Sports Photography: An Introduction

Sports Photography: An Introduction


Sports-PhotographyThe following is a reader submitted tutorial from Jamie De Pould who is sharing with us what he’s been learning about Sports Photography.

An Introduction to Sports Photography

Sports shooting can be one of the most daunting types of photography, even to the advanced shooter. The slightest mistake can ruin a shot. Having said that, it’s also important to remember that with sports, you get a lot of chances to get a shot with great impact. There’s a built-in drama unlike any other subject I’ve come across.

A little bit about myself, before I get too far into it: I am a student in the U.S. and Chief Photographer for The Chimes, Capital University’s student newspaper, where I manage a staff of three photographers (including me). I also do some freelancing for the local Columbus papers.

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Sports Photography Gear, lighting and settings

One of the biggest barriers to entry is equipment. I’ll be very direct here: it is extremely difficult to take good sports photos without an SLR and long lenses. It also helps if those long lenses are fast. Before long, you’re looking at a pretty large investment.

I usually shoot with two bodies: a Nikon D50 and a Nikon D200. Lens choice depends on what exactly I’m shooting, but my three main “weapons” are the Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR, 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and 50mm f/1.8. Generally, the 70-300 goes on the D200 for main action and the D50 gets the 18-70 or 50 for time outs and less active shots-free throws are a good example.

There are no hard and fast rules, but if you don’t have a lens with at least 200mm of reach, you’ll probably be hurting.

There are two main divisions when it comes to sports: good lighting and bad lighting. Examples of sports with good lighting are (daytime) baseball, auto racing, tennis, (American) football and soccer (AKA futbol). Examples of sports with bad lighting are ice hockey, basketball, indoor volleyball and anything at night; artificial light just isn’t as good as our trusty old sun.

Before I start talking about lenses and aperture, I’d like to stress that fast shutter speeds are crucial to getting clear action shots. Experimenting with slower shutter speeds is fine, but when you aren’t experimenting, keep it over 1/250s.

Sports-Photography-2When you have good light, it’s much easier to use a consumer-grade lens and get good results. Stopping down to somewhere in the f/8-11 neighborhood gives you nice sharp images with minimal sensor noise; you can comfortably use shutter speeds around 1/500s and sensitivity in the 200 range. This is usually quick enough to freeze all but the fastest action.

Bad lighting complicates matters because you’ll to bump the ISO, which introduces grain (as you can see in the attached basketball picture). This is where having a fast lens really helps, shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 will give you a lot more leeway as far as shutter speed and ISO, as well as decreasing the amount of post-processing work that you end up doing.

Another thing to consider is using your camera’s “continuous drive” facility. It means that you don’t have to be absolutely precise in your timing, which is good when things are moving quickly. This is also important when you’re making a decision about shooting RAW or JPEG: the camera can fit more JPEG frames in the image buffer than RAW. Generally, 3 images (like my D50) aren’t enough. There’s still one missed shot of a basketball player hanging on the rim that sticks out in my mind.

Personally, I don’t shoot with a monopod because I have VR, but it’s something relatively inexpensive that will make sure you don’t miss any shots to camera shake.

Focus, focus, focus

Auto-focus is a gift from the heavens. There are a few basic AF settings that can yield dramatic improvements. This is where being familiar with your camera and manual come in handy. Most cameras have three AF modes: AF-A, AF-S (not to be confused with Nikon AF-S lenses) and AF-C. The one I use for sports is AF-C (for continuous). That means that the lens will always be adjusting focus, keeping moving objects sharp.

The other focus setting to deal with is the focus area selection. My D200 has an absurd number of focus points-okay, so it’s only 11, which isn’t much compared to the new D3’s 51, but they’re both more than I’ll ever need-I usually use the “dynamic group” setting, put it in the middle, and lock the thumb pad so my nose doesn’t select a new area for me. If you’re using a camera with a more reasonable number of AF points, then just pick the middle one and leave it alone; I’ve missed more shots messing with it than I’ve gotten.

Don’t just shoot the action!

