Catching the Action: Photographing Youth Sports

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The action is almost always more dramatic when it is coming towards the photographer.

 One of the most popular subjects people photograph is their children.  Everyone is always showing off photos of their little ones.  And when those little ones grow bigger, we photograph their activities. One of the more challenging children’s activities to photograph is youth sports.

With a few exceptions, sports tend to take place on large fields, where a photographer will have limited ability to get close to his subject. Couple that fact with a lack of control over lighting, and sports of any level can be a challenge to photograph.

The biggest issue most beginners seem to have with sports is stopping action.  Motion blur, caused by using too slow a shutter speed, frustrates many new sports photographers.  The bottom line here is very simple: a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 is needed to freeze action.  The longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be.  So while 1/500 is the minimum, if your focal length is 600mm, you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/640. Faster is better.

Using a faster shutter speed ensures stopping the motion of the ball as it hits the bat.

The next issue to contend with is the backgrounds.  Youth sporting events take place in parks, at schools, or in other places where the background is less than pleasing.  It could be a parking lot, a building, or you may just have  a lot of spectators in the background that can cause your subject to get lost in the mess. Photographers have two options here.  The first is to move to an area where the backgrounds are cleaner.  Since that may not be an option, the second becomes much more important.  Shoot your images at the widest aperture possible with the lens you are using.

Pro sports photographers typically use wide aperture lenses with apertures of f/2.8 and f/4 for a variety of reasons.  One reason is because they allow  more light into the camera, thus allowing for faster shutter speeds. The second reason is that a wide aperture creates a shallow depth of field- meaning while your subject will be sharp, the background will be nicely blurred, eliminating distractions.

Lens choice is another important part of the equation when shooting sports.  Not everyone will have access to a 400mm f/2.8 lens, but great sports shots can be captured with a variety of lenses- not just the big telephotos.  A 70-300mm zoom lens, which is typically one of the more popular telephoto lenses available, makes a great choice for shooting you sports.  While not as fast as a lens with an f/2.8 aperture, as long as the light is good enough to get a fast shutter speed, these lenses do just fine.  The 300mm focal length will get you enough reach to get closer to the action, but remember to stay disciplined.  Let the action come to you. Shooting across the field will simply result in lots of pictures where the athletes don’t fill the frame, and the dramatic impact is greatly diminished.  For on-field action, typically a lens with a focal length of at least 300mm will be needed. Most pros use anything from 300mm f/2.8 up to a 600mm f/4.

A wide angle lens is useful for situations where you want to show the complete context of where the athlete is. In this case, a fisheye lens shows the entire dugout as well as the player sitting on the steps.

Most people don’t think of wide angle lenses as good sports lenses, but there are several times where a wide angle can be the perfect lens.  Generally, wide angles work well when the photographer can be close to the athletes, be it for a team huddle on the sidelines, a post-game handshake, or a portrait taken on the bench with spectators in the background.   For those who can get access and don’t mind putting their gear at risk, a soccer or hockey “net cam” is a great use for a wide angle lens.  When pros do this they use a protective housing for the camera. It is NOT recommended that a photographer mount their camera in a goal without being protected.  The effort can be worth it.  Some of the most dramatic soccer and hockey photos come from cameras mounted in the goal with a wide angle lens.

When shooting action on the field, working with the available light becomes incredibly important.  Most of these outdoor games take place in midday sun, which is often harsh.  Add in helmets, hats, or other headgear which can cast shadows over faces, and you’ve got a lighting nightmare. With sports such as football or baseball, with hats and helmets on the athletes,  use of exposure compensation can be helpful in opening up the shadows on faces.  A setting of +1/3 or +2/3 is a good starting point.  For later afternoon or early morning games, shooting backlit can add a bit of drama to the lighting, with the sunlight creating a nice rim light on the athletes.  Exposure compensation can help open up the shadows again to maintain detail in the faces.

For indoor sports, the use of flash can be problematic.  Always be sure the use of flash is permitted, first and foremost.  In many sports, such as gymnastics, use of flash is strictly forbidden.  If the available light allows, it’s best to try to shoot without flash. This is where today’s extreme high ISOs and the outstanding noise performance of today’s DSLR’s is especially handy. Photographers often find themselves in school gyms with ISOs set to 3200, 6400, or higher.  Fast lenses with apertures of f/2.8 or larger are also useful in these situations. The same rule for stopping action applies, using a shutter speed of at least 1/500 or faster.

Sideline portraits can sometimes be more impactful that the action on the field. Don’t be afraid to turn away from the action and photograph the intensity on the sidelines.

Athletes tend to move quickly, so you’ll want to make sure your autofocus is set to Servo or Continuous (dependent on what brand of camera you use). This allows the camera to refocus as the athlete moves towards or away from the camera.  Setting the drive to continuous will also allow the camera to take multiple photos by holding down the shutter button, ensuring that peak action is captured.

