How To Use Sports Mode

Most DSLRs and even half of the point and shoot crowd come with a variety of prefabricated scene modes to help novice and intermediate (and sometimes pro) photographers.   The modes are created to instantly calibrate a number of camera settings to a specific situation.  

What Is Sports Mode?
Sports Mode is a quick setting to adapt the camera with these typical settings:

  • Increase ISO variably to higher setting
  • Reduce f/stop for a shallower depth of field
  • Increase shutter speed to help stop fast action
  • Increase frame advance to highest setting (measured in frames per second or fps)
  • Adjust auto focus mode to adaptive or artificial servo

Typically the ISO is set at 400 or above, but depending on lighting conditions and lens selection this can be slower.  Most cameras will set this number in a variable fashion so the user does not have to continue changing it.  

Reducing the f/stop will help isolate the action in the scene.  Most of the time the action is a single person, a car, a horse against a backdrop and it’s best if that background has a blur to it to isolate the action.

Increasing the shutter speed will increase the chances of stopping the main action.  The setting, as with all settings, depends on the amount of available light and lens in use.  Most of the time, the shutter is set to 1/200 or greater. The frame advance is also increased to its highest setting, typically 3-6fps or more.  Continued activation of the shutter release will result in a series of shots to help capture just the right moment of action.

Lastly, the auto focus mode is changed to a predictive setting (named differently on different cameras).  This setting will often use a complex system to anticipate direction, speed and closeness of the main subject in order to calculate the precise focus at the time of shutter activation.  While not normally used in average shooting, this type of focus system can be very useful in high speed action.
All of these variables combine to take the guess work out of shooting sporting events.

How To Use Sports Mode
Now that you know how the settings function, let’s take a look at some examples of how to use Sports Mode.

First, Sports Mode works best with a long lens.  This is because the decreased depth of field will rendered a sharper contrast between your main subject and background as noted above.  The faster the lens (lower the f/stop number) the better separation you will gain from the background and the less light required for a sharp picture.

Sports Mode typically forces the camera to use the lowest f/stop possible. Also you can drop the tripod.  While a monopod will help with a very large professional (read; heavy) lens, the increased shutter speed and ISO of Sports Mode will make hand holding the camera much easier.

Next, keep the action near the middle of the frame, this will help with focusing as most cameras have the majority of their sensors in a pattern around the middle.  While you will sometimes want the action outside of the center, it’s best if it is first brought into focus (assuming you’re using autofocus, throw this out if you’re going manual) in the center of the sensor.

Lastly, take that previous rule and throw it out the window.  Well, not completely.  While it’s easier to focus on the action in the middle of sensor, it’s even better to give the action some place to go.  Take a look at the plane picture at right.  Leaving extra space in front of the action will give a greater sense of movement and presence.  The extra space in front of the plane will draw eyes with the action.  While this particular image was not shot with Sports Mode (the photographer picked a specific shutter speed) it is used to demonstrate the concept of providing a direction to the action.

Sports Mode is an easy way to instantly change your camera into an action capturing machine.  It helps take the guess work out of high speed activities while increasing your odds of bringing home what that one brief moment felt like.

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