Sometimes the most dramatic photo is found after the big play. Simply shooting the play doesn’t necessarily give you an idea of how epic that 97-yard punt return really was. Watch out for players’ (and coaches’) reactions immediately after something big. The soccer picture here is a result of sticking with it past the end of a big play. I shot about 30 frames from a scoring corner kick; the guy jumping up in the air headed it in. I have pictures of him doing it, but they aren’t nearly as exciting. Athletes are people too, they show emotion, capture it!

Access is important

One of the other things to consider is how close you’ll be to the action. Because I’m a journalist, I usually get better access than the general public, which means that I can (generally) get better shots. That doesn’t mean, however, that sitting in the stands will ruin any chances you have of getting that magic frame. If you can get down on the floor, then go for it, but don’t sweat it if you can’t. I recently shot an American Le Mans Series motor race as a “civilian” and still got some great pictures (“Thunder Valley” here).

Sitting in the stands sometimes means that you aren’t sitting in the stands at all. Motor races generally permit spectators to move pretty freely around the venue, so walk around, get up against the fence, down in the pit, wherever. Look and see where the guys in photo vests are shooting and get as close to them as you can. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at what you get (see the photo of McNish and Franchitti).

If you are sitting in the stands, spend the few extra bucks and go for the good seats, I recently sat front row, right field at a Cleveland Indians game and got some pretty darn good shots with my CamPod (which I won here at DPS, thanks) on the rail.

A caveat, however, is that some venues have an aversion to fans with big cameras. I’ve been hearing a lot about the so-called “six inch rule,” where fans are not permitted to bring in any camera with a lens longer than six inches. Some venues put restrictions on cameras with interchangeable lenses. Do your research beforehand! There’s nothing worse than getting there and having security inform you that you need to leave your (expensive) gear back in the car. Most professional sports teams and venues post the rules somewhere on their website.

Finally, don’t forget to have fun. The funny thing is that I don’t enjoy watching sports at all, but I love to shoot them. There’s just something about getting that picture of a player flying through the air, kicking an opponent in the head and scoring the point. I can’t help but grin whenever I see a picture like that, especially if it’s my own. Apparently, other people even like sports photos too, who knew?

Do you have a Sports Photography Tip to Share with Us? We’d love to hear it in comments below.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Unaiz May 27, 2013 06:33 pm

    Nice article..! thanks for sharing such a useful information, i am sure this will be very useful for all kind of photographers and photography lovers, Thanks again for sharing such valuable article.

  • Steve January 29, 2013 05:27 pm

    Nice article. I've been doing a lot of sports photography lately. I've had good success with daylight sports, but still am not satisfied with some of my indoor stuff. I'd love more resources on indoor flash shooting. You can see some of my stuff on my sports page.

  • Kelly December 6, 2011 05:53 am

    New to photography with a Nikon D70 I usually leave on "Auto". (Lens is Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor 18-70 mm.) Any suggestions for camera setting while shooting gymnastics? No flash allowed. Indoors, old gym at night with very dim lighting. I am allowed on the floor (only parent to own a great camera). Some shots will be action - vault, bars, etc. Some still, posed shots before and after event when flash is allowed. Any help is greatly appreciated. Headed to Nikon school in February - worth the cost?

  • Julie October 6, 2011 12:50 am

    this is a really good article! I've tried to find other ones that give good informaion but they're rare :)
    I shoot for my school and since it's fall sports like football and field hockey, they're all outside which is good because I don't have to worry about low lighting!
    I post my best photos up on title="my Flickr" if any of you want to check them out.

  • Courtney September 26, 2011 10:40 pm

    Bad lighting complicates matters because you’ll to bump the ISO, which introduces grain (as you can see in the attached basketball picture). This is where having a fast lens really helps, shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 will give you a lot more leeway as far as shutter speed and ISO, as well as decreasing the amount of post-processing work that you end up doing.I WOULD LIKE TO POST A VIEW ABOUT THIS PARAGRAPH,THANKS TO D-SLR CAMERAS THE MOST UP TO DATE ADVANCE CAMERAS HAVE A FEATURE CALLED (ISO SPEED NOISE REDUCTION) WITCH WORKS GREAT ON THE CANON LINE,YOU CAN BUMP ISO UP TO 1600 AND MORE AND STILL GET GREAT USEABLE PRINTS,NOT LIKE BACK IN THE DAYS WITH TRADITIONAL FLIMS WERE YOU SUFFER WITH GRAINS.

