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The following case study on photographing a wrestling tournament was submitted by DPS reader – Ron Richardson. See his Flickr account here.
A couple months ago, I was asked by a friend to be the photographer at a local middle school wrestling tournament. I had never shot wrestling before, but I had spent some time photographing my sister-in-law’s football games. I figured to give it a go and hopefully get some print sales out of it from the parents.
I got the basic gist of the location; it was in a high school gymnasium, with 4 mats placed in a grid. The lights in the gym were bright, and wasn’t really that bad. The problem however, was that these wrestlers were not going to be standing still, and there were going to be 4 matches going on at a time.
The main key in shooting sports of any kind is speed. You HAVE to have a quick shutter speed in order to freeze the action. You can get around with a slower shutter speed, but you will have to pan with your subject. It can lead to some interesting shots (like the one below), but isn’t a reliable technique to count on.
So what is a desired shutter speed, and how do you achieve it? Typically, the rule is to have your shutter speed one step higher than the focal length you are shooting at. For example, if you are shooting at 200mm, the ideal shutter speed would be 1/250 of a second. At 50mm, you want to be at 1/60 of a second. I have found success shooting at 1/50 of a second, even at 200mm. It all depends on how steady you are with the camera and how slow the action is.
When I first got to the gym, some teams were warming up and I took that opportunity to take some practice shots myself. I went into this knowing full well that I was ill-equipped with a Sigma 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens, whereas a lens such as the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L would be a much much better choice. I for one, cannot afford such a lens, so I shot with what I got.
I set my camera on aperture priority mode and set it at f/5.6. I chose that setting because a bigger aperture will result in more light coming in, and will also provide a shallower depth of field which will help in blurring the background (which was filled with the crowd and coaches).
This did not provide me with a decent shutter speed, so I bumped up the ISO from 100 all the way up to 1600. I personally do not like to ever go above 400, but I felt it was better to err on the side of some extra noise in the image (which can be reduced later by software), rather than have card after card of blurry images.
Once I had my camera set at f/5.6 and an ISO of 1600, I set it on to AI SERVO focusing. Not all cameras have this setting, but if it does, it is a necessity for any sports photography. By holding the shutter button down halfway and following the action, the lens will automatically update it’s focus (if you have an auto-focus lens that is). Also setting your camera to a continuous shooting mode is very helpful.
The first matches began and I took about 50 images before checking the results. I wasn’t happy with the shutter speeds I was getting, as they ranged from 1/5 of a second to 1/60 of a second.
Since the light in the gymnasium was pretty event all around, I switched to manual mode and shot at 1/50 of a second at f/5.6 for the rest of the day.
Those settings still weren’t completely effective as you can see below:
However, it was still quick enough to freeze most of the action, except during the quickest of action.
The trickiest part about shooting sports, and what happens to result in my favorite types of shots, is the closeups of the athletes faces. With wrestling it’s a little bit easier to accomplish, since the mats are approximately 38′ x 38′ and you can safely stand at the edge of the mat. Here I was zoomed in at 200mm and was able to get a decent shot of both wrestlers.
One last tip that isn’t as hard as it may sound: Shoot with both eyes open. Most of the time when we shoot, we have one eye closed, and one eye looking through the viewfinder. If you keep both eyes open, you can still see through the viewfinder when you are zoomed in close, but with your other eye you can see just how far away the athletes really are. That way you can get out of the way if they are coming near the edge of the mat.
If I had a chance to do something different, I would have had a faster lens. That is a given. The shutter speeds I ended up at was not ideal. Having to shoot at an ISO of 1600 is not ideal. Having to shoot at f/5.6 is ok, but shooting at f/2.8 is much better (especially for making the athletes “pop” out from the background crowd).
Shooting sporting events can be fun, especially if you are on the sidelines near the action. If you are shooting a day long tournament like I did, take lots and lots of memory cards (I had 5 2.0gb cards which ended up filled to capacity), and take a snack and water. You will be up and down and all around all day.
By this point, you may be asking yourself why I didn’t use a flash. I don’t like, especially with sports. A lot of parents were there taking photos with flash, but as an athlete myself, I don’t want to see lights flashing in my face all the time. I would recommend against using a flash, especially if you are on the sidelines. With wrestling, I was typically only 15′ away from them, snapping shots off the entire time.