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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

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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!

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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).

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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

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+.

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