Get the Best Sports Shot Possible
Sure, you may know the basics of Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO but there is a lot more to getting a great sports photo. Of course, the camera settings will depend on the sport and if it is indoor or outdoor, but the minimum shutter speed to stop sports action is 1/1000th of a second. Sometimes you will even need to get a faster shutter to prevent blur, say 1/1250th even faster. Take some test shots and review your images before deciding on the proper shutter speed. As for the aperture, shoot as wide open as you can to get a shallow depth of field. Start with your lens wide open to soften up the background and draw the viewer to the subject. Ideally, use a f/2.8 lens, but that just depends on what lens you have and your budget.
Go for the lowest ISO you need for the proper exposure, using a fast shutter speed and wide aperture. Now that we have the basics out of the way – consider these finer points for getting that image you would be proud to add to your portfolio. Manual Mode, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority? Since freezing the action is key for sports photography, use Shutter Priority Mode and let the camera pick the aperture. Golf, football, baseball and basketball, I'm on Shutter Priority.
ISO – Auto ISO By all means – use Auto ISO if your camera has that setting. Just one less thing for you to think about. Auto ISO lets you set the maximum ISO for a given shutter speed and aperture. Of course, the lower the ISO the better your image will look, especially if you will be enlarging it. I have taken good action shots with ISOs as large as 3200, but that is extreme. White Balance Getting the White Balance right in the camera is a good idea and will speed up your post processing. Set your camera for Auto WB, Sunny or Cloudy then take a few test shots until you are happy with the look. Remember that the light may change during the game, and you may need to adjust the White Balance. For example, the baseball game starts in daylight, but the stadium lights get turned on as it starts getting dark. I find those light really mess with my WB. In those conditions, I'm struggling to get the right setting.
Back Button Focus Use Back Button Focus to separate the shutter release from the focus. Not all cameras can be set to Back Button Focus, so read your camera manual. It takes getting used to it, but it is worth it to a sports photographer. Back Button Focus Rocks! RAW or Jpeg Fine For Sports Photography, I shoot in Jpeg Fine. I see no need to tease extra details in the shadows that RAW gives you. I also try to get the White Balance right in-camera, avoiding using the better Auto WB that Lightroom gives you for RAW images. The smaller size of a Jpeg also makes a big difference when you come home with 900 images and need to get the best 20 out to the sports editor out on a deadline or posted to social media.
Burst Mode Shoot in Burst Mode to capture multiple images, one of them is certain to capture the moment better than the rest. Try taking 3 to 10 images at a time. Also, sometimes shooing in Burst Mode will help you get a shot that sharper than the rest. Know the Sport If you know the sport and can anticipate the action, you will take better photos. One way to learn a new sport is to talk to the coach before the game and ask about their best players and where the action is likely to happen. The first time I shot a high school soccer game that is exactly what I did, and came away with good results. I was also able to capture the winning reaction after a golfer sank his winning putt because I knew the golf course and the situation.
No Ball, No Photo Sad, but true. Unless you are shooting player portraits, you will need to get the ball in the shot. It also helps is you are able to see the player’s eyes. Peak Action Look to capture the peak action and the emotion of the players. Every sport has peak action and players showing emotion. Look for it, anticipate it and capture it. Fill the Frame Fill the frame with your subject. You can do that with a zoom lens or by cropping after. Cropping in post-process is throwing away pixels – don’t throw away any pixels if you can avoid it. A pixel is a terrible thing to waste.
Clean Backgrounds Move around the sidelines until you can take your shots without annoying distractions like advertising or fans. Using a large aperture to blur the background can help, but looking for clean backgrounds is always a good idea. Shoot with both eyes open Being aware of the action both in the viewfinder and around you is important, so is listening to what is happening on the field. Don’t miss the runner sealing second base because you were fixed on the batter at the plate. Use a MonoPod and Take a Knee TriPods are the best for keeping the camera stable enough to shoot exposure you need, but they are not allowed on the sidelines. The next best thing is a MonoPod. You may look like a dork, but your photos will be sharp- and that is all that counts, right? Lower your camera by taking a knee is a neat way to make the players look bigger, stronger, better.
To see more examples of sports photography, visit my gallery of the 2019 U.S. Amateur.