Shooting sports is always fun to do, but it can also be frustrating if you keep ending up with blurry images. Although it’s easy to blame the limitations of your equipment, you need to think about how you’re using it as well.
If you learn how to use the right settings, you don’t necessarily need a professional camera to get professional shots. The truth is, a lot of consumer cameras nowadays are almost just as capable as the most expensive cameras out there.
Follow these nine simple tips to help you shoot like a pro sports photographer even with an entry-level camera:
01. Prepare your gear
Many consumer-level digital SLRs, mirrorless cameras, and bridge cameras (a cross between an SLRs and point-and-shoot cameras) have most of the features you’ll need for sports photography. They have improved focusing capabilities, high shutter speeds, and excellent ISO performance that can stop even the fastest athletes in their tracks (or at least make them look that way in your photos).
If you’re just starting out, there’s no need to buy expensive equipment like the ones you see at sports events… yet. As long as your camera can zoom in comfortably to frame far away athletes, has an ISO that reaches at least 800 (without too much noise), and is capable of shooting up to at least 1/500th, then it satisfies the basic requirements for sports photography.
If there’s any piece of equipment that you need to invest in, consider buying a good lens. A kit lens (the one that typically comes with your camera) is not fast and reliable enough to take decent action shots. Apart from the cheaper glass, its aperture usually doesn’t go wide enough to capture sports scenes as quickly.
What you need is a fast lens that has an aperture of at least f/2.8. Since it lets more light in, it takes photos quicker. The ability to let more light in also means that it can shoot movement effortlessly even in low-light situations.
Telephoto and super telephotos are the best lenses to use for most sports. They allow you to get visually close to your subjects without physically being in the field. To compensate for the amount of magnification, many of them feature optical stabilization to minimize shaking. Unfortunately, most of these high-tech lenses cost several thousand dollars, which might be too expensive for the majority of amateur photographers.
Thankfully, you can always find cheap alternatives to these expensive lenses. Some people look for old film camera lenses because apart from containing high-quality glass, many of them are also affordable (some even go for less than a hundred US dollars). Furthermore, you can buy modern zoom lenses with plastic bodies out there for only a few hundred dollars.
No matter which one you pick, however, make sure that has an aperture of at least f/2.8 and can reach at least 200mm. If you’re using a cheaper model that’s a bit heavy and doesn’t have optical stabilization, use a sturdy tripod and shoot at a higher shutter speed (1/500th or faster) to minimize shaking and avoid motion blur.
02. Choose the right settings
Getting the right exposure and focus are crucial in capturing action shots. Otherwise, you could end up with badly exposed or blurry images. Familiarize yourself with what your camera can do, so you can confidently take photos.
With your camera offering plenty of shooting options, deciding which mode to choose can be difficult. To make things easier, just remember these two simple tips: If you want to focus on freezing motion, choose speed priority. But if you’re more concerned about blurring the background, use aperture priority. Typically you’d want to combine crisp action shots with blurry backgrounds, but if you’re having a hard time, pick speed priority instead to make sure moving subjects don’t end up looking like smears of light across the frame.
ISO is another essential aspect to consider in sports photography. Although choosing a specific setting ultimately depends on the lighting conditions, using a high ISO, in general, enables you to shoot action quicker. Just be aware that the higher you go in the scale, the more noise you’ll get, so be careful not to set it too high. Additionally, the noise caused by high ISO differs from camera to camera, so take test shots with yours to figure out the optimal level to shoot fast action with minimal noise.
When shooting sports, especially outdoors, you need to use spot metering, which you can typically find in your viewfinder or screen. This setting allows your camera to measure the light only from your chosen focus point to ensure proper exposure. It is particularly helpful when photographing multiple subjects in tricky lighting conditions. It also helps avoid accidentally metering distracting light sources (such as the sun or flood lights) that could potentially leave your subjects either overexposed or underexposed.
Focusing can be tricky in sports photography since your subjects move around a lot. Learning the different focus modes is essential in ensuring your photos look sharp in any situation.
If you know exactly where the action is going to happen (such as a goal or a pitching mound), then zone focusing is the most reliable mode to use. To do this, manually pre-focus your lens to the precise spot where you expect the action to happen. Once your subjects are within that area, you’ll be confident that they’ll be in focus. Just remember to disable autofocus if you want to use zone focusing; otherwise, your lens will automatically re-adjust as soon as you finish setting your lens manually.
Meanwhile, when movement becomes too fast for manual focusing, the next best option is to use constant focus (also called focus tracking). This useful feature lets your camera lock into a moving subject and automatically adjusts the lens for you.
If blurring the background is not your priority, then choose a smaller aperture setting such as f/11 or smaller. This will keep everything in focus, although it will only work if your background is not too distracting. If it is, then select an aperture with a shallow DOF (such as f/2.8) to isolate the subject from the background.
03. Familiarize yourself with the sport you’re shooting
Now that you have all the essential equipment and have completed setting them up for sports and action photography, it’s time to get into your subject.
Each sport has its own jargon, rules, and even rituals and traditions that you need to understand to effectively photograph it. While some sports such as basketball and football are more or less easy to understand, others such as baseball, rugby, or cricket may seem too complicated to an untrained eye (depends where you’re from, of course). And if you have no idea what the players are doing, then there’s a good chance you're missing critical moments in the game.
