This post is the first of a three-part series dedicated to teaching sports photography at all levels of competency. In part one I will cover the basics for photographers who are just getting started. Part two will focus on gaining competency for those who have mastered the basics. The final part will be geared towards serious amateurs looking to build a portfolio.
Just a few weeks ago Nikon announced that it has cancelled production of the new DL line of premium compact cameras. In short, smartphones have made compact cameras obsolete through advanced software, small form factor, and good-enough image quality. One of the few areas that smartphones have had no impact, and likely never will, is sports photography which necessitates the usage of specialized equipment to gain satisfactory results.
Sports photographers tend to be some of the biggest gear heads. The reason is simple: capturing great sports images is much easier when your equipment is top-notch. However, equipment does not make the photographer, and this article is about learning the basics of sports photography, not about how much gear you have.
I started shooting sports with a Nikon D3300 and a Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens. Looking back at those images I am pleased by the moments I captured, not fixated on pixel-peeping perfection. All you need to start shooting sports is a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a lens capable of at least 200mm (full-frame equivalent).
2) Before the Event
Most people start photographing sports because they get involved with a school newspaper or their child joins an athletics team. We are inspired by this opportunity to get out there and start creating beautiful images. But, not so fast! It is important that you prepare yourself for the big game before you get on the sidelines.
First and foremost, know your camera and the exposure triangle! Nothing is more frustrating than downloading your pictures and seeing that they are all blurry, out of focus, or over/underexposed. It is extremely important that you know how everything on your camera works before the action starts. Focus settings, automatic modes, white balance, and how to control your exposure are some of the key areas to learn about.
No matter the level of competition you should contact the event coordinator, media representative, or athletics director before you arrive. In most cases there will be no problem with you taking pictures at the event, but your contact may request that you stay away from certain areas and they will certainly appreciate knowing what you are up to when the event starts. For championships and collegiate competitions things can get more restrictive, making prior contact even more essential.
Finally, it is important to understand the rules of the sport you are planning to shoot. The better you know the game, the better your pictures will be. There are dozens of online forums dedicated to teaching the best shooting positions, types of images to look for, equipment to use, and so forth. A quick Google search is all you need.
3) At the Event
You have prepared yourself for the competition; now you are feeling confident and excited about getting some great shots. It is important to remember that as soon as you get on the sidelines with your camera there is an unspoken code of conduct that photographers are entrusted to follow. Let us run through some best practices while you are at the event taking pictures.
- Stay off the field of play while athletes are active or the clock is running.
- Respect the officials, coaches, athletes, and staff at all times. Their jobs are more important than your pictures.
- Refrain from unsportsmanlike conduct or rowdiness (hopefully this is obvious).
- Pay attention to what is going on around you. You do not want to get in the way or get injured because your head is not where it should be.
- Do NOT use on-camera flash. It is very distracting to those around you.
- Introduce yourself. Make connections with other photographers and let the officials know who you are.
One of the most common questions that new photographers ask when shooting sports is, “what should my camera settings be?” There are many answers to this question, but here are some of my suggestions.
Shutter speed: In general, you should try to keep your shutter speed around 1/1000s. For indoor sports in poorly lit venues this may be unrealistically fast. For outdoor sports on a sunny day you can go faster.
Aperture: Larger apertures (smaller f-numbers) tend to work better for sports because they allow more light into the lens and they blur away distracting backgrounds. Something between f/2.8 and f/5.6 is most appropriate.
ISO: Start at your camera’s base ISO (probably 100) and adjust it until you reach a proper exposure. Try not to go above 6400 unless you really have to or you have some fancy gear.
One more thing: when the action is taking place do your best to stay focused on your subjects. It is tempting to check your shots (chimping) after every action sequence, but try not to do this. The reason is very simple: you will miss important moments if your eyes are on the LCD and not on the field. Additionally, you are more likely to get hurt by a foul ball or an out of bounds player when you are not paying attention.
4) After the Event
The competition is over and you are at home downloading your pictures. No matter what your goals for the day were you should look at every album as a learning experience. What went well? What could be improved? What will you change or keep the same next time?
Seeing images on a TV or computer screen is a lot different than seeing them through a viewfinder or on the small LCD on your camera. Small things that you did not notice before will jump out at you. Here are some things to look for.
- Is there any motion blur? Try using a faster shutter speed.
- Are you missing the “peak” action? Try anticipating and not reacting.
- Do the athletes appear too small? Try finding a different shooting position.
- Are you seeing all backs and no faces? Try shooting from the opposite side of the venue.
- Are your subjects out of focus? Try using continuous autofocus and/or dynamic autofocus.
If you accomplished your goals, great! Keep up the good work and take some risks next time. Keep pushing yourself to get more images that you are happy with. If you are disappointed with your results, remember that few people hit a home run on their first attempt. Next time focus on the things that you can control to make your shots more successful. Do not let things that are out of your control, like bad weather or annoying fans, get you down.
