Catch that Shot! 10 Tips for Weekend Warrior Sports Photographers

Catch that Shot! 10 Tips for Weekend Warrior Sports Photographers

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A Guest Post by Deb Scally

Many of us spend plenty of time on the weekend watching our favorite sports from the sidelines and, as photographers, we yearn to be able to capture that awesome moment when something great happens. But it’s rarely as easy as it might seem. All the critical elements have to come together to shoot really good action shots: timing, position, exposure, and framing–and you have just a split second to make it happen.

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Years ago when my kids were younger and beginning sports, I set my sights on improving my craft, and over the years, and after learning lots of hard lessons, I have seen dramatically improved results. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered along the way.

1. Eliminate that “D’oh!” moment

Take the time to check your equipment…before you leave home. Extra battery (charged), spare memory cards, a dust cloth, and of course, the proper lens for the job, including a lens hood for sunny days, should be packed and ready. You’ll thank yourself later.

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2. Exposure: Learn the basics and lock it in

Point and shoot cameras have this all figured out. Just turn the dial to the guy who is snow skiing and you’ll get perfectly exposed shots, right? With an SLR, it takes a bit more thought, but it’s still relatively easy. Just remember the three key settings for optimal exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Change one, and you affect all three. On days with plenty of available light, I set my camera on a low ISO for best image quality. Then I set aperture priority (Av) at a wide-open f-stop, which in turn, allows the camera to select the highest possible shutter speed. If available light is an issue, I’ll simply push the ISO higher to ensure I get the shutter speed I need. My own guideline is a minimum of at least 1/500 of a sec if possible, but occasionally at night, you’ll have to settle for speeds in the 1/250th range. More often than not, I am shooting at 1/1000th or higher to stop the action really well.

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3. Depth of field: Zero in on your subject

Selecting a wide aperture has another great benefit beyond faster shutter speed: compression of space and shallow depth of field. Why is this important in sports photography? Because generally there is a lot—and I mean a LOT—of clutter on the sidelines. Spectators, cars, parking lots, signs, concession… all the stuff you did NOT go there to photograph. Opening up your aperture ensures that your subject will be the focal point, rather than the surrounding milieu.
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4. Focus: Laser-like precision

Tack-sharp focus is of prime importance to creating winning action shots, and several factors will affect this outcome.

Focus mode. Your camera’s focusing mode can make a big difference with a moving subject. Among the three Canon modes, Al Servo, or Continuous Mode for Nikon lingo, is usually the best choice, as it’s designed to help you hold focus on a moving subject coming toward you.

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Focus points. Also consider your selection of focusing points. This is a bit trickier. My Canon 7D offers a superlative 19-point focusing system, but frankly, with a subject that is moving all over the frame, I have found the most success by using a single-point mode and employing the back-button focus method (which can be permanently set using Canon’s custom functions) In this way, I can easily lock in and recompose quickly to have the most control over my composition. It takes a little practice, but once you are used to it, you’ll never go back to shutter-button focus.

Steady as she goes. Even the best cameras can only do so much, and the bottom line is, you have to have a steady, supported hand to manage good action shots. An image-stabilizing lens can be a big help, too, but learning how to brace your camera—using your own body as a makeshift tripod or by mastering the use of a monopod, will greatly enhance the final product.

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5. Know your sport, and shoot, shoot, shoot

Anticipation is well over half the battle in capturing a header in soccer, a slam-dunk in basketball, or the perfect equine arc of a hunter/jumper. Understanding what is likely to happen will mean your camera is trained at the right spot–in advance of the moment. Beyond that, it’s simply a matter of practice. After you’ve logged in hundreds and hundreds (and by that I mean, thousands and thousands) of shots over time, your instincts will begin to kick in and pretty soon you’ll have mastered the ability to both continually shoot and enjoy the action at the same time.

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6. Use your arms and legs

Remember to move around! Funny enough, your feet can become a cheap but useful piece of camera gear, by allowing you to change your perspective and the relationship of the camera to the action. By the same token, don’t forget to use your arms and turn the camera vertically, especially if the action comes too close and you need to reframe the shot.

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7. Know your limitations

This, admittedly, takes discipline. You’ve purchased that awesome 75-300 mm lens… you want to use all 300 mm, don’t you? Here’s a lesson I’ve learned over and over. Even with an awesome zoom, the best shots rarely ever come from the other side of the field! Do I still find myself pegging out to capture that faraway action? Yes, but every time I do, it confirms what I already know—it’s a bad idea. Even with image stabilization and a quality camera, you will give yourself the best options when they are shot from close to mid-range.

