Shooting Sports: What You Need to Know

If shooting your son or daughter's game has always resulted in lackluster results, this guide is for you. From the camera purchase to the digital workflow, we explain how to get better sports photos whether inside or out.
By Digital Admin, Last updated on: 11/19/2014

Does your kid play basketball and you can’t seem to get a single shot in focus? Is the pool area at your daughter’s swim meet simply too dark and flash doesn’t seem to work? Or perhaps your son plays soccer and spends most of his time at the far end of the field, making your point and shoot useless? These are all constant issues of the casual sports photographer—and there are a few fixes that don’t break the bank. Purchasing expensive and enormous professional gear will certainly get you a better start than a little point-and-shoot, but knowing what settings are best can make dramatic improvements as well. Here's what you need to know about shooting sports from start to finish, from making a camera purchase to sorting through hundreds of shots after the game, to demystify the exciting world of sports photography.

Which camera is right for you?

The first and most important decision in all of this is which camera will best suit your needs and at what price. We all see the photographers at professional games setting up with enormous ten-pound lenses on monopods, but most of us aren’t willing to invest thousands of dollars in photography equipment, or carry such behemoths around. Such setups are often overkill for many of your kids’ sports games and sometimes won’t get you as close to the action as many current extended zoom cameras will.

Put aside your gear envy for a moment and determine what sports you’ll be shooting. Indoor sports like hockey, basketball, or swimming present an entirely different set of challenges from outdoor games in good light like soccer, baseball, or field hockey. The lens speed, or aperture, really doesn’t matter as much when shooting in good light because you’ll always be able to shoot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. The cost of entry for these sports, then, is much lower because the gear you shoot with doesn’t matter as much.

If you are shooting primarily outdoor, daytime sports, the primary things to look for are zoom and speed. Super zoom cameras make good options for someone that's simply looking to get better photos of their kids' games. Look for a big zoom range paired with a fast burst speed. The Fujifilm S1, for example, has a 50x optical zoom with a 10 fps burst speed and processes images quite fast as well. For the most up-to-date options, check out our list of the best cameras for shooting sports or the best super zoom cameras.

Shooting indoor sports, or outdoor games played under the lights, is a bit more challenging, so it requires a bit better equipment. When looking for a camera for indoor sports, you'll need to consider zoom and burst speed, but the lens is just as important. A lens with a low f-number, like f1.8, will let in more light and is a better option for sports like swimming and basketball. If you see two numbers, like f3.5-6.8, the second number indicates how much light can be let in when fully zoomed. Since you'll need a good zoom for sports, you'll want that f-number to be low across the board. The Sony RX10 has a 10 fps burst with an f2.8 aperture even at full zoom. Zoom is an 8.6x, or the equivalent of adding a 200mm lens to a DSLR. While that's not as big as the 50x super zooms, the RX10 has a much larger sensor, so you can crop or use some of the digital zoom and still get decent image quality. The Olympus Stylus 1 is also a good option for indoor sports—it has an f2.8 lens even at the end of the 10.7x zoom. The sensor is a bit smaller than the RX10's, and the burst speed is slightly less at 7 fps. The other option is to invest in a DSLR with a good lens, which will run a bit more when you factor in the better lens, but also uses a bigger sensor (which means more resolution and even better low light photos).

Of course, if you're serious about sports photography or are willing to invest a bit more for better image quality, it's time to start considering a DSLR. Be sure to factor in the cost of an additional lens—kit lenses typically don't offer enough zoom. You'll want a 300mm telephoto lens for outdoor sports. If you're shooting indoors, you can get away with a bit smaller zoom, but remember you'll want a lens with a lower f-number (f2.8 or lower), which will cost a bit more. Our current favorite DSLR for sports is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II with an exceptional 10 fps burst speed. Some Sony DSLRs also reach this speed, but only in certain modes.

What settings are best?

For complete beginners, start with the sports mode and see what results you’re getting. Sports modes typically set the camera to burst, set the focus to continuous, and make sure the shutter speed is high enough to freeze the action.