5) Closing Words
I hope that you have enjoyed the first of a three part series about sports photography. This is a uniquely action-packed genre that can yield amazing results with a little practice and some patience. Stay tuned for the next segment about enhancing your current skills as a sports photographer.
just came across this article so not sure you will ever see. I have a nikon 3300. My daughter is starting Volleyball and wondering if you have a lens suggestions. I really need to play around with all the settings as this is new territory from outdoor soccer and lacrosse
When shooting indoors, you’re almost always dealing with low light. In low light the “faster” the lens, the more light it will let hit the sensor. A “fast” lens is usually considered as having an f-stop of f/2.8 or better (i.e. a larger opening). Also, when shooting sports you need to have a fast shutter speed – usually at least 1/1000th second (you might get away with slightly slower depending on your timing) – if you are going to stop the action. It has been my experience in the local high school gyms I shoot in that at f/2.8 and 1/1000th second you will need an ISO of 4000 or higher. The higher the ISO, however, the more noise in the picture file (what we used to call “grain”). If you are zoomed in on your subject, that might not be noticeable. However if your subject is far away and you have to crop into the image for your subject, the noise could be objectionable. If you can afford a 70-200 f/2.8 lens (Tamron or Sigma) that’s the way to go. Hope that helps.
bringing an old article back to life… sorry! I just started taking pictures for my freshman daughter’s soccer team. I have a nikon D3400, and a 70-300 4.5 lens… im still trying to figure out manual modes, so thus far i’ve been using the ‘sport’ setting (ive been too afraid to ruin a whole game of pictures because i cant get settings right). my big problem is that with the sport setting and dynamic AF, my camera likes to focus on the trees… or lamp post… or people in the background instead of the player with the ball in the foreground. i have so many pictures of perfect trees and the players are a blur :/ im guessing this means i have to use a manual mode and… change the aperture? im so lost idk what to do.
Hi, keep practicing and don’t get discouraged if your keeper rate is low. When I was shooting sports I’d keep only 5-10% of my shots. Proper focus is most important, so put your energy there first. Make sure the camera is tracking the subject prior to pushing the shutter. If you think some action will happen, start tracking the subject and shoot when the action happens. To do this you’ll be half-pressing the shutter (assuming your camera has factory settings). Manual exposure is the next step and shouldn’t be a problem if the light isn’t changing. Just set your exposure during warm ups and check it every so often during the game. Shoot with your back to the sun if possible.
Hi my name is Mecedes
I was wondering what would be the best settings for equine Photography?
As I practice taking pics of my friend and her horse going over obstacles, I use quite a high shutter speed, to obtain a clear picture, yet some of the pics are still a little blurry.
Do you have any tips or tricks to help me out?
Hi Mecedes. What shutter speed are you using? Could it also be that the photos are out of focus?
I have been taking photographs for years. Lanscape, Street photography and sports. (Running). I am currently attending a photography school course through which I have learned so much more. I am a sports nut, having played sport all my life. So I would really like to focus on photographing sport events. I am by no means a professional. I have a good eye and love shooting sport events, but at this stage only as a volunteer or shoot my friends in their sporting activities.
Very interesting and encouraging article on starting with sports photography.
Matt Nielson’s words “Even entry-level gear can take you pretty far. It’s the skills that count.” is an added encouragement for the newbies like me.
Thank you Matt !!
Great article. I’m pretty proud of some of the bird photography I did with my original Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G, as well as a little sports (in reference to you mentioning your 55-200). It definitely had its problems, but for $250 bucks it was well worth it as a starter tele lens on my D5100. I personally tell beginners to start with what you can afford and learn all the basics first before you dump too much money into glass, but remember glass is very important if you decide to move further.
Absolutely the same advice I give. Even entry-level gear can take you pretty far. It’s the skills that count.
Thanks , a great start to sports photography. I do a lot of swimming competition photography. And my advice would be:
1. Protect your gear with even a plastic shopping bag to cover it from splashes and have dry cloths ready in a water-proof bag to wipe down lenses – water gets everywhere so be prepared to be splashed and even have a spare set of clothes
2. Frame your shot and be pre-focused to ‘ambush’ subjects as hey swim through your shot and then less shots are lost to auto-focus following water splashes rather than swimmer’s eyes
3. Shoot in RAW because as you say indoor light is terrible and water reflects different colors so leave this correction until you’re on your PC with the big screen
4. use spot metering to your auto focus point to get best light performance – it’s a big help in keeping ISO below 6400 and shutter speed high, I find
Best of luck to everyone out there with their shoots!
