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How to Capture the Perfect Action Shot in Sports Photography

Sports photography is a fun challenge for any photographer. There is plenty of intensity and emotion to be found at any competitive event. These elements combine to create the potential for some truly memorable images.

At the same time, the speed and unpredictability of some games can be intimidating. Especially if you are used to dealing with slower-moving subjects, like portraits or landscapes.

Never fear! This article will arm you with helpful knowledge so that your next brush with sports photography will result in some fantastic captures.

Getting your settings right

A soccer player about to kick a soccer ball, captured with a high shutter speed

This image was taken at 1/1600th of a second, which freezes the action completely. This super fast shutter speed is possible because there is a lot of sunlight.

Chances are that you’ve probably taken your fair share of blurry sports photo. Typically, players or athletes are moving at high speeds, and your camera doesn’t necessarily know for itself how to compensate.

Freezing the action

If you want to freeze the action in a photo, you’ll need to use to choose a fast shutter speed. But, how fast does it need to be? Well, that depends on the sport. 1/250th of a second should be enough to freeze kids playing soccer, but you’ll need to go a lot faster if you want to capture a baseball in mid-flight. Experiment and find what shutter speed you need to use in order to produce sharp images.

Adding motion

On the other hand, you can also experiment with slowing down the shutter speed and panning your camera throughout the picture to create a sense of speed and movement. It takes a bit of practice to get right, but if you match the speed of your subject, you can hold them in focus while the directional blur emphasizes the sense of movement.

Whenever possible, you will want to use a wide aperture, such as f/3.5 or lower. This will create a narrow depth-of-field, and helps the players to stand out, as the background distractions will be blurred.

Two soccer players fighting for the ball with spectators watching the game behind them

This image was shot at an aperture of f/2.8 so that the spectators in the background don’t distract from the players chasing the ball.

If the sport is being held outside during overcast conditions or indoors with consistent lighting, consider using manual exposure mode and settings. It may take a bit of time to figure out, but you’ll get much more reliable and consistent images.

Pick your spots

When you first arrive at the field, arena, gym or track, consider all of your potential angles and options. Your options will be different depending on whether you have a short or a long zoom lens.

For many sports, you won’t be able to cover every angle. Getting up close with a wide-angle lens means you won’t be able to capture plays on the other side of the field. While using a long zoom means you may struggle to capture play right in front of you.

Find the “sweet spots” – the places on the field of play which are the perfect distance away for your camera and lens combination. You’re going to get your best images when the play is in these areas. Rather than trying to get an incredible picture when play is far away on the other side of the field, be patient and prepare so that you make the most out of every opportunity when play is in your sweet spots.

A hockey player tries to deke around the goaltender

When I stand near the benches with a 70-200mm lens, this play in front of the net is right in my sweet spot, which allows for strong composition.

Where possible, it’s a good idea to put yourself in a position where the players will be coming towards you. This allows you to see faces and get a better sense of depth than if you shoot from the sidelines and get a side profile view of everyone.

A female soccer player attempts to dribble the ball through two defenders

Get in the middle of the action

If you want to take a sports photo that will be memorable, you need to bring the viewer in as close as possible. Typically, this means using a zoom lens like the 70-200mm. If you don’t have a long zoom lens, simply get as close as possible to the field.

Perspective changes quite a bit as you zoom in. A wide-angle shot looks very different than a shot with full zoom (long telephoto). Consider how you can use this change in perspective to find some unique captures.

Many first-time sports photographers are nervous to zoom right into the middle of the action. Yes, it does come with some risks. You’re likely to snap plenty of frames where an unexpected zig or zag took the player partially out of the image. This is part of sports photography. Even the professionals aren’t able to nail the perfect shot every time.

A hockey picture where the focus has missed

In this shot, the referee passed in front of the camera and messed up the focus. Don’t feel upset if some pictures turn out like this! These kinds of images will be very familiar to any sports photographer.

Risks sometimes pay off

If you have trouble following the play, it definitely is an option to play it safe by taking a wider shot and then cropping in closer afterward. But by taking a high risk, high reward approach to composition will result in some magnificent images!

Another reason to use zoom: To capture expressions!

The most memorable sports shots show faces full of emotion – whether that is the joy of the game, the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Image of hockey players celebrating on the ice after a goal

Image of two soccer players laughing while preparing for a corner kick

Timing is everything

There seems to be a furious competition between manufacturers to see who can make a camera that takes the most images per second.

