How To Use Sports Mode

How To Use Sports Mode


Copyright Salim Fadhley Most DSLRs and even half of the point and shoot crowd come with a variety of prefabricated scene modes to help novice and intermediate (and sometimes pro) photographers.   The modes are created to instantly calibrate a number of camera settings to a specific situation.  Today I’ll be explaining what Sports Mode is on your camera dial and how best to use it.

What Is Sports Mode?

sports-icon-1First off, Sports Mode is the little running figure that looks like this. While exact settings vary from camera manufacturer to camera manufacturer, most of this description holds true no matter which camera you use.  Sports Mode is a quick setting to adapt the camera with these typical settings:

  • Increase ISO variably to higher setting
  • Reduce f/stop for a shallower depth of field
  • Increase shutter speed to help stop fast action
  • Increase frame advance to highest setting (measured in frames per second or fps)
  • Adjust auto focus mode to adaptive or artificial servo

Copyright genewolf

Copyright genewolf

Typically the ISO is set at 400 or above, but depending on lighting conditions and lens selection this can be slower.  Most cameras will set this number in a variable fashion so the user does not have to continue changing it.  Reducing the f/stop will help isolate the action in the scene.  Most of the time the action is a single person, a car, a horse against a backdrop and it’s best if that background has a blur to it to isolate the action.

Increasing the shutter speed will increase the chances of stopping the main action.  The setting, as with all settings, depends on the amount of available light and lens in use.  Most of the time the shutter is set to 1/200 or greater.  The frame advance is also increased to its highest setting, typically 3-6fps or more.  Continued activation of the shutter release will result in a series of shots to help capture just the right moment of action.

Copyright Keven Law

Copyright Keven Law

Lastly, the auto focus mode is changed to a predictive setting (named differently on different cameras).  This setting will often use a complex system to anticipate direction, speed and closeness of the main subject in order to calculate the precise focus at the time of shutter activation.  While not normally used in average shooting, this type of focus system can be very useful in high speed action.

All of these variables combine to take the guess work out of shooting sporting events.

How To Use Sports Mode

Now that you know how the settings function, let’s take a look at some examples of how to use Sports Mode.

Copyright Daita Saru

Copyright Daita Saru

First, Sports Mode works best with a long lens.  This is because the decreased depth of field will rendered a sharper contrast between your main subject and background as noted above.  The faster the lens (lower the f/stop number) the better separation you will gain from the background and the less light required for a sharp picture.  Sports Mode typically forces the camera to use the lowest f/stop possible.

Also you can drop the tripod.  While a monopod will help with a very large professional (read; heavy) lens, the increased shutter speed and ISO of Sports Mode will make hand holding the camera much easier.

Copyright Jim Sher

Copyright Jim Sher

Next, keep the action near the middle of the frame, this will help with focusing as most cameras have the majority of their sensors in a pattern around the middle.  While you will sometimes want the action outside of the center, it’s best if it is first brought into focus (assuming you’re using autofocus, throw this out if you’re going manual) in the center of the sensor.

Lastly, take that previous rule and throw it out the window.  Well, not completely.  While it’s easier to focus on the action in the middle of sensor, it’s even better to give the action some place to go.  Take a look at the plane picture at right.  Leaving extra space in front of the action will give a greater sense of movement and presence.  The extra space in front of the plane will draw eyes with the action.  While this particular image was not shot with Sports Mode (the photographer picked a specific shutter speed) it is used to demonstrate the concept of providing a direction to the action.

Sports Mode is an easy way to instantly change your camera into an action capturing machine.  It helps take the guess work out of high speed activities while increasing your odds of bringing home what that one brief moment felt like.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Jim Sher February 13, 2009 01:06 am

    Hi there,

    Thanks, for including my picture in your tips. It's always good to see our snaps being put to good use (and not only being "pretty things to look at").

    I appreciate the fact that you give good tips, but more so that you tell people to break the rules (like giving the subject of the photo somewhere to go).

    But sometimes, with these photos even more rules need to be broken. (like over exposing shots taken in the snow (so that the subject isn't under exposed). There's an example in the little "how to pan" instructions in the comments of that picture of the landing plane. However, it deals with the aperture and breaking the rules to get a better (read "more distinct") picture.

    Thanks again for including me in your tips on using sports mode.

    Jim "Blyzz" Sher

  • tjm February 8, 2009 12:19 am

    I have tried using the Moving function on my Pentax K100 D for Marching band functions and also basketball games with not sucess. I always use a 70-300 lens and no flash. I am concerned that it might be dristracting to the players. And other suggestions would be appreciated and it a flash is being use the setting suggestions also. I am hoping that by next year I may be able to pick up a bit of pocket change shooting basketball games and maybe for other sports. Thank you

  • john alabata February 6, 2009 07:28 pm

    good suggestions, i just some place to capture motion for now, thanks

  • cal February 6, 2009 09:30 am

    I only have a digital camera but should I only use sports mode outside? I tried using it indoors for people that were moving way too much but the pictures of course just came out dark.. but I didn't really want to use flash.

  • Steve White February 5, 2009 08:29 pm

    Thanks for the most informative article. I learned a lot and will definitely be using it more often now. :-)

  • ROBERT BOLTON February 5, 2009 09:06 am

    Great info thank you!

  • Vic Morphy February 4, 2009 06:31 am

    Well written and illustrated article. Cleared up a number of things for me. Thanks, Vic.

  • Peter Carey February 3, 2009 02:55 pm

    Danferno (smokin' name! ;) )
    Yes, for Nikon cameras, it is the c-af mode of focus, where it'll keep focus locked on the moving subject while the shutter release is half pressed.

  • MeiTeng February 3, 2009 02:36 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I will try using this mode.

  • Julieanne February 3, 2009 01:28 pm

    This was helpful, thank you! I think now I have to try this out.

  • Lukas February 3, 2009 12:17 pm

    Used it today morning to photograph bee :)

  • art February 3, 2009 12:59 am

    some tips are new and very usefull for me, thanks!

  • Danferno February 3, 2009 12:30 am

    Is the special autofocus the same as c-af? (Continuous autofocus)