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8. Good composition—the holy grail

I know I said focus was a primary factor in image quality, but without great composition, your focus won’t matter. In my estimation, and according to many mentors I have followed over the years, a few elements of good sports composition include:

Faces. Make sure you can see the subject player’s face. The shot will fall short if all you see is the back of someone’s head. Faces with great emotion are a huge plus!

Be the ball. Include the ball or other equipment in the shot. These things are an extension of the players’ action, in most cases, so it’s an important element that really communicates what is happening in the shot.

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Cropping. Credit where credit is due, I owe this mantra to Jim Bryant, an experienced pro who repeatedly mentions this in DPS forums: “Crop in tight…then crop some more.” Tight shots create excitement and add emotional tension to a shot, so eliminate everything that is not central to the action. One caveat, though, is not to crop at a person’s joint (knee, elbow, wrist). Just above or below those areas create a more pleasing and less awkward aesthetic.

Negative space. Ok, despite what I said about cropping, occasionally the use of negative space can add dimension to a composition. Sometimes just providing logical room for the player to kick the ball out of the frame can be the element needed to balance the composition and communicate something more about the moment.

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9. Editing

Be very strict on yourself when it comes to your final product. I may shoot 400 frames in one soccer game but I consider it a success if I end up with 10% to share with others; and beyond that, a handful that I personally am proud of. My advice is to analyze each shoot, learn something, and then delete and don’t look back.

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10. Post-processing

When it comes to sports, if all goes well, you should have very little post-processing except for cropping and adding a touch of sharpening. The real post-processing fun comes when you are able to send out a batch of photos that represent special moments to teammates and friends.

Deb Scally is a full-time writer and editor and author of her photo blog, 1107photography, which can be found at www.1107photography.wordpress.com. Her passion is artistic nature photography, but she enjoys challenging herself in all genres and photographic styles including sports, portraits, architecture and travel.

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Some Older Comments

  • Clyde July 3, 2013 03:46 am

    Some great info here. One tip I've found to be extremely useful is to position yourself between the sun and the subject. On sunny days, this can decrease or eliminate the shadow caused by the harsh sunlight. It's terrible when you get a perfectly exposed shot, but the subject's face is really dark because of a shadow caused by the hat/helmet. Of course, cloudy conditions are optimal since there are no shadows to deal with.

  • Smar February 17, 2013 05:34 pm

    Great tutorial! Question on etticate... do you shoot just your own kids and friends kids or all the kids on the team? How do you handle distributing images? Do you offer up a small fee for people who want prints made? ...or is it all for free just because you enjoyit? Do any parents object to having their kids images taken?

  • Prashant January 31, 2012 02:29 am

    great article with great shots.
    some of my shots:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/prashantadukia/4197534434/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/prashantadukia/5194957618/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/prashantadukia/5171562017/in/photostream/

    Prashant

  • KenM January 15, 2012 02:23 am

    Great tips - Thank you for this.

  • Alicia January 14, 2012 08:53 am

    Great tips! Thank you!

  • PaulB January 14, 2012 06:47 am

    Good all round article, I have done some equine photography at horse shows and these tips could equally apply to other sports

  • JR January 13, 2012 08:19 pm

    I would like to add to learn to shoot with both eyes open. Especially football. It will allow you to see other players coming at you if the play is coming your way. Give yourself time to move out of the way and not get hit. Don't forget that football players have pads that don't feel to good if they run you over. Plus it's not cool having your equipment slammed to the ground as you hit the deck. Be careful out there.

  • Harini January 13, 2012 02:52 pm

    Absolutely gorgeous photographs! Brilliant post! Thanks for this post. :)

  • Rich B January 13, 2012 01:28 pm

    It also helps significantly to know as much as possible about the specific sport you/re going to photograph. If you know the game, it greatly helps in anticipating where the next great shot might be. For example, lets look at baseball. Lets say there are no outs and runners on first and second. In a higher level game (professional, college, maybe high school), the hitter is probably going to hit behind the runners (the batter is going to try and hit the ball to the right field side of the field). Offensively, if the batter hits a grounder to the right side, there is a better chance that the out will end up being made at first base and will allow the existing base runners to move up a base. This is where you may get a shot of a second basemen or first basemen making a diving play on a ball.

  • Natalie January 13, 2012 05:58 am

    I have been watching for sports tips for a while. Thanks for posting. However, I would love to see more on indoor sports......namely hockey. By far the trickiest sport I have found to photograph. Tips Anyone????

  • Chuck M January 11, 2012 04:35 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with all of this, but I'd like to throw one more challenge into the mix. Shooting sports during the day is a walk in the park compared to shooting sports in a stadium at night under stadium lights. Although many of these tips still apply, now you're talking about capturing action with slower shutter speeds, higher ISOs, and wide open apertures. Investments in f2.8 and f1.4 lenses will be a must in the night-time stadium environment.

