My Adventures In Photography

A while back I started a photography column for my hometown's local newspaper — you'll find all of my columns from those pages here as well as new ones that I write.

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Shooting sports: Staying ahead of the action

  STOPPING ACTION: Shooting sports photography requires quick reflexes and certain clairvoyance in order to know where the next play will be heading — using the right camera settings is half the battle; read on.

STOPPING ACTION: Shooting sports photography requires quick reflexes and certain clairvoyance in order to know where the next play will be heading — using the right camera settings is half the battle; read on.

Sports photography is just good fun.

It doesn’t matter what sport you’re shooting — volleyball, basketball, football or tennis — taking photos of athletes on the move requires fast reflexes, patience and knowing what settings to use and when to switch it up.

One of the biggest limitations to sports photography is not having a fast enough lens for it. By fast, I mean having a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or larger. Generally, gymnasiums and fields outdoors are poorly lit; with exception to baseball fields because those games take place mostly during the daytime.

Using a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or less will bring in a lot more light to your camera’s sensor which limits image noise, and an aperture that wide open also allows for a faster shutter speed. Also be sure to use a lens with a focal length long enough to reach the action if it’s far away. There’s not much of a point in going to a football game with a 35mm lens unless a play strays to the sideline, and by then you’ll most likely be run over after taking a shot.

As with most shooting situations, I most often put my Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) in AV mode and set my aperture as wide open as possible. Then I set the ISO (the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light) before I start shooting at a game. Noise is inevitable in some locations. Finding out how much noise you want to tolerate in your images is an important step. A few test shots help me get a feel for what shutter speed I should use.

All three settings are vital for sports photography, but the most apparent setting is your shutter speed.

For fast paced action, your shutter speed will need to be set at a minimum of 1/500th of a second. Using a shutter speed that fast (or faster, preferably) can help guarantee crisp images that limit subject motion blur. If you push your shutter speed any further than 1/500 you’ll have to raise your ISO and image quality will suffer.

But let’s say you want to get artistic with your imagery without degrading image quality.
Set your shutter speed to 1/60th of a second.

Yes, that’s WAY slower than 1/500 and that means you’ll have to deal with subject motion blur.

So why am I suggesting a shutter speed that slow?

Well, for starters, a shutter speed that slow will greatly help your ISO and, if you’re very careful, it can look REALLY good.

Let’s take a football game for example — I’ve shot a lot of those lately; they’re fresh on my mind. When I shoot images, I’m usually on the sideline and the players run parallel to me. If I have my shutter speed set to 1/60th of a second (or a variation thereupon, it doesn’t need to be rocket science), and I follow a player that’s running parallel to me with my lens, an interesting effect occurs.

The image is blurry, but the player in the center of the photograph is crisp.

Following your subject with your lens and keeping it in the center of the frame will guarantee that it stays in focus. Just be sure to follow at the same pace that they are running.

Keep in mind that shooting with a shutter speed that slow is only beneficial if your subject is running parallel to you. If you’re at a basketball game and you’re at one end of the court with players running toward you, it may be better for you to use a faster shutter speed to stop motion. You could also zoom your lens out as they run toward you — that could be a fun effect as well with a slower shutter speed.

The headline for this post is “staying ahead of the action,” and I suppose I should elaborate.
A photographer should place him or herself in front of a play in sports to get the best photos. 
Placement is a big deal.

In football, whichever team has the ball is going to run in one direction — it’s important that I be just a bit further down that path so I can catch the potential action of a player running past me.

Staying ahead of a play or player in a sport is a great preemptive measure that can increase the number of images you take that are worth hanging on to. For volleyball or basketball, staying in one place is a better option because much of the running back and forth by players is a lot less than sports like baseball or football.

Regardless, whatever place on a field or court you choose to shoot from, it’s always safest to think about what kind of composition you want your images to have and to move yourself to the place where you feel you can best achieve that.

There’s a certain flow that you discover when you shoot sports photography, and that flow is best learned just like any sport is: Get out there and have fun!