  • Digital Photography Fan January 8, 2011 09:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing some really great tips!!

  • Nancy Waller January 6, 2011 06:51 pm

    You are right about outside light compared to indoor. I get great shots of my sons with football and lacrosse. The most challenging is the indoor for basketball and volley ball for my daugter. Gym lights especially in the middle schools/junoir high are terrible! Making it extremely difficult to take those great action photos. Thanks for the info it should help

  • Stacy December 1, 2010 11:41 am

    I take photos of indoor TaeKwon-Do students who are constantly moving, jumping, kicking, punching and breaking boards. I need a very fast lens and I am so confused as what to buy and what settings to put my camera on. I have a Nikon D5000. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  • I Am Mow October 26, 2010 03:41 am

    Hi, just want to say i learn a lot of ideas here about the importance Shutter speed in photography. It is really enlightening in my part to know the things which are really necessary in taking picture particularly when it comes to sports photography. Thanks for sharing this informative post.

  • Adam Moore August 30, 2010 03:15 am

    we love autoracing and we always watch indy car races both home and abroad'~`

  • Scott Wells August 1, 2010 09:51 am

    This is an excellent introduction to sports photography with high quality sample shots. I shoot with a similar camera the D200 and primarily with a 80-200mm 2.8 lens. As stated in the blog having the right lens is vitally important, getting access to the athletic area and a clear focus. Most recently I've been shooting on aperture priority set to 2.8 and letting the shutter speed adjust accordingly. Additional tips and ideas on sports photography can be found at http::/

    Scott Wells

  • Scott Wells July 27, 2010 01:55 pm

    Great tips, sports photography is definitely the most challenging and the most rewarding. Check out for additional tips and ideas.


  • Keith July 25, 2010 08:58 am

    Good tip on shooting the whole event. I usually get so focused on getting the action I forget to tell the whole story.

  • Michael June 19, 2010 04:39 am

    Great blog, I'm bookmarking!

  • Jake May 4, 2010 04:45 am

    I was at a Vball tourney this last weekend (happenned to be the under-18 girls league) and was taking some pictures and this official guy walked up to me and said that the parents were nervous that I was a child predator. What the hell is wrong with this country.

  • Christie February 5, 2010 03:04 am

    Thank you so much i needed to recognize some more information about sports photography for my tech. Project and this helped alot!

  • rushh December 20, 2009 04:17 am

    awesome tips... nicely presented.. thanks for the tips.. i really love sports photography....

  • Michael Hickey November 20, 2009 11:59 am

    Is there a better job in the world than shooting sports? I don't think so!

  • Chris October 29, 2009 08:03 pm

    I am just getting into photography, and have a strong interest in sports photography. I haven't purchased my equiptment yet and have been doing research for the last 4 months..and I'm not really any closer. I am not just looking at a camera but more into a system (Nikon vs. Canon vs ...). I realize this is such an elementary question, however I am not willing to invest that kind of money and find that I may be limited with features, lenses, accessories etc. Any suggestions for someone just getting started would be greatly appreciated.

  • Sports Photography Blog October 6, 2009 05:51 am

    Wouw, amazing post, really everything is in here. good work and congrats! Working on a sports photography blog myself but this is amazing! for the people interested, checkout my portfolio blog on

  • Scott Gardiner June 22, 2009 09:13 pm

    Great post. If you are into sports photographery, invest in the 70-200 f2.8 lense before investing in a longer lense. I have 50 -500mm lense that is f4-6.3. It is great for getting in close, but you really need a fast shutter for freezing the action as mentioned. My next investment will be a 70-200 f2.8, the 300 f2.8 is simply too expensive. A few images i have taken can be seen here .