But if you aren't getting the results you were looking for, or if you invested in a DSLR, it's a good idea to learn how to use manual modes. For sports, start with Shutter Priority mode, where you can choose the shutter speed. Typically 1/400 second is fast enough to freeze the action, but in time you’ll want to experiment with dragging the shutter and panning with your subject, or going faster to really freeze splashing water or shooting sports. When you make the switch to Shutter Priority, remember to make sure your focus is set to continuous rather than single and that you have the camera set to the highest burst setting that doesn’t sacrifice image quality. In truly uniform lighting, like under a bright sun on a clear day, fully manual mode is the best choice because it avoids the camera’s metering being fooled by bright white uniforms or a dark background.

Often, you can get away with shooting at your lowest ISO for outdoor sports, but when the light levels get low things begin to get difficult. Your primary priority is to keep the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action. Typically you won’t want to shoot above ISO 400 or 800 on a compact, but the most recent DSLRs can shoot reasonably well straight to ISO 3200. Don’t be afraid to crank that ISO up if you need to; grainy results are always preferable to blurry ones. This is also when that 50mm or 70-200mm lens comes in handy. While most would be stuck at a lethargic f5.6 and have to compensate by boosting ISO way up to ISO 6400, you could be shooting at f2.8 or brighter at ISO 1600. Finally, remember to set your white balance manually when shooting inside. Halogen or fluorescent lights often wreak havoc with your camera’s automatic white balance, yielding photos of your kid’s conquests that look too blue or green.

Now that I have the settings down, what and how do I actually shoot?

Typically, it’s a good idea to place yourself at one end of the field, or in any spot that people will be racing toward the camera. You want to capture their expressions, not the back of their heads. Depending on what you are shooting, you may be allowed to stand close to the field.

Every sport has its own cadence, and it will take some time to get used to following the action and timing your bursts. Your autofocus can be tripped up by players crossing its path and high-contrast subjects in the background, so pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, you’ll learn the most through trial and error, and after the tenth time missing a header in soccer or a Hail Mary in football, you’ll begin to predict where players will be and what makes for great photographs. Don’t be afraid to overshoot, either. The beauty of digital is that it’s free; whether you’re a new shooter or a seasoned pro, the vast majority of your results will end up trashed. It’s part of the process and a necessary result of using your camera’s burst mode.

As for composition, try and place players at one side of the frame with breathing space in the direction they’re going. This can be hard to do in the heat of the moment, but know that there’s always time for cropping in post later on. Be careful not to cut off an essential part of the action—if you're shooting a sport with a ball, try to get the ball in the frame. Long telephoto lenses also yield a wonderfully shallow depth of field that makes it easy to isolate your subject. Use this to your advantage to create dramatic action portraits that capture moments without distracting background elements.

Finally, remember that the action doesn’t always happen while the clock is ticking. Players’ exuberant expressions following a game-winning goal, the spectators’ reactions to a breakaway play, or the bench’s mood in defeat can all make for fantastic photographs that reflect the spirit of the sport.

Sorting through all the files

Now that you’ve gotten home and loaded the photos onto your computer, it’s important to have a piece of software that you’re comfortable using. All digital cameras come with proprietary software, but it’s oftentimes slow or poorly designed. Mac users are probably already familiar with iPhoto, which is a good choice, or both operating systems can run Google’s free photo viewer and editor Picasa. Picasa is nice because it, just like Adobe’s Bridge, imports photos where they currently rest on your hard drive, therefore mimicking your file structure and not moving things around. There are numerous other programs out there to choose from, though, so use what suits you best.

After a two-hour game you’ve probably got many hundreds of images, most of which are either duplicates or complete throw-aways from a burst sequence. Rather than deleting as you go, star or highlight the ones you really like from each set. This makes it easy to separate the good from the bad, which you can then just delete afterward. You don’t need every second of every game, remember, so keep the ones that show interesting facial expressions and critical moments. Chances are that if the ball isn’t in the frame then the photo isn’t worth keeping. Depending on the ISO you used and the camera you purchased, you’ll also want to crop in on the action a bit for optimum composition.

Shooting sports is a constant learning process, and each new sport brings with it a unique set of challenges. While shooting sports can oftentimes be frustrating, with the right gear for the job and a lot of practice, you’ll begin to get results that other parents will be envious of. It’s incredibly rewarding when you do capture the perfect action-packed moment, and that gratification makes the hours of shooting and sorting worth it. And of course, if you have any questions on techniques or what camera to purchase, we're happy to help you out in the comments section below.

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