Cameta 101: An Introduction to Shooting Sports (Part 1)

One of the most frequent questions I hear is “How can I take better sports shots?” Sometimes, the answer doesn’t require extra gear, but there are also times when that is the only way to get the job done. In this article, I will go over some tips to get the most out of what you currently own, and in Part 2 (coming soon), explain why sometimes there is no alternative to better equipment.

Most sports and action shots are of fast moving subjects, and therefore require a very fast shutter speed to prevent motion blur. Although sometimes a bit of motion blur helps to show off the speed of your subject, and sometimes photographers use a slow shutter speed as an artistic choice, most regular photographers will want to freeze the action enough to recognize faces of their kids, friends or their favorite athlete.

Getting a crisp, clear action photo – especially outdoors – usually starts with luck. Lighting and weather conditions have a major impact on whether you will be able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. On a bright, sunny day, even most entry-level lenses will be capable of fast shutter speeds. However if the weather is cloudy, if you are indoors, or if you are at a night game being played under the lights, things can get dicey.

With the snow intensifying the ambient light, winter sports make it easier to get sharp action shots

So how can you maximize your shots? The first step is to try your camera’s Sports mode, if available. This is typically the best way to get your feet wet, and it usually provides good results. Sports mode is designed to shoot at the fastest shutter speed possible in the current lighting conditions. Generally, it also will activate burst shooting so you can simply hold down the shutter release and pop off a quick set of shots. The downside to Sports mode is that many cameras limit the ISO level to 1600 (to prevent grainy pictures), which might limit your shutter speed in tougher lighting situations. However, many recent camera models offer pretty clear pictures even at high ISOs, so if you are using a relatively new camera, you might want to try a more advanced mode to improve your shutter speed and get even sharper images.

There are various techniques for shooting action, but I prefer to use Shutter Priority mode (S on Nikon, Sony & Olympus, TV on Canon) for the majority of my sports shooting. This mode allows me to manually set the shutter speed while aperture control is automatically handled by the camera. I like to start out at a shutter speed of 1/250 (that’s one 250th of a second) or faster, and I monitor the images to make sure they are sharp and well-exposed. If I find that the images are too dark, I can either shoot at a slower shutter speed or raise the ISO. Either way will increase the exposure, but raising the ISO will allow you to preserve a fast shutter speed. With my camera (Nikon D600), I am comfortable shooting up to ISO 3200, at which point I will slow down the shutter speed if I need to brighten the image any further.

The shutter speed here was quick enough to freeze the players’ faces,
but still showed motion blur on their fast-moving feet, a good artistic choice.

Another good strategy when taking action shots is to shoot in RAW (learn more about RAW here). While your camera may not be able to fire off as many shots in a row (since RAW images take longer to save to your memory card), you can often bring out details of an underexposed picture with an image editing program. I wouldn’t say it will rescue every image, but RAW files will give you more detail to work with if your shutter speed is a little too fast for a perfectly-exposed photo. Severely underexposed pictures shot in RAW can sometimes get you a workable, but extremely grainy image, so it’s best to use RAW as a way to compensate for small differences in brightness rather than a catch-all solution for fixing poorly-exposed images. One other benefit to shooting sports in RAW is easier color-correction. Sometimes, when shooting sports, your camera’s white balance may vary depending on the area of the field you are focusing on, or you may simply be unsatisfied with the color balance overall. The versatile nature of RAW files will allow you to more easily fix the color balance using Photoshop or a similar program.

In Part 2 of this article we discuss the options for gear that can take your action images to the next level.

1 Comment

  1. I would just like to thank Mike for all of his gracious help this morning. He spoke to me at length about how to take sports shots using my new Canon…he was spot on! What a great help!

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