  • David Taubman June 10, 2009 10:38 pm

    Great information. Thanks for taking the time to post it up for people like myself to find. I've recently gotten into surf photography and some of the tips in here (although discovered on my own through trial and error) are absolutely essential.

    You also made me think about different approaches to getting the shot. Great job!

  • Randall May 7, 2009 01:47 pm

    Don't let your lack of big or fast lenses get in your way of taking great sports photos (particularly shots outdoors in good light). My motto is that it's better to get some photo with what you've got than get no photo at all. Check out what I mean:

  • Thomas Morris May 2, 2009 08:09 am

    I recently have become really interested in photography, especially sports photography. I went to see my football (soccer if your an American) team play a few times in the last few weeks and i have experienced this rule about large cameras. The first game i went to was fine, but i went to another and about 5 minutes before the final whistle i was asked to put my camera away. Does anyone know whether this was because of copyright law?

  • Vance March 11, 2009 06:58 pm

    Thanks for the great article.
    Looking for Nikon D50 recommended settings and recommended lens for shooting ice hockey.

  • mark nawrocki February 17, 2009 10:27 am

    what about using an expodisc to custom white balance, and correct for the color cast indoor lighting often causes?

  • sandy January 28, 2009 08:40 am

    looking for a great sports photography school near Tampa , Fl-----any suggestions, sites??? Prefer a degree program. Thanks

  • Imacoolcat January 21, 2009 02:21 am

    it really helped on a project i was assigneed. THANX!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Shaun January 20, 2009 09:09 pm

    Thanks for the great info. I am at college doing Photography, and i am doing a photo essay on football(soccer) and this has helped me understand more how to take the pictures.

  • Thom Payne January 9, 2009 08:01 am

    Hmmm... another tip for beginners with no existing investment in glass -- consider Pentax. A K10D can be had used, is 10.2 MP and has shake reduction in the camera BODY, so you can shoot with older lenses (which often have equal or better glass) instead of having to buy the SR over and over again as with Canon and Nikon. Want more camera? Get a K20D; 15MP and higher ISO. Plus, Pentax DSLRs accept (with adapters) EVERY Pentax lens ever made -- the same can't be said for the others.

  • Cole December 13, 2008 01:33 am

    This is very helpful to me I shoot high school football games for my school and I get issued a Nikon D300 with a 19-300mm lens which is amazing the zoom range. I can't wait for next season.

  • joe October 30, 2008 06:54 am

    hi i am a student and i have my project on sports photography, and i was wondering what is the average income of a sports photographer

  • Deshaun July 9, 2008 11:45 am

    Hi, I am new to photography and honestly haven't had any experience in it, but what should I do to get a good start on sports photography

  • gary July 2, 2008 07:36 am

    for my last reply please notify me via e-mail i did not check the box below before i submitted it. thanks

  • gary July 2, 2008 07:20 am

    Hi I'm very interested in sports photography, but im not a photographter. where and what is good starting place for me to get some really good training.Im currently living in miami.

  • Linda June 26, 2008 09:35 am

    Shooting sports is new to me and I just wanted to get some good tips. I have read the above and that is awesome.

    I start this fall shooting soccer and don't know much about the sport. Any suggestions on how to learn where to be? Do I just follow the ball?

  • Kyle June 19, 2008 12:06 pm

    Thanks so much for the great information. I'm sure it will help a lot of newcomers get REeeeeeALLY interested in Sports Action!

    I use most of these tips with my youth sports action photography!

    Kyle L.

  • Glenn February 15, 2008 07:31 pm

    What you said about going to a sports event and finding out you can't use your camera sort of happened to me. I was sitting on the middle tier of Telstra Dome (an AFL stadium here, but at the time I was watching a football/soccer match) and I'd been taking photos with my Canon EOS 400D for the first half and just as I was putting it away at the end of that first half, a security guard came up to me and told me to put it away and not bring it out again. I was using a 75-300mm lens and because it's a DSLR I was using the viewfinder, so that probably made him think I was a professional in the stands or something, even though I'm only 16!