Burst mode is an incredibly useful tool for sports photography, but all too often it can be a crutch. Just because you can take 10 pictures in one second doesn’t mean you should.

Soccer players attempting to head the ball into the net from a corner kick

Having the ability to take pictures in bursts should be secondary to anticipating the action. Understanding of the game and having a sense for what is going to happen next is more important than burst mode in every case. If you return from every event with thousands of pictures, all taken a fraction of a second apart, it’s going to be a strenuous job of sorting and finding the keepers.

With that said, burst mode can be a great tool if you don’t want to miss any opportunities and have lots of room on your card.

Lastly, don’t spend the whole game chimping! Chimping is when you get so caught up checking out all of your sweet pictures on your camera’s LCD screen that you miss an incredible play that happens right in front of you. Your pictures will still be there when the game is over. Focus on getting your shot!

Hitting your focus

Having the perfect settings, composition and timing won’t count for anything if you miss your focus.

With the possibility for spectators, colourful advertisements, and other players in the background of your images, your camera’s focus might wander and lock onto the wrong target.

For sports photography especially, you might want to consider using back button focus. With this method, your focus is controlled by a button on the back of your camera, which you can reach with your thumb. The shutter button doesn’t influence the focus at all.

By separating the actions of focusing and taking the picture, you will have greater control and independence over both roles. You may need to consult the manual for information on how to switch your camera to back button focus.

An sports action shot of hockey players fighting for the puck

Focus modes

Your camera comes with different focus modes that you can use to get more reliable results, even when dealing with fast and unpredictable subjects. The process for selecting these modes will be a bit different for every camera, so consult your manual for information on how to switch to these options.

First off, you can allow your camera to use all the focus points to determine the best target to lock onto. This can often go wrong, however, as the camera may choose the wrong point, leaving you with an out-of-focus image.

You can get a bit more specific with zone focus, which allows you to select a group of focus points that the camera uses to determine what it focuses on. This focus mode gives up greater control over what the camera locks onto, but still leaves some room for error.

If you want to be very precise, single point focus allows you focus based on just one point of your choosing. This is great if you want to focus on a specific player in a group. The drawback is that is may not be as accurate, and you may need to be very steady in order to stay locked on target.

Shows all the different focus modes

This image shows three different focus modes as seen through a Canon 7D: Full Auto Focus, Single Point Focus, and Zone Focus

You can also select how the focus will track. These settings may have different names from manufacturer to manufacturer, but they do the same thing.

Continuous or AF-C (Nikon) / AI Servo (Canon):  In this mode, your focus will constantly seek for as long as you are holding your focus button down. This is ideal for moving subjects, and should be your first choice for sports.

Single or AF-S (Nikon) / One Shot (Canon):  In this mode, your focus will find a target and lock, even if you continue to hold down your focus button. While this is often slightly more accurate than servo focus, your subject may have already moved out of focus by the time you take the shot.

AF-A (Nikon) / AI Focus (Canon):  This mode is an intelligent blending of the two previous modes – it will determine if the target is moving and will lock or track accordingly.

Making the most of the focus technology your camera has to offer will play a big role in snapping some excellent sports shots!

Bonus tips and tricks

If you are photographing a car race or a long jump event, it can be a real challenge to track your subject in action. A fast moving car or runner isn’t an easy target for a lot of cameras.

One surefire way to hit your focus even under these tricky conditions is to prefocus. When using this technique, you pick a spot somewhere ahead on the track to carefully set your focus. Then, when your subject comes through, you simply snap the picture and voila!

Two hockey players in mid air after a body check collision

If you want to add drama and action to your images, consider shooting from a lower angle. This perspective can often make athletes seem heroic or larger than life. Shooting from a lower angle also means the background will show spectators or the opponents behind the player, giving a better sense of the setting and action.

Take Lots of Pictures!

When you get home and load the images on your computer, you’re going to find that many of your shots have missed focus, have players in awkward or unflattering angles, or other annoying distractions. This is perfectly normal! It isn’t easy to capture the chaos of sports, and you’re going to need to throw out a lot of shots.

Over time, as your feel for the game from behind the camera improves and as you begin to master these techniques, you will find yourself coming home with more and more keepers!

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Frank Myrland
Frank Myrland

is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he’s been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

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