Photographing sporting events presents a unique challenge: how do you capture the excitement of motion in a still shot? When you figure in elements like lighting, speed, and the unpredictability of a fast-paced game, taking quality sport photos can be as elusive as the winning goal in a tie game.
There are some fundamental concepts—and helpful pieces of equipment—which can help to demystify sports photography. Understanding some of the technical issues that face the fast-motion photographer will allow you to control the elements, resulting in better sports photos.
Speed is the Ticket
In the moment it takes your shutter to open and close, a leg can swing to kick a soccer ball, a kid can drop into a home plate slide, or a defender can shut down an offensive drive, moving the action out of your frame. Sports are fast, and your camera has to keep up.
Choose a fast shutter speed (aim for the 1/500 to 1/2500 range)
Choose a higher ISO setting (400 or above), which lowers the sensitivity of your image sensor, allowing for a faster shutter speed
Shoot in burst mode—the winning frame will happen in a fraction of a second, so rapid series of images can increase your chance of a great picture
The Two Ts: Telephoto and Tripod
You will take most of your sports photos from the sidelines, at some distance from the action. A telephoto lens is a great piece of equipment, allowing you to get close without interfering with the play. Look for a relatively fast lens. This is measured as the maximum aperture of the lens; the wider the maximum aperture (measured as a small F-stop, usually under F5), the faster your allowed shutter speed.
Tripods are the natural partner of telephoto lenses, keeping the camera still as you magnify the image, and holding up an often heavy lens. Look for a good quality tripod with a quick release, so you can follow the action at a moment’s notice.
Preparation is the key
Before the game starts, stake out your location. Try to have the sun behind your shoulder, and position yourself so the background will not interfere with the action. Consider where the play will move, where the officials and coaches will stand, and where you—and your equipment—will be safely out of the way.
Experiment with technique
Pan your camera with the play—with a little practice, you will get a still image of the players against a blurred background
Zoom in on faces, elbows, feet, or any close shot that will capture the emotion of the game
Try to leave ‘active space’ in the shot—if you are photographing a person running, frame the shot so there is more space in front of the player than behind. This visual space accentuates the sense of movement.
Remember the sidelines—much of the drama of sports happens off the field. Watch for those quieter moments of the game, like when a coach pats a kid on the back or players on the bench cheer for their team
The nuts and bolts of sports photography can be learned by practicing technique and positioning, and by using the right equipment with the right settings. At the heart of a gorgeous sport photo, however, is you, the sports lover. Your photographs should capture your excitement for the game, the drama that brings spectators to their feet, shouting and cheering.
Note: We recommend using a digital SLR camera for shooting sporting events. DSLRs are reasonably priced considering the power and versatility you get for even the most basic, entry level model. That said, compact cameras can take some marvellous photographs, and they have the added advantage of being convenient and lightweight. If you do use a compact, point-and-shoot camera, familiarize yourself with its features. Modern compacts often have a Sports Mode that will improve your action shots.