How to shoot great sports photography

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Posted by Will Hinch - 24 November, 2016

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Getting great photos of people playing sports is difficult. They move fast and most of the time you are not able to get up close and really capture an image that shows just how hard your athlete has been working.

Perhaps you’ve tried to capture the action on your phone or your point and shoot camera. The results were probably quite disappointing. If you were shooting inside an arena chances are the images are blurry.

There's plenty to consider when stepping into the challenging realm of sports photography. But with the right equipment and a little bit of know how, you can start to capture imagery that you and your club will be proud to put online and boast about on social media.

Tip 1 – Get the right equipment

When it comes to sports photography your smartphone just can't cut it. To really get closer to the actions, you need to purchase a DSLR and a zoom lens. Some initial investment is required, but the result brings a level of professionalism your club will have never enjoyed before.

An entry level DSLR like a Canon Rebel will do the trick. Higher grade cameras like the Canon 5D are a better choice but these pro-level cameras require more photography knowledge and you have to be prepared to spend more.

You will also need a zoom lens to go with your new DSLR. A basic 75 – 300mm f4 lens will allow you to shoot a variety of different sports. It won't quite get you up close and personal with players who are on the opposite side of the field but for those diving into sports photography for the first time, it will be more than adequate. Ideally, these lenses are suitable for shooting sports during the daytime and outdoors.

sports photography image of a female hockey player
If you are shooting sports indoors you’re going to have to push the boat our that little bit more when purchasing a lens.

You'll need a large lens that has an f-stop of 2.8. F-Stops are a number used to identify the amount of light that a camera lens allows onto the sensor when taking photos. A lens with an F-stop of 2.8 is a larger lens that has a wider opening which thereby allows more light into the camera. The more light allowed into the camera the faster the shutter speed you can use.

Faster shutter speeds are important because they allow you to capture sharper images faster. The downfall, they are expensive. You could consider renting one, but most clubs are better off compromising on quality until they find their price point.

The second option to consider is a mirrorless camera. These cameras are lightweight, the lenses are reasonably priced and it has comparable settings to a full DSLR camera.

While cheaper than most DSLR cameras they are still more expensive than a point and shoot. But remember, in order to shoot outstanding sports photography, you'll need a decent quality camera. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Tip 2 – Camera settings

It’s important to make sure that you understand some basic photography concepts before you go out to the side of the pitch.

When shooting sports, avoid the automatic settings on your camera. Try to use the sports option that most entry level DSLR’s provide; or if you are feeling brave you can experiment with manual settings. Here, you can adjust the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO yourself. It’s not difficult to do you just need to take some time and learn about these different elements of photography.

For more on manual settings, take a look at this article.

If you do experiment with manual settings here are some of the settings I generally use for different sporting situations:

sports photography shot of a cricket match
1) Rugby and football outdoors during bright daylight – ISO 400, F4, 1/1000s
2) Children’s Hockey – ISO 8000, F4, 1/500s
3) Adult Hockey – ISO 8000, F4, 1/1000s

The specifications above are just a general guideline, and ultimately your camera settings will depend on the amount of light that's available. For example, on a cloudy day you may have to raise the ISO setting on your camera. Photography is all about utilising light to capture images.

Other useful settings

Focus Mode – Your camera has different types of focus functions. DSLR cameras offer photographers a variety of different options for focus controls. On Canon cameras, these modes are called…

One Shot – this mode is used for capturing stationary objects or people .

AI Focus – this intelligent mode is designed to decide whether the subject being captured is in motion or stationary.

AI Servo – this mode locks onto a moving subject and continually refocuses as your shoot.

We recommend using AI Servo at all times during sporting events. The mode will help lock onto a player and will follow them as they move, ensuring your images are sharp during the heat of sporting action.

Tip 3 – Use burst mode

Burst mode is one of the main reasons we recommend using a DSLR to capture sports images.

Setting your camera to burst mode means that when you hold down the shutter button your camera will take a series of images in quick succession. Use this when a player heads down the field on a breakaway or when you want to track a player as they take a slap shot. When used in combination with the focus mode AI Servo you'll stand a much better chance of creating sharp, impressive imagery.

Tip 4 – Capture the players face

Be patient, you don’t have to continually snap images during a game. Take a few minutes to assess the speed and flow of the game. Follow the play with your camera and snap images when you think the players are about to face in your direction.

sports photography shot of a football match
The most effective shots will be those in which you can see the facial expressions of the players. Perhaps there are two players challenging for the ball; take a shot in which you can see either both or one of the players’ faces. These images attract more attention online.

It’s also helpful to look away from the action. Find players who are waiting for a pass or who are running up the other end of the field. These images are great; there will be few distractions visible and the intensity on their faces will be clear.

Parents in particularly love to see their children in the off-duty moments. Capture a child who is hustling back to take up a defensive position, or gauge the reaction of a dramatic moment from elsewhere on the pitch. These can often be the most telling sports images, and the bonus is you'll have more time to compose your shot and get the player fully in the frame.

Tip 5 – Use a monopod

Using a large lens and a DSLR can get tiring. The F2.8 lenses weigh quite a bit.

The solution is a monopod. They're relatively inexpensive you can pick one up from your local camera store. If you taking shots of the team in a tournament you will certainly need some support as the day goes on. Even the best pros will use a monopod to help them manage the weight.

Also, consider the way in which you use the monopod. Generally when shooting you are going to be using a portrait orientation but there are times when you need to quickly switch to landscape. This is where using the monopod can be very useful.

Leave the monopod ring quite loose so that you can easily rotate the camera from portrait to landscape position. One hand will hold your camera grip and operate the shutter button while your other hand rests on the lens zoom.

You can easily manoeuvre the camera between landscape and portrait all while multi-tasking and adjusting your focal distance. If this sounds complicated it’s just because you haven’t tried it yet. Take some time to practice this skill and you will find that after a little while you can adjust the camera in a mere matter of seconds.

Tip 6 – Switch to back button focus

If you find yourself getting into the swing of things, back button focus is a handy little tool that you will find on higher end cameras. On cameras like the Canon Rebel series you won’t find a dedicated back button option but will have to choose this option from the settings.

Back button focus is a nifty little tool because as you can set your camera so autofocus is controlled by a button that is separate from the shutter.

sports photography image netball player
As you progress in your photography skills you will come to understand that this tool is essential for capturing amazing sports shots. Back button focus gives you the power to lock your focus onto a specific player like the goalie for example. You use the button to lock you focus then once you release the button your camera will stayed locked onto this player regardless of how many other players might enter the frame.

When the autofocus is attached to the shutter button you don’t have this option and the camera will sometimes change its focus to a player who suddenly enters the frame - thus ruining the shot you'd just lined up.

Tip 7 – Keep Practicing

Capturing great sports shots is a skill. It takes the time to perfect your decision-making skills. You will have to learn when it’s a good time to push the shutter button and when you should wait. It also takes a while to get into the rhythm of the match.

Just like athletes you need to warm-up and adjust to the speed and flow of the game. The first images you capture will not be as strong as the ones you shoot later on in the game. Bide your time and wait for your moment to strike.

Sports Photography is a challenging gig but it’s also a lot of fun. Ask any professional photographer and they will tell you all about the rush and excitement that comes with capturing the moment. The truly unique images will make all the blurry and images where the referee got in the way worthwhile.

Remember sports photography is about chance; there will be times when you have the right angle and there will be times when you don't. But achieving glory in sports photography is no simple task.

Get out there and give it a try, and soon you'll be bringing a visual layer of professionalism that elevates the endeavours of your club members to all new heights.

Topics: Grassroots, How to, Sports tech


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