  • Laurie January 8, 2012 10:00 pm

    Would you believe that just before I read this article I posted one very similar on my blog. If you are interested you can take a look at

    http://blog.frozenevent.com/2012/01/06/7-tips-photos-events/

    I'm a huge fan of sports photography, which in my case means Dance Competition photography. In terms of number of opportunities to practice and improve as a photographer, there is nothing better (at least not that I have found yet)

  • Joe Parenti January 7, 2012 10:09 pm

    I really enjoyed this article, I just started shooting outdoor soccer this past year, but I have been shooting baseball & football for some time. Today I will start shooting indoor soccer, but I have yet to speak to the league about the use of flash......this could prove to be very interesting. Also, another point I have yet to try and manual focus, I am not close minded on this method, but how can you manual focus anticipating a play or a particular location on the field? I will try and post some results.

  • Christine Wedge January 7, 2012 07:47 am

    Deb, those shots are ROCKIN! I love how you've captured the emotion that comes with playing a sport and I will diligently apply your tips to the hockey, volleyball and basketball shots I take to capture intense moments in my own kids' lives.

    You refer to 'using the back button technique' in focusing, and go so far as to say you'd never go back to shutter button focusing... can you enlighten me more? I don't know what back button focusing is, but it sounds like something I'd like to learn.

  • Dee Shneiderman January 7, 2012 04:25 am

    This may be the best soccer-shooting photography tutorial I've ever read - and I've been shooting kids' soccer games since the 1980s! Very clear instructions and fantastic example photos. Great work, y'all!

  • Richard Taylor January 6, 2012 10:36 pm

    Thanks very much for a great tutorial.
    ---------
    @ Jason.
    I use image stabilisation sometimes when shooting motor sport.,
    When shooting "action in a scene" in low light where the relative motion of the subjects is fairly small and for horizontal panning shots, then the lens image stabilisation will be in panning mode".

    @ ccting

    I could imagine normally shooting a macro when shooting sports except to show extreme detail, like a golf ball leaving a tee.
    You can use almost any lens to shoot sport, and a lot of other subjects, providing you have a lot, almost total, of control over the camera shooting position. It may be more difficult and you may be taking a very different style of photograph. You may not need to crop.

  • Peter Krahulik January 6, 2012 10:22 pm

    Great article. I always do the point 2 in low light, not only for sports. Additionally I expose to as left as possible i.e. underexpose just above the noise level. I can bring brightenss back with computer, especially from raw, but I can do nothing about motion blur. One stop darker means the half of exposure time! This can save your day sometimes.

  • Mark Baily January 6, 2012 07:20 pm

    Just 1 question, you say you use al servo to capture the shot and then recompose but I didn't think you could use al servo and do this as its loses the tracking of the person, would you just crop the composition in post processing?! Many thanks for any help guys, mark

  • bigvern January 6, 2012 12:43 pm

    Great advice Deb. I'd like to add just one thing I've found to help me. I like to shoot with both eyes open. That way I can see the field and compose the shot at the same time.

    Thanks!

  • Average Joe January 6, 2012 12:01 pm

    Great read! Sometimes it's hard to manage composing and watching what's actually going on at the moment... I agree that having all of your settings down and ready to go helps a lot! Good to know about the aperture vs. shutter speed ratio for maintaining a good exposure!

  • Halfrack January 6, 2012 11:54 am

    To add to this great post:

    11) Support - carrying a camera all day is one thing, keeping it in front of you while zooming and adjusting really can wear you out. A monopod is a quick and easy support for a camera. Want to take it a step further, two cameras on a single (heavier duty) monopod using a http://www.manfrotto.us/long-plate-double-camera-support-platform

    12) Two cameras are better than 2 lenses - did you get a new body? KEEP YOUR OLD ONE!! Use the new body for a telephoto, while keeping a wide angle lens on your old body. You'll never be quick enough to swap glass when a player is headed at you, so switch cameras to get that wide shot. Have a pocket point and shoot? Keep it out and available. Sometimes the shot you want is the one happening behind you, and turning around can draw enough attention that the shot is gone.

    13) Primes are your friends - lenses are always a trade-off, zoom for aperture, aperture for money, etc. Using a 'faster' prime lens can help deal with lighting limitations, plus be much cheaper than the zoom equivalent. The 70-200 f2.8 IS/VR lenses are nice, but for 1/3 the cost, you can get a 200 2.8 and be covered for your distance shots.

    14) Burst shooting is your friend - Know that you'll toss 99 of them, but on certain types of plays, doing either a low speed or high speed burst of shots can help you capture that moment. If you fill the buffer on your camera, switch to your second body while data is being written to the card.

  • Steve January 6, 2012 11:38 am

    Hi,

    Great article, my 7 yr old son plays rugby, and I can certainly agree on the points you made, been there, done that as well.