Today’s cameras offer a variety of AF arrays, from 9 or 11 AF points on entry level models, all the way up to 61 AF points on high end models.  Generally speaking, it is easiest to select one AF point and keep it on your subject, though some cameras are especially good at using all available AF points to track a moving subject. Photographers should experiment and practice to find which settings work best for them.

Jubilation shots can be some of the most rewarding and sought after shots. It takes discipline to remember to continue shooting even after the play has ended.

Sports offer a variety of photo opportunities aside from the action on the field.  The sidelines are great for shots of players interacting with each other, coaches instructing players, and sideline portraits.  With all the ups and downs of competition, the emotion on the sidelines makes a great subject all by itself.  Don’t be afraid to turn away from the action during the moments to catch the emotion in the bench area.

 

In addition, the pomp and circumstance that goes with many youth sporting events also make for great photo ops.  Watch for the halftime performances of cheerleaders and bands at various school sports.  The more devoted “fans” in the stands also make for great opportunities.

Telephoto lenses with wide apertures blur the background nicely, eliminating anything unsightly or distracting in the background.

Knowing where to stand is one of the most important parts of sports photography.  Each sport is different and the games have their own flow of action.  Photographers want to be where the action is going, not where it has been.  Each sport generally offers a ton of options as far as where a photographer can stand.

Personal knowledge of the sport, as well as the teams being photographed is especially helpful.  Photographic knowledge is only half of the battle when shooting sports.  When a photographer knows a team’s tendencies, and even individual athlete’s tendencies, he can anticipate the play, as well as reactions and get something special from it.   Shooting the same team repeatedly makes this easier.  The added bonus is that the team also gets to know the photographer, making them more comfortable and willing to be open in front of the camera, in much the same way people open up to their friends.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

  • Nice work Rick. I love the fact that you can see the emotion in these kids faces. It’s intense and you captured it.

    Lovely.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-45/

  • raghavendra

    as there were cultural’s in my college,
    my fav is basket ball
    so here are the pictures

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/02/basket-ball-game-action-photography.html

  • I was hoping you’d cover hockey. While getting high-quality shots outdoors isn’t easy, it is relatively simple compared to indoor shots, often with poor lighting, and usually shooting through glass. I’ve been doing it for a few years and still struggle (partly due to my D80’s marginal quality high-iso). I’m getting to know the various rinks and which ones have the best lighting (some are impossible). I’ve also started shooting with shorter lenses. Since I have a crop sensor, I find that my 50/1.8 works really well and I’m going to try an 85/1.8 this season. While a 300 works well (if you have the light or ISO) it often gets you too close. Kids are all wearing cages on their helmets so you can’t get very good face shots, so in my experience a shorter fast lens gets you better, and sharper, overall action shots.
    Anything I’m missing, or do others have any experience with this?

  • Thanks for the comments everyone. @Kenton, hockey is relatively easy, once you get past the lack of light. The lighting stays the same, so once you get your exposure, it’s just a matter of catching the action, which works the same as any other sport. As for your lens question- yes, the shorter faster lenses will do well for you- provided you have the patience to let the action come to you. In my past as a pro sports photographer, I shot the NHL using a 70-200 f/2.8 and a 35mm f.2 up close to the glass. If that was not possible- dependent on the arena- I shot from up high over the glass with a 400mm f/2.8. The cages are problematic but the closer the kids get to you the better their faces should look behind the cage.

  • Thanks Rick. In my experience lighting in amateur arenas is anything but consistent. Very often it is darker at the ends than the middle and sometimes even across the ice surface. I’ll have to look at a wider-angle too maybe and see what I get with that.

  • I agree with you there. In those cases, I meter the critical areas- in front of the nets, at the point, the circles, etc. Hopefully their all somewhat close in exposure, and I just wait for shots in those areas. I find most arenas get darker in the corners, so I avoid those. Best you can do is get the critical areas and be patient.

  • Sandy Warner

    Great article thankyou. Do you have any advice for shooting volleyball?
    I try to capture net shots where the player is behind, but find the camera often focuses on the net
    leaving the player blurred.

  • Hi Sandy- it’s been a long time since I shot volleyball. So long in fact that my last volleyball shots were on film! That said- I assume you mean you were shooting from the opposite side of the net, which was also my position of choice. What I used to do was pre-focus on a player at the net before the action started, and then simply wait for the action to be at the net. The players should end up at the same general distance from the camera, meaning focusing should be minimal at that point. The net will always drive you crazy. Another trick is to use a focus point that hits the players below the net, at their waist or legs. It takes some practice and getting used to but is an effective way for avoiding the hassles the net causes with autofocus.

  • Debbie

    Thanks Kenton for the questions about shooting ice hockey. And thank you Rick for the tips! I was unsure about shooting through the glass as I figured there would be too much glare/reflection, so instead I try to position myself at one of the holes, but it’s very limiting. I’m wondering just how close should the lens be to the glass? Thanks for the help!

  • Hi Debbie,

    I don’t find the glass to be too much of a problem unless it has a lot of marks on it. Generally you’re focusing far enough out that the stuff on the glass won’t be noticeable. The worst I’ve seen is that it appears as patches of lighter areas in the picture and in that case I move a little to avoid the worst spots.