Learn all the aspects of the sport you’re shooting to develop the instinct other photographers who are unfamiliar with it don’t have. You can also stick to sports you’re familiar with so that you know exactly what’s going on and anticipate what’s about to happen.
04. Choose a good location
Choosing an excellent location to shoot from in the venue is also essential to get the best shots. We all know that watching a basketball game courtside is a whole lot better than watching it from the higher sections, and it’s pretty much the same with sports photography.
Each sport has certain hotspots of activity. At races, for example, the optimal locations for shooting are usually near the starting and the finish line. For many ball games, on the other hand, the most exciting moments usually happen near the goal. Nonetheless, there are many more places apart from finish lines and goals where you can shoot—whether you’re shooting by a court or a field, just go to where you see the most action and wait there.
Additionally, note that when you're covering a sport in a huge, crowded venue, you won't be able to transfer to different locations as much as you’d like. So before shooting, know what types of shots you want to prioritize and go where you expect them to happen. For instance, if you intend to take photos of football players scoring, then set up your equipment close to the goal. If you want to capture opposing teams chasing the ball around, on the other hand, then stand near the midfield.
05. Anticipate what your subjects are about to do
Anticipating action is very important in ensuring that you capture the best moments in the game. And while sports may have plenty of variables, once you're familiar with the rules and regulations of the game, you'll know more or less when and where things are going to happen.
Put your head in the game—think like a player and be sensitive to your subjects’ actions. Try to predict what they’re going to do, and hopefully, you’ll get the shot that you want. For instance, zone in on a player dribbling (or kicking or passing for other sports) the ball. The player may or may not make the shot, but at least you're there to capture it if he does.
Don’t worry if you miss crucial moments the first few times. You’ll develop this skill the more you take photos.
06. Set your camera to burst mode
When photographing certain sports, sometimes your subjects pass by you so fast, the moment’s over by the time you press the shutter. The only way to make sure you don’t miss any second is to switch your camera to burst mode. Burst mode allows your shutter to keep going as long as you press the button.
Most modern consumer-grade cameras are capable of shooting at least eight frames per second, which is fast enough to capture fast cars and jumping motorbikes.
Keep in mind, however, that the responsiveness of this mode relies on the shutter speed. If the shutter speed is slow, your shutter will be clicking at a sluggish pace as well. On the other hand, if you choose a fast shutter speed (1/500th or faster), you can shoot in quick succession without any problems.
Your camera could also slow down after a certain number of shots because, eventually, it won’t be able to keep up with the amount of data coming in. This is normal even for high-end cameras. To prevent your gear from lagging, press the button in short bursts and give it enough time to process the images.
07. Experiment with motion blur
When you’re shooting fast action, experiment with motion blur every once in a while. This technique creates an effect that makes people “feel” the speed of the subjects you photograph. That’s why it’s perfect for capturing running athletes or speeding vehicles.
To try motion blur with your camera, you need to use a lower shutter speed. Choose a setting that’s slow enough to cause motion blur but not to the point that the image becomes indistinguishable.
1/60th is typically where you start seeing blur from fast-moving subjects. You can adjust it to a faster or a slower number depending on the amount of blur you want to achieve—the slower you go, the more blur you get. Once you're camera's set, stand parallel to the subjects you’re photographing. As they pass you, pan the camera at the same speed they’re going and press the shutter.
08. Look for different perspectives
Your task as a photographer is to take photos that people wish they could experience. They know how a game looks like from the bleachers; now, show them what it’s like on the field. Look for different angles that offer your viewers a fresh perspective.
Give your viewers a wide variety of photos that don’t look the same. Don’t stay in one spot, and don’t shoot from just one angle—switch it up with high and low angle shots.
Also, include wide shots and tight shots to show how the game looks like from afar and up close. Let them feel the energy of the players by shooting action shots up-close through your telephoto.
Try going to locations where you don’t normally shoot. For instance, you can go to the top level of a stadium and take photos of the field as well as the people watching below.
You can also try unusual perspectives. Lately, sports photographers have been experimenting with drones to get a bird’s eye view of games and races. Many of them look quite breathtaking, especially since they truly provide a point of view that many of us haven’t experienced before.
09. Capture what’s important
When photographing ball games, the most common mistake that beginners often make is forgetting to include the ball in their photo. The ball plays a big part in showing what’s going on in the picture. Without it, players would end up looking like they’re just in a big brawl. When you shoot, follow the ball and make sure it stays in the frame all the time.
Additionally, sports photography is not just about the game. It’s also about the people who play it. When you’re shooting action shots, do your best to capture players’ faces instead of their backs or their helmets. People connect with photos that show tough expressions of athletes playing hard—not their jersey number.
Sometimes, the most critical moments also don’t happen during the game but before and after. Get to the venue early and observe the athletes preparing. Take photos of them when they’re in a huddle or kneeling for a prayer. After the game, stay behind and shoot the winners and losers; it's the most emotional time for many players, and you’d want to be there to capture them celebrating or contemplating their loss.
When starting out, focus on learning the essential skills of shooting sports first. The term “practice makes perfect” you hear a lot in sports is also applicable in photography. Train your eye to freeze the shot. Even when you finally have better equipment, you’ll realize that it’s not really the camera that takes great photos—it’s you.