    Some other points I've discovered along the way,
    1) I've noticed, most people stand and shoot, and with 7 yr olds, you'll always get these downward looking shots. Get down low so that you are at the same height as the players. Your photos illustrate that point very well.
    2) Don't just focus (excuse the pun) on the action, a bit of creativity with the ball, sidelines, flag posts, the supporters jumping up and down, coach giving the team instructions, ref blowing the final whistle, etc also adds to the story

    Some of my shots...
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67452638@N05/6644194613/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67452638@N05/6644195251/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67452638@N05/6644196249/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67452638@N05/6644196995/in/photostream

  • ccting January 6, 2012 10:44 am

    Dear Deb Scally / others

    Is it possible for one to use shorter focal length macro lens with ratio 1:1 to shoot sports then crop later? Perhaps using Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens.. need advice..

    Thanks.

  • Alex January 6, 2012 10:35 am

    Hi,

    I am seriously impressed by your photographs. I own a 7D myself and wonder how you got your colors (especially skin-colors) so spot-on? It's just so damn perfect.

  • Lisa January 6, 2012 08:12 am

    This is a great article.

    I wish there was an option to print articles here at DPS.

  • BigBearNelson January 6, 2012 07:48 am

    These notes work at amateur events as well as professional ones.

    Isolating the subject with DoF. Could have been better with a better lens.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tallok/5741409413/

    Using blur to convey motion.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tallok/5741440681/

    Knowing the sport to be able to anticipate and capture moments at the right time.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tallok/5741432715/

  • Ross January 6, 2012 06:41 am

    Excellent advice, and great photos. Thanks.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 6, 2012 05:50 am

    Hi

    Sports photography is tricky - I have found that one needs a long lens and a lot of patience. I like to shoot with a 70-200mm f2.8 Nikkor, sometimes with a 2X doubler. Usually light is not an issue unless it is indoors (like Hockey). I like to mount the gear on a Monopod so I can follow the action. These shots were taken in Maui of some Windsurfers:

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/paai-wind-surfing-maui/

  • Katie January 6, 2012 03:20 am

    Thanks for these tips! Even though I am a professional wedding and portrait photographer I struggle with sports. My daughter has just started playing soccer and I can see that I have a lot of room for improvement and that a new lens may be in order! At least I have a lot of hours on the soccer field to improve my craft. Great pictures!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 6, 2012 02:52 am

    It is nice to see a sports photography post like this on dPS. Deb has written literally a complete guide to being able to go out and photograph youth sports, from how little editing beyond cropping should be needed (there are just too many shots to spend even 5 minutes each on editing) and that unless you are sporting three lenses ranging from 600mm to 70mm and three cameras on your shoulders, you really have to wait for the action to be within your focal range. Shooting down the field or even across the field just is not possible with still being able to fill the frame. I always have to be mindful of that.

    It is also good advice to get some practice in with a monopod before shooting sports as a monopod has its own unique usage ergonomics. Learn how to keep the collar on your lens loose so you can swivel between landscape and portrait orientation with ease, though most shots are taken in portrait orientation for soccer.

    Some of my work photographing Florida youth sports:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/sports

    The one thing I would disagree with Deb on is the use of image stabilization for action/sports shots. To my knowledge this slows down the focusing process just a bit while the stabilization motor does its job, so for that reason I turn it off. Plus, the subject you are shooting is in constant motion, and probably your lens is too, so that to me is not what stabilization is used for. If anyone has other info on this matter, please respond.

  • Barry E.Warren January 6, 2012 02:49 am

    Very interesting , Thanks this has been very helpful.

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com January 6, 2012 01:57 am

    Great post! I agree with a lot of the points. Well said! And I can attest to it because I am also a weekend warrior sports photographer.

    I do Car and Motorsports Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    If I may add a few more points to this post. Off the top of my head:
    1. Vantage Point - Check out where the other pro sports photographers are shooting from and you'll see my point. Sometimes, there's a particular vantage point where you can get the best shots. It depends on your gear (how long your lens can go), the actual venue, where the action happens, and even where the light (from the sun or spotlights) is coming from.

    2. For more advanced shooters, if you really want to set your photos apart from the rest, try shooting with off-camera flash! There's a ton of content on the web as to how to do this. I share some of my work particular to car photography on my portfolio page. But for other types of sports, just google it up and there's a ton of information on the web!

    Hop this helps!

  • raghavendra January 6, 2012 01:51 am

    most of the sports photographs are blurred but your pictures are too good.
    i have not taken sports photographs. After reading this post it inspires me to take sports and action photographs.

    little drawings for sports and passion
    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2011/11/bench-drawings-of-sports-our-passion.html