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  • Michele

    I would like some information on shooting football under the lights. The coach is kind enough to let me right on the field, but the lighting is horrible.

  • Tim

    For indoor sports, watch your white balance. When my sons used to play hockey, I would do a test WB shot on the ice surface during warmups.

    Another tip I have found is that you can sometimes get great pictures during warmups, where you can linger on the field a little, such as this pitcher warming up.

  • Todd

    Stay at 30 yrd line and work to the goal line. Look at the lights on the field and see where your bright spots are and dark. High school you need to wait for the players to come at you. It comes down to lens 2.8… 4 I use a 24-105 L lens on a 60d the wide lens let’s more light in. I shoot at 4. / 500 /auto iso which goes straight to 3200 or 6400 iso. Then i smooth out the pixels in light room. O yea shoot raw!

  • Carey Lee

    Watch the game for a while at first. This is what I do to get a feel of the motion.

  • Virgilio Rodriguez

    Stopping the Motion with a zoom lense

Some Older Comments

  • Jamie Cubeta May 19, 2013 02:01 am

    Searching sports photographers around the globe to join our affiliate commission based program.

  • Kenton November 27, 2012 04:15 am

    Hi Debbie,

    I don't find the glass to be too much of a problem unless it has a lot of marks on it. Generally you're focusing far enough out that the stuff on the glass won't be noticeable. The worst I've seen is that it appears as patches of lighter areas in the picture and in that case I move a little to avoid the worst spots.

  • Debbie November 20, 2012 06:58 am

    Thanks Kenton for the questions about shooting ice hockey. And thank you Rick for the tips! I was unsure about shooting through the glass as I figured there would be too much glare/reflection, so instead I try to position myself at one of the holes, but it's very limiting. I'm wondering just how close should the lens be to the glass? Thanks for the help!

  • Rick Berk November 9, 2012 03:09 pm

    Hi Sandy- it's been a long time since I shot volleyball. So long in fact that my last volleyball shots were on film! That said- I assume you mean you were shooting from the opposite side of the net, which was also my position of choice. What I used to do was pre-focus on a player at the net before the action started, and then simply wait for the action to be at the net. The players should end up at the same general distance from the camera, meaning focusing should be minimal at that point. The net will always drive you crazy. Another trick is to use a focus point that hits the players below the net, at their waist or legs. It takes some practice and getting used to but is an effective way for avoiding the hassles the net causes with autofocus.

  • Sandy Warner November 9, 2012 08:50 am

    Great article thankyou. Do you have any advice for shooting volleyball?
    I try to capture net shots where the player is behind, but find the camera often focuses on the net
    leaving the player blurred.

  • Rick Berk November 8, 2012 10:38 am

    I agree with you there. In those cases, I meter the critical areas- in front of the nets, at the point, the circles, etc. Hopefully their all somewhat close in exposure, and I just wait for shots in those areas. I find most arenas get darker in the corners, so I avoid those. Best you can do is get the critical areas and be patient.

  • Kenton November 7, 2012 04:32 pm

    Thanks Rick. In my experience lighting in amateur arenas is anything but consistent. Very often it is darker at the ends than the middle and sometimes even across the ice surface. I'll have to look at a wider-angle too maybe and see what I get with that.

  • Rick Berk November 7, 2012 03:46 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone. @Kenton, hockey is relatively easy, once you get past the lack of light. The lighting stays the same, so once you get your exposure, it's just a matter of catching the action, which works the same as any other sport. As for your lens question- yes, the shorter faster lenses will do well for you- provided you have the patience to let the action come to you. In my past as a pro sports photographer, I shot the NHL using a 70-200 f/2.8 and a 35mm f.2 up close to the glass. If that was not possible- dependent on the arena- I shot from up high over the glass with a 400mm f/2.8. The cages are problematic but the closer the kids get to you the better their faces should look behind the cage.

  • Kenton November 6, 2012 10:42 am

    I was hoping you'd cover hockey. While getting high-quality shots outdoors isn't easy, it is relatively simple compared to indoor shots, often with poor lighting, and usually shooting through glass. I've been doing it for a few years and still struggle (partly due to my D80's marginal quality high-iso). I'm getting to know the various rinks and which ones have the best lighting (some are impossible). I've also started shooting with shorter lenses. Since I have a crop sensor, I find that my 50/1.8 works really well and I'm going to try an 85/1.8 this season. While a 300 works well (if you have the light or ISO) it often gets you too close. Kids are all wearing cages on their helmets so you can't get very good face shots, so in my experience a shorter fast lens gets you better, and sharper, overall action shots.
    Anything I'm missing, or do others have any experience with this?

  • raghavendra November 6, 2012 01:14 am

    as there were cultural's in my college,
    my fav is basket ball
    so here are the pictures

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/02/basket-ball-game-action-photography.html

  • Jai Catalano November 6, 2012 01:09 am

    Nice work Rick. I love the fact that you can see the emotion in these kids faces. It's intense and you captured it.

    Lovely.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-45/

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