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 , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

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, yet luckily there are a variety of 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 either way it’s important to know what settings are best for capturing the decisive moment. Here we try and put you through the paces 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’ve all see the photographers at professional games setting up with enormous ten-pound lenses on monopods, but most of us aren’t willing to either 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 generally 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, football, or field hockey. The lens speed, or aperture, really doesn’t matter 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. A DSLR with telephoto lens will always yield the best absolute image quality, but a $400 point and shoot with a long zoom can oftentimes get closer to the action while still yielding acceptably sharp and detailed results. The Nikon P510, for example, zooms out to an incredible 1000mm at the long end. To achieve such a long focal length with a conventional DSLR, you’re looking at spending anywhere from $2000 to $14,000! This particular model isn't well-suited to sports, but offerings from Sony like the HX200v or Canon's SX40 HS are both stellar performers.

If, on the other hand, you’ll be shooting any indoor sports you really should be looking to invest in a DSLR. DSLRs, as well as many mirrorless cameras, have much better image quality in low light due to their larger sensors, making them a necessity for indoor action. Most cameras can be purchased in two-lens kits, which typically include a standard 18-55mm lens as well as a longer, 55-200 or even 300mm lens. The longer the better in this case, but note that such bundles provide you with relatively slow, f3.5-f5.6 lenses. The smaller the number the more light reaches the camera’s sensor (with f2.8 and below generally considered “fast”) so f5.6 usually isn’t fast enough for most indoor situations. Depending on how close you can get to your subject, you should probably consider either a 50mm f1.8 or a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. The 50mm should probably be in your camera bag regardless as an all-around low light and portraiture lens, but that fast f1.8 aperture will help you freeze the action in even the darkest gymnasiums (as long as you can get close). There's also the 85mm f1.8, which is more expensive but gives you a bit more working room. If you’re willing to spend more and need the extra reach, a 70-200mm f2.8 lens is a great, if heavy, choice that can still be gotten from third party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron for under $1000. It won’t do as well as the 50mm, but that extra range can be a boon for sports like hockey or gymnastics where the action may be pretty far away.

Whether you decide on an extended zoom camera or a DSLR with telephoto lens, there are a couple of important features to look for. Firstly, make sure you’re getting a camera with a decent burst mode. All recent DSLRs now shoot at least 4 fps, but purchasing something with 5 or even more will only increase the odds of you getting the shot. Most of the new Sony cameras, from the point and shoots to the Alpha series, shoot 10 or even 12 fps with minimal lag in between bursts. These are a great place to start for those who want fast on a budget. It’s also a good idea to purchase a camera with manual modes. All now come with a dedicated sports mode, but once you get the hang of shooting you’ll probably want to control things like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO yourself. Finally, don’t skimp when buying a memory card; high-speed class 10 cards will write files and be ready for the next burst faster than slower cards. You don’t want to miss the moment because the camera was still catching up to your trigger finger.

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. You’re best off experimenting with these to see what you like before moving to Shutter Priority and setting one yourself. 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.

Oftentimes 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 and 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. You can usually walk right out onto the field as long as you’re wary of dangerous or intrusive spots (like behind the goal at a lacrosse game). 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 only learn 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. 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.

How do I sort through all these 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 orcomplete 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.

In summary...

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, I’d be happy to help you out in the comments section below.


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