  • Glenn February 15, 2008 07:29 pm

    What you said about going to a sports event and finding out you can't use your camera sort of happened to me. I was sitting on the middle tier of Telstra Dome (an AFL stadium here, but at the time I was watching a football/soccer match) and I'd been taking photos`

  • Jeff M February 12, 2008 06:16 am

    The eternal quest.
    I started shooting indoor volleyball a few years ago and discovered the need-for-speed ever since.
    It began with a f3.5 80-200 VR lens and the convenience of shooting from the stands - but could not stop the ball in flight.
    It has evolved into a f1.4 50mm lens and sitting on the floor right under the net judge to freeze the action!
    ...dibs on that spot next match!
    You can see some of the pics at

  • Paul LeGrand February 1, 2008 02:06 am

    Every once in a while there are some good deals to be had on used big glass. The non-VR versions of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 and other similar models are great lenses for night games and wildlife, where shooting at 1/30 handheld with an 80-200 VR lens won't cut it. Many photojournalists have dumped their old ones for the VR versions.

    I've been blessed with the opportunity make my living with a camera, and though it is not my most frequently used lens, and it's a pain in the butt to carry around, there are times when nothing else will take the place of a big, fast telephoto. Make sure to set aside some money for a carbon fiber monopod. These suckers are HEAVY.

  • K.Kay November 12, 2007 07:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience in action photography. My attempts, so far, are no where close to the photos you have shown here.

  • odark30 October 1, 2007 04:37 pm

    Cool! I thought a 4.5 lens was a bit slow for sports but these pics are great!

  • Alex October 1, 2007 03:51 am

    Very well put together site. For indoor sports, strobes are a must in most if not all poorly lit high school venues.

  • Gerry September 29, 2007 12:04 am

    One of the fastest indoor and most difficult sports to shoot is badminton. Lighting is generally poor, racquet and shuttle speeds can hit over 100 miles/hr and you are not allowed to use a flash. This sport requires F2.8 or better and ISO of 400 or over.
    I use a Nikon D80 shooting in jpg in manual mode with a 1.8 50mm lens and set it to manual focus. I've lost too many good shoots in AF that now I pick a spot to which I adjust my focus and use rapid shots. White Balance is the only adjustment I need to play with depending on the facility.

  • red September 27, 2007 07:57 am

    Good article. I do quite a bit of Soccer and do not have image stabilazation with my lens. When I am using over a 200mm I generally pump up the ISO to give me a faster shutter speed to correct for "hand wabble". It gives me a little more grain but better focus

  • Jamie September 26, 2007 02:23 am

    If you're shooting indoors, absolutely get the 80-200, the larger aperture is essential, just make sure you get a monopod too.

  • Adam Stevens September 26, 2007 01:34 am

    I had asked as I am trying to pick between the 70-300vr and the 80-200 2.8. I like the DOF controll in the 2.8 but there is a sizeable price diff.

  • Elmo September 26, 2007 12:47 am

    Jamie nasked if a 70-200 might be better in my case I prefer it as mine is a 2.8. I can add an extender to get longer lengths if needed. The reason I prefer the 2.8 is I shoot sports wide open. I do this for two reasons. First is it allows me the fastest shutter speed but more important it allows me to keep the usually cluttered background out of focus, forcing the viewer to the action.

  • Kaufee September 26, 2007 12:23 am

    25 yrs ago I was a newspaper photographer, shot only B&W film. For indoor sports I "pushed" my film. Never use flash where it could distract players. Alway position yourself in-front of your "home" team. An excellent rule to shoot "action". I used a 35mm lens for basketball, 50mm for volleyball and 70-200 for football.I'm not a sports fan, this allowed me to concentrate on the job. Am now getting back into photography and learn much from this sight.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Jamie September 25, 2007 10:47 pm

    I don't shoot jpeg, I shoot raw.

  • Jesper September 25, 2007 08:56 pm

    Awesome article. Personally I'm only shooting family and friends doing sports, but still some good advice in there. Thanks again!

