Give it a go, try something new and shoot out of your comfort zone; you'll reap the benefits.

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