Many of us spend plenty of time on the weekend watching our favorite sports from the sidelines and, as photographers, we yearn to be able to capture that awesome moment when something great happens. But it’s rarely as easy as it might seem. All the critical elements have to come together to shoot really good action shots: timing, position, exposure, and framing–and you have just a split second to make it happen.
1. Eliminate that “D’oh!” moment
Take the time to check your equipment…before you leave home. Extra battery (charged), spare memory cards, a dust cloth, and of course, the proper lens for the job, including a lens hood for sunny days, should be packed and ready. You’ll thank yourself later.
2. Exposure: Learn the basics and lock it in
Point and shoot cameras have this all figured out. Just turn the dial to the guy who is snow skiing and you’ll get perfectly exposed shots, right? With an SLR, it takes a bit more thought, but it’s still relatively easy. Just remember the three key settings for optimal exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Change one, and you affect all three. On days with plenty of available light, set your camera on a low ISO for best image quality. Then set aperture priority (Av) at a wide-open f-stop, which in turn, allows the camera to select the highest possible shutter speed. If available light is an issue, simply push the ISO higher to ensure you get the shutter speed you need. A minimum of at least 1/500 of a sec if possible, but occasionally at night, you’ll have to settle for speeds in the 1/250th range. More often than not, try shooting at 1/1000th or higher to stop the action really well.
3. Depth of field: Zero in on your subject
Selecting a wide aperture has another great benefit beyond faster shutter speed: compression of space and shallow depth of field. Why is this important in sports photography? Because generally there is a lot of clutter on the sidelines. Spectators, cars, parking lots, signs, concession… all the stuff you did NOT go there to photograph. Opening up your aperture ensures that your subject will be the focal point, rather than the surrounding milieu.
4. Focus: Laser-like precision
Tack-sharp focus is of prime importance to creating winning action shots, and several factors will affect this outcome.
- Focus mode. Your camera’s focusing mode can make a big difference with a moving subject. Among the three Canon modes, Al Servo, or Continuous Mode for Nikon lingo, is usually the best choice, as it’s designed to help you hold focus on a moving subject coming toward you.
- Steady as she goes. Even the best cameras can only do so much, and the bottom line is, you have to have a steady, supported hand to manage good action shots. An image-stabilizing lens can be a big help, too, but learning how to brace your camera—using your own body as a makeshift tripod or by mastering the use of a monopod, will greatly enhance the final product.
5. Know your sport, and shoot, shoot, shoot
Anticipation is well over half the battle in capturing a header in soccer, a slam-dunk in basketball, or the perfect equine arc of a hunter/jumper. Understanding what is likely to happen will mean your camera is trained at the right spot–in advance of the moment. Beyond that, it’s simply a matter of practice. After you’ve logged in hundreds and hundreds of shots over time, your instincts will begin to kick in and pretty soon you’ll have mastered the ability to both continually shoot and enjoy the action at the same time.
6. Use your arms and legs
Remember to move around! Funny enough, your feet can become a cheap but useful piece of camera gear, by allowing you to change your perspective and the relationship of the camera to the action. By the same token, don’t forget to use your arms and turn the camera vertically, especially if the action comes too close and you need to reframe the shot.
7. Know your limitations
This, admittedly, takes discipline. You’ve purchased that awesome 75-300 mm lens… you want to use all 300 mm, don’t you? Here’s a lesson. Even with an awesome zoom, the best shots rarely ever come from the other side of the field! Even with image stabilization and a quality camera, you will give yourself the best options when they are shot from close to mid-range.
8. Good composition—the holy grail
Focus was a primary factor in image quality, but without great composition, your focus won’t matter. A few elements of good sports composition include:
- Faces. Make sure you can see the subject player’s face. The shot will fall short if all you see is the back of someone’s head. Faces with great emotion are a huge plus!
- Be the ball. Include the ball or other equipment in the shot. These things are an extension of the players’ action, in most cases, so it’s an important element that really communicates what is happening in the shot.
- Cropping. “Crop in tight…then crop some more.” Tight shots create excitement and add emotional tension to a shot, so eliminate everything that is not central to the action. One caveat, though, is not to crop at a person’s joint (knee, elbow, wrist). Just above or below those areas create a more pleasing and less awkward aesthetic.
- Negative space. Occasionally the use of negative space can add dimension to a composition. Sometimes just providing logical room for the player to kick the ball out of the frame can be the element needed to balance the composition and communicate something more about the moment.
Be very strict on yourself when it comes to your final product. You may shoot 400 frames in one soccer game but you’ll consider it a success if you end up with 10% to share with others. Analyze each shoot, learn something, and then delete and don’t look back.
When it comes to sports, if all goes well, you should have very little post-processing except for cropping and adding a touch of sharpening. The real post-processing fun comes when you are able to send out a batch of photos that represent special moments to teammates and friends.