Shooting For Action

For sports with movement that’s less predictable, by using zone focusing, you can set up your aperture and focus to cover an area where your subject will most likely end up.

There’s nothing more thrilling in sports photography than nailing the climactic moment in a still image. For an athlete, those moments might only last a second, but when a great image is captured of it, it can last forever. Just as in sports, a successful image often can come down to practice and being in the right place at the right time, and by refining your photographic skills, having the right equipment and learning how to position yourself and your lens, you can make sure that your images are consistently touchdowns.


When shooting action shots of sports with swiftly moving subjects, your most important teammates are shutter speed and aperture. Shutter speeds give you the ultimate control over sharpness, and for the quick and erratic movements that you find in most sports, you want to use a very fast shutter speed indeed. In general, a shutter speed of ½50 sec. is the bare minimum for freezing action, though most photographers recommend going much higher.

The advantage to using a wide aperture is twofold. Large apertures of ƒ/2.0, ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/4 are considered “fast” apertures because each stop lets in twice as much light as the previous, gaining you a single shutter speed for each stop. Lenses with wide apertures are worth the extra investment.

The wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field will be. This will keep the background and foreground surrounding your subject out of focus, which helps to bring your viewer’s attention to the subjects in your image. The flip side of a shallow depth of field is that your subject will fall out of the area of focus more easily. So keep it tight for visual impact, but give yourself enough leeway for movement.

Panning or tracking with your subject is a good way to get a sharp shot against an out-of-focus background. By using a slower shutter speed and following along at the same relative speed as he or she is moving, the athlete will stay clear but the rest of the scene will have motion blur. It will take a lot of trial and error to perfect, but it’s an exciting way to give the impression of movement in a still photo.

Autofocus on modern DSLRs is incredibly quick and accurate, even with rapidly moving subjects. Still, sometimes there will be situations where manual focus will work better, especially when working with the incredibly fast speeds of car racing or bike racing. In these situations, panning with or following the subject will give you great focus.

A telephoto zoom… also gives you compositional freedom when it’s easier to move your framing to follow the action instead of running through the crowds.

For sports with movement that’s less predictable, by using Zone Focusing, you can set up your aperture and focus to cover an area where your subject will most likely end up. Then you wait for the subject to appear at the spot and snap the shot!

The more frames per second a camera can shoot, the better the chances of catching that one-in-a-million shot. Two things matter with burst modes: how many shots can be fired off per second and how long the camera’s buffer will be able to maintain so many frames. The fastest cameras currently top off at 10 fps when shooting full resolution, and buffer rates will depend on whether or not you’re shooting JPEG or RAW. A top-of-the-line memory card with fast read/write times and a big capacity is necessary in order to keep up with the camera, too.

There are a lot of situations that involve shooting in gymnasiums, arenas and at night. This means less light to work with, which also means slower shutter speeds. A high ISO increases sensitivity to light, but increasing ISO increases noise, so learning the ISO capabilities of your camera lets you know how far you can push sensitivity before your images start to show unacceptable levels of noise.


The first rule of action-sports photography is placement. Your lens should have a direct and unobstructed sightline to baskets, goals and end zones. It’s important to be close to the action, as well, even when you’re often restricted to the sidelines. Telephoto lenses with a big focal length are an absolute necessity for sports photography, and the wider the aperture, the better.

A telephoto zoom is an even better choice because it also gives you some compositional freedom when it’s easier to move your framing to follow the action instead of running through the crowds. It’s true that these lenses are expensive, but for detailed shots from long distances, good glass is often more important than your camera. Teleconverters are a good way to add to the focal length, too, extending the reach of your lens by up to three times the range.

Lenses with an image-stabilization feature are a must. Shooting sports often is done handheld, and even when using monopods or tripods, there’s a lot of tracking and panning. Most image-stabilization lenses offer between two to four stops of shake reduction, and this translates to much crisper shots, even at fast shutter speeds.

Telephoto lenses are big, long and heavy. A tripod collar is included as a standard feature on many modern telephoto lenses for attaching the lens directly to tripods or monopods. This keeps the weight of the lens and camera more evenly balanced, and it prevents the lens from weighing down the lens mount on your DSLR, which can cause damage over time. Separate tripod collars are also available from companies like Canon, Kirk, Nikon and Sigma.

Monopods are popular with action photographers. The unique design of a monopod gives photographers the stability of a tripod while also allowing for the mobility that action photography requires. This means more fluid tracking and an easier time moving your camera when you need to.

Sports Mode

Get great action shots automatically

Often marked on the mode dial as an icon of a running figure, Sports Mode (or Action Mode in some cameras) is a setting on many cameras that tells the camera that it needs to configure the image-capture settings for rapid action, whether it be athletes or just your unruly kids. Sports Mode does this by metering the environment and automatically changing key settings in order to gain the optimum parameters for the situation.

Some of these variables include increasing the ISO depending on available light, usually starting at 400 or higher. The camera also will use a wider lens aperture for shallower depth of field and set continuous shooting to the maximum for bursting frames. Autofocus will
be instructed to expect moving subjects, so it will use sophisticated algorithms to act predictively and anticipate the direction of your subject.

All of this is done rapidly in-camera, and then all you have to do is sit back, frame the shot and press the shutter. It’s a fast way to work and a great way to learn. By going back later and reviewing the metadata of your best shots, you’ll be able to determine how to get even better results by setting criteria manually in the future.

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