Here in Western Massachusetts our swim meets are in winter and the problem I run into is bringing a cold camera into the warm, humid atmosphere of the pool and the ensuing condensation. My solution is to get a big ziplock bag and put the camera and lens I’m going to use (usually a 70-200 f/2.8) in it before I go into the pool area. I try to get to the pool early so I can take the bagged camera and lens out and let them warm up as much as possible before taking them out to shoot. I keep a clear filter on the lens as I don’t want chlorinated water hitting it in the event of an errant splash. I also never change lenses in the pool area unless I’m sure everything has warmed up sufficiently.
I have had this experience, mainly when the camera/lens gets cold on the long drive to a meet. I find that if I leave the camera with lens in the car front floor in the area of the heater, the camera and lens don’t arrive cold at the pool. There still may be some minor fogging due to high humidity but it clears up a lot faster than if the lens was cold. With a large lens it takes quite a while to warm up. I like to get to meets early because you can get good shots during warm up. But if I have to wait 30 minutes for the glass to “dry” and I am arriving 90 minutes before a meet after having driven 2 1/2 hrs to get to the meet .
There are lens anti fog sprays and cloth wipes out there including one made by Nikon but they have so so Amazon ratings and I am afraid to mess up the glass of my 200mm f2.0 lens (no front filter available). One rater claimed it left a film on his lens. See www.amazon.com/Nikon…olife0c-20
One unrelated comment, Matt.
I have noticed that here on Photographylife, when I have to verify that “I’m not a robot,” it seems as if I have to go through a lot more screens to check off pictures with street signs or store fronts or mountains, or whatever I need to check off, noticeably more than I have to do on other sites. I don’t know if this is by design, or, perhaps, it’s harder to see the pictures here than on other sites. I really don’t know. But, it is noticeably longer than what I am used to on other sites. Just thought I’d pass that on.
Thanks for the feedback, Richard. I only write for the site, but I’m sure Nasim would be glad to receive your comments.
I shoot a lot of high school sports, both indoors and out. I don’t use MAN ISO because the lighting at one end of a basketball court (next to the wall) is usually much dimmer than the lighting mid-court. AUTO ISO usually works but can be fooled by the well-lit court behind the players.
Also not mentioned is the frequency of the indoor lights. Because fluorescent lighting is not truly continuous, shooting above 1/500 can result in random dark or colored bands in photos. I believe some cameras like the D500 can compensate for this but not sure how well. You may have to live with this as using a slower shutter speed won’t work well.
I do see things like you mention. There are some gyms where I do see different color tinges….one shot might have good color, but the very next one of the same thing will show perhaps a greenish tinge. Obviously, this is due to the flickering/frequency of the indoor lights. I also have seen where one shot might look properly exposed, but the very next one, in high speed mode, will be overexposed or underexposed. This does tend to happen more in certain gyms. There is one high school gym I have shot a lot in. If I shoot from one end, there tends to be a greenish tinge more often; if I shoot from the other end, the color tinge is not there.
While I’d like to fix it, in most cases, it’s not a major issue because I can simply delete the pictures that have poor exposure or bad color tinges, or, if I have time (normally I don’t), I can correct in some cases with Lightroom.
Indoor venues are a big challenge for getting good white balance. Flickering lights do not help either, and some gyms are not lit consistently from one end to the other. I will talk about this more next time, but my general advice is to use manual exposure and manual/custom white balance. On average your shots should turn out better this way. I always shoot RAW and making small adjustments in post to get it 100% right.
I had a problem with a particular gym last year in that some lights were burned out, making the gym normal than it otherwise would be. The coach told me that because of the I-Beam structure on the ceiling, it was difficult to change out the light bulbs! I’ve only shot in that gym once or twice this year, and it appears as if the lights now have been replaced.
I do use custom white balance, using an Expo Disc. It generally seems to work fairly well, but I often do go back and correct white balance, using bulk editing….fix it on one image, and then copy that change to all others.
While I always use RAW for personal pictures and sometimes use RAW for pro images, the sports events I usually take require that I either hand over the pictures right after the game, or, much more often, upload them all the same night. With perhaps several hundred pictures, that unfortunately is not practical for me, especially if I have 3 or 4 games.
Looking forward, though, to more advice in future articles!
Thanks for this article, Matt. I’ve enjoyed it and learned some things from the various comments.
I’m wondering if you could perhaps have a discussion in another in your series about using full manual exposure mode vs. other modes, especially aperture priority, which I always use. I know a couple of other photographers who always use full manual mode when shooting indoors. I can see the reasoning they use for doing so (and, one of them is a long term, very good pro who has shot for some major media organizations), but I also see some disadvantages. I also think that, in general, I generally get decent results using aperture priority, but I don’t know if I will get even better using manual….and just haven’t tried it, yet. So, any input you might have would be appreciated in a future article.
Thanks, Richard. I will certainly talk about that in the next segment. I’m glad you brought it up. These comments have been good feedback for me.