Among the most challenging and the most prestigious disciplines out there, photographing sports can be exhilarating and provide a real test of your abilities. Sports photographers need to be sharp-witted and in full control of their camera settings to achieve crisp photos in fast-paced environments.
You don’t achieve that level of skill overnight. In fact, there’s a lot that goes into becoming great at sports photography!
Today, let’s take a look at the best sports photography settings that every pro and amateur alike should remember, along with some useful tips and tricks.
Making High-Speed Shooting Work Reliably
At the core of any kind of sports photography lies the challenge of capturing fast-moving subjects. A big chunk of this boils down to a certain intuitive sense – when is the perfect moment to trip the shutter? – but much else can be narrowed down to skillful use of camera settings and technique.
Below, let’s talk about some key things you can do to optimize shooting in high-speed environments.
Select a Faster Shutter Speed
A fast shutter speed can help tighten up your sports photos in innumerable ways. Not only does it freeze the action, rendering fast moving subjects more sharply in focus.
Fast shutter speeds are considered one of the default sports photography settings, so much so that it is commonplace to lock your camera into shutter priority mode and force very quick exposures before even setting up a composition or thinking about your subject.
If you find you took an unexpectedly blurry photo while shooting sports photography, use a fast shutter speed to compensate. For human subjects on foot, 1/200s and above can really work wonders compared to slower speeds. However, if shooting motorsports or aircraft, for instance, you’ll need to step up to at least 1/1000s to really freeze the action.
Consider Using Continuous Shooting Focus Mode
On most cameras, the standard autofocus mode is AF-S, or single shot autofocus. This mode is highly effective when composing portraits or landscapes – anything that doesn’t move around too much, in other words.
However, shooting sports in single-shot focus mode can be a bit tricky, as your camera will wait for a definite focus lock before allowing you to trip the shutter. This can lead to missing the crucial moment for your shot because your autofocus took too long to home in on the subject. To circumvent that problem, activate continuous shooting mode, or AF-C.
In autofocus continuous mode, your camera will hunt for focus targets with a half-press of the shutter button, just like in AF-S. However, unlike the latter, AF-C mode will continue to scan the frame and try to acquire focus until you actually take the photo. There is no need to wait for a clear lock, and you can trip the shutter at any time you wish.
This advantage makes AF-C autofocus much more effective when tracking moving subjects at high speed.
Use Stabilization, Especially with a Telephoto Lens
Even if you are shooting at a pretty fast shutter speed most of the time, I nonetheless recommend stabilizing your camera when photographing sports events. There’s one simple reason behind this, and that’s focal length.
Most sports photographers tend to pack long lenses as they allow for better reach. With a powerful telephoto on your camera, you can position yourself in a nice vantage point and capture detailed close-ups even from far away.
There’s only one downside to this: with a higher focal length comes an increased level of camera shake. That’s why stabilization is so important!
Optimally, this includes a sturdy tripod to rest your gear on – nothing prevents camera shake and blurry images better.
However, you won’t always be able to reap the benefits of a tripod. Shooting indoor sports can get notoriously hectic, for instance, and you may need to keep yourself on the move throughout your shoot. That’s why there are alternative stabilization methods you can use!
Apart from monopods, which are easier to maneuver and transport than their three-legged cousins, you nowadays also have access to powerful in-body image stabilization and lens-based vibration reduction tech. Used smartly, these can reliably reduce shake and motion blur by at least a few stops!
Cautiously Increase ISO Settings
Though not a photographic panacea by any means, it can help to keep your ISO relatively high when you’re shooting sports photography, particularly indoors or late during the evening. This will allow you to maintain those crispy high shutter speed settings without adversely affecting the depth of field by cranking open your lens aperture.
How to Make Your Sports Photos Pop
Now that we’ve gone over some of the basics, let’s take a look at a few more advanced techniques that sports photographers of any level can benefit from!
Practice Thoughtful Composition
You might not intuitively think of sports photography as being a very compositional medium, but you’d be foolish to dismiss the impact it can have. Much of sports photography revolves around the concept of peak action. That is, capturing the athlete or runner at the very peak of their performance and mastery of their skills. It is up to you, the photographer, to find the best way to reflect this in your images.
Because you won’t have much time to compose in the heat of the moment and you can’t expect your subjects to slow down or wait up for you, you need to learn to compose well in advance.
Think of the best place to shoot from, for one. Is it high up, looking down at the event to minimize clutter in the background? Or perhaps you want to catch an eye-level portrait of one of the athletes – in that case, consider placing yourself at a moderate distance parallel to the broad side of the playing field.
Analyze the physical conditions of the scene to allow yourself to plan out these considerations before you arrive for the match. Note that such planning includes which lens or lenses you bring with you.
An 800mm super-telephoto is going to be nigh-useless at close range for tracking an energetic basketball game or a wushu match like the above, but it will be very useful indeed for capturing oval track racing from an elevated position at a high distance!
Manage Your Autofocus Areas
Optimizing your camera settings for sports photos goes far beyond flicking the focus dial to AF-C! Autofocus areas can seem much trickier to manage and get right, but they can make or break many different kinds of great shots.
Most photographers get solid results out of Dynamic AF-Area mode, and I recommend it as a good starting point for the beginner. In this mode, your camera allows you to hand-pick a focus point within the frame where you expect your subject to be. However, if the autofocus system detects any movement, it automatically switches over to neighboring AF points to keep up with the subject.