  • NikonnooB September 25, 2007 02:47 pm

    I too, don't really enjoy watching sports, but your article provided great inspiraton to go shoot them. I'll bet that'll add a whole level of enjoyment for me... It's also great to know that I can get some good shots with my f/3.5 and f/4.5 VR lenses. I know they're not fast primes, but they're what I have.

    One question - since you mentioned you shoot JPEG for the AF-C speed, so do you simply set your white balance at fluorescent? Or do you use a filter?

    Also, love the input about seeking shots before, after, and outside the central action. That's just a really helpful idea. Thanks for an inspiring article.

  • isiahjorge September 25, 2007 01:33 pm

    Great article! Makes me wanna pick up and just get the DSLR that I've been putting off since last month. It's actually inspiring me to take on photography already!

  • PNG September 25, 2007 11:08 am

    I always keep on at least 1/500.

  • William September 25, 2007 10:50 am

    I'm new to DSLR and this tips really gives me important information. I'm using an entry-level Nikon D40 and i love how it works so far. Your tips can help a lot. thanks.

  • Jamie September 25, 2007 09:09 am

    I did mention that using fast lenses indoors makes things a lot easier, it was in the next paragraph.

    As far as the 70-300 v. 80-200 . . . it depends on what you're shooting. I love VR, but the smaller aperture just kills me indoors. VR doesn't replace a fast lens, it just reduces/eliminates the need for a monopod.

  • Gabi September 25, 2007 08:35 am

    Great article! Well written, with some fantastic tips that I'll have to try. Nice to find an Indians fan too.

  • Mike September 25, 2007 08:24 am

    Great article, but as someone who has shot a fair amount of hockey games, I find the lighting quite good in these arena's. You spend the time to get the right white balance and you're off to the races. It's consistent, bright and I never have to use flash.

  • sime September 25, 2007 05:38 am

    Great article, Jamie... Thanks! I'm about to try shoot some sports with my longer lens (400mm) and this has provided some great tips...

  • Klaidas September 25, 2007 03:51 am

    Some interesting tips about lenses, thanks.

  • Jeff September 25, 2007 03:16 am

    good article.. thanks for the write up! I love reader submitted stuff

  • Phil September 25, 2007 02:54 am

    Fraser, that link should be:

    You lost an 's'.

  • James September 25, 2007 02:23 am

    Any thoughts on the use of a flash with sports? I wouldn't be sure if if was bad practice in certain situations.

  • Adam Stevens September 25, 2007 01:53 am

    Great artical! Just curious if you think the 70-300 would be a better lenz than the 80-200 2.8? The 2.8 has dropped in price to the point where they are close (ish) in cost. the 300 is a little longer but not as fast as the 200. Or does the VR make the f stop differance a non issue? Also, any thoughts on overall image quality between the two?

    Thanks! Adam

  • Tobias Varland September 25, 2007 01:51 am

    I think this article isn't bad, but I don't think it's enough. I've been working on photographing volleyball over the last few years (at both the high school and college levels). The article talks about volleyball being a poor light sport, and that's definitely true. What the article doesn't mention, though, it the extreme benefit that can be gained by shooting these sports with a very fast prime lens, like Canon's 85mm F/1.2L. Such lenses allow for a much lower ISO than even a F/2.8.

  • Chris Osborne September 25, 2007 01:46 am

    As much as I'd rather have the sun and the light that it gives, I still liked shooting indoor volleyball over a 7 pm soccer game where the lighting went from great to relying on the field lights. Most of the time I'll take consistent lighting over a relatively small period of great followed by poor lighting.

  • Mjuboy September 25, 2007 01:23 am

    I'm quite like you too, I dont enjoy watching the game much but enjoy shooting it more.

  • Fraser September 25, 2007 12:56 am

    Great article.

    One thing though, whilst i agree a good zoom lens is probably the most important investment a sports shooter can make, vip/media access to sporting events allows you to use cheaper shorter lens and still get better pictures than most spectators...

    for anyone serious about sports photography check out

  • AC September 25, 2007 12:33 am

    Awesome - I was looking for something like this! Great tips. Thanks a lot :)