This enables nearly automatic tracking of fast action without you having to manually compensate in most situations!
Experiment with Setting Different Focus and Exposure Modes as Necessary
No sports event is exactly the same – part of the challenge every sports photographer has to face. This also means that much of the conventional wisdom that surrounds this genre, including a few of the tips I gave above, might not be the best fit for you for every circumstance!
For example, while AF-C mode delivers reliable and fairly consistent results, continuous subject tracking can actually make you lose lock on a subject if your reflexes aren’t quick enough. If this happens to you, you can change the way you approach your shoot to make life easier!
You can use AE/AF-Lock to preemptively acquire a point where you expect your subject to be, to name just one option. Track the subject by eye and adjust as necessary as they move towards or away from you. When they reach the point that you designated in advance, fire away! You may also select burst mode to increase the likelihood of a perfectly-timed frame.
Another way of achieving the same results is to switch over to full manual mode and select a focus distance by hand. Play with depth of field by opening up or stopping down the aperture, then simply fire as soon as your subject assumes the right position.
Mind Your Aperture and Shutter Speed Settings
Speaking of which, don’t underestimate the crucial role of aperture and shutter speed settings for sports photography. While great photos are possible with fully automatic modes, professional photographers know how to squeeze out truly excellent image quality by carefully managing these exposure settings.
Your shutter speed, as previously mentioned, plays a huge role in defining the sharpness and the level of blur in your scene. Your lens aperture is equally paramount, perhaps even more so than in conventional everyday photography.
This is because the depth of field gets thinner as focal lengths increase, all else being equal. Since the average sports shoot occurs at a much higher end of the zoom range than normal, keeping depth within certain bounds through the aperture is crucial.
Though a shallow depth of field can lend itself nicely to high-speed action portraits, it also makes acquiring focus exponentially more difficult. This is why, in some shooting situations, you might see professional sports photographers switching over to aperture priority mode to have better control over focus. High shutter speeds can then be automatically set by manually adjusting ISO to match.
Useful Tricks for More Successful Sports and Action Photography
While not essential, it can help to have a few action photography tips and tricks up your sleeve to prevent the occasional mishap and faux pas. These won’t necessarily help you become a master of composition or technique, but they sure make life easier in the long run.
Learning to innovate and adapt is part and parcel of the sports photography field, and I hope that the following techniques can help you at your next sporting event!
Shoot JPEGs for Higher Storage Efficiency
One thing that especially less experienced action photographers tend to overlook is their camera’s limited storage capacity. Even if you splurged on a high-end SDXC card, firing off in burst mode during a multi-hour shoot can quickly lead to a gargantuan buildup of data – and an inability to keep shooting when you might need it the most.
One way to go around this is by adjusting your file quality settings. Though RAW files offer plenty of benefits, you might want to rethink their use if you are going to be shooting at a very high volume. Instead, opt for JPEGs at the lowest size (that is compression, not necessarily the quality level alone) that you can stomach, given the importance of the event.
Of course, if no other option prevails, then you can very well shoot maximum-quality JPEGs or even uncompressed RAW files. Just remember to keep a few spare flashcards in your pocket!
Don’t Forget Your Spare Batteries!
One other thing you shouldn’t forget to pack for your next sports or action shoot is replacement batteries. The most power-hungry elements of your digital camera, apart from the rear LCD and electronic viewfinder (if present), are the autofocus and metering systems by far, followed by the shutter.
In a typical sports photography outing, these three are all going to be working overtime, so you can expect your battery life to dip far below the usual manufacturer estimate. Just like you don’t want to run out of storage space, it really sucks to have your camera shut itself off in the middle of the main event with no spares.
Not only does it help to keep a few spares in your pocket. An add-on battery grip, if available, can further lend peace of mind as it prevents your camera from losing power as soon as the first battery runs out.
Master the Art of Back Button Focus
While not available on every digital camera out there, back-button focus is an immensely useful technique that remains criminally underappreciated.
By utilizing the AF-ON button on the rear of your camera, you can prompt a focus lock independently of the shutter release button. This can help you be more efficient in a few different ways.
First off, it prevents misfires due to accidentally stabbing the shutter button instead of half-pressing it – that saves you both valuable space on your SD card as well as battery life!
With back-button focus, you can also track your subject across the playing field and then independently decide when to release the shutter. You can experiment with some more advanced compositional techniques this way by selectively engaging and disengaging (or locking) focus as you see fit.
Of course, most of this is also possible using the regular one-finger approach. However, as back-button focusing spreads out and separates your focus controls, assigning them to different physical buttons in the reach of different fingers on your right hand, it is in practice much quicker to operate.
This is why the back-button focus technique is often hailed as one of the greatest hidden tricks of professional action photographers.
How the Best Camera Settings Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals in Sports Photography
From the moment that light enters your lens, photographing sports is about so much more than the perfect camera settings. Everyone who has experienced it can attest to that.
Capturing the genuine emotion of athletes at the peak of their play is an experience that many find humbling to shoot. Others find themselves caught up in the excitement of the competition, much like the live spectators in the audience.
Whichever camp you belong to and however you feel about the craft, I want you to take away from this guide the feeling that the tips and techniques elaborated on in this guide are there to help you become more effortless and natural in your sports photography.
Don’t get too caught up in the jargon. Instead, go out and practice some of what you’ve learned today! Take a lot of test shots in a safe environment and hone your skills.
That way, you’ll get to enjoy what sports photography is really about that much sooner and more easily.