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Five Tips For Photographing Action

Because athletes move fast, sports photography requires special equipment and techniques

Sports photographers use equipment and techniques designed specifically to tackle the challenges of photographing fast-moving subjects. From sprinters to outfielders, quarterbacks to cyclists, athletes move so fast—and are often so far away—that special care must be taken to ensure they can be well captured in photographs. To that end, here are five tips for better results when photographing action.

Ensure Sufficient Shutter Speed

Not all shutter speeds are created equal, and the idea of a “fast” shutter speed is relative. So while you may know photographing action starts with a fast shutter speed, exactly how fast is enough? To my way of thinking, a “fast” shutter speed starts at 1/250th and goes up from there (typically topping out at 1/8000th). That speed (1/250th) however, is only sufficient for the slowest of fast-moving subjects.

If I’m photographing with a wide-angle lens, for instance, or when the subject is moving toward the lens, I might be able to get away with such a “slow” fast shutter speed as 1/250th. But for the real fast stuff—basketball players jumping, for instance, or snowboarders flying—you’ve really got to step it up and match the shutter speed to the speed of the action.

For instance, when photographing action at a professional soccer game, I discovered that even at 1/500th of a second I had motion blur when the athletes kicked. I quickly learned that 1/1000th should be my soccer baseline. So whatever sport you’re photographing, start off with some quick experimentation and enlarge your test shots to check for sharpness to ensure your “fast” shutter speeds are truly fast enough.

By the way, don’t hesitate to bump up the ISO and open the aperture to allow in more light so you can up your shutter speed. If you choose an aperture of ƒ/16, not only will it be harder to get a fast shutter speed but also everything in the scene, from the foreground subject to distant objects in the background, will be sharp. Shooting closer to wide open and ideally positioned closer to the subject, the background falls out of focus. Split the difference to get enough depth of field to ensure sharper shots more often and you’ll often end up a couple of stops from wide open.

Choose The Right Lens When Photographing Action

Depending on the sport, you’re probably going to want some telephoto reach. Photographing basketball, for instance, a normal lens or short telephoto might be sufficient when sitting close to the court. But for many sports, particularly outdoor sports where you’re far from the action (baseball, football, track sports and the like) you’ll probably want a long telephoto prime or zoom. The 200mm focal length is a good minimum for many sports, while 300mm and 400mm are often even better.

Back in the good ol’ days of film, serious sports photographers used 600mm and 800mm lenses to reach distant athletes and fill the frame, but high-resolution sensors have made it much easier to crop without losing quality. So these days, it’s rarer to see such ultra-long lenses on the sidelines. If you do find yourself using a super-telephoto of 400mm and larger (such as the Nikkor Z 400mm telephoto prime pictured here), you’ll likely want to add a monopod to your kit to help hold the camera steady and support a heavy lens without sacrificing mobility.

Not Any Old Camera Will Do

When photographing action, you’ll want to choose a camera capable of delivering a high frame rate. That is, a camera that shoots several frames per second. Some mirrorless cameras with electronic shutters can get incredibly high frame rates of up to 30 fps. Short of that, any frame rate of 10 and above is great for action sports. Slower frame rates can work, and in fact, some old school pro sports photographers purport to prefer single shots over the motor drive approach so they can ensure they catch the absolute peak moment. But for most of us, the higher frame rates make capturing peak action easier.

Plan For Perfect Focus When Photographing Action

If your camera and lens can’t focus fast enough, you might want to consider manual focus. To do that, you’ll need to predict where the action will be in advance, prefocus on that spot and then shoot once the action arrives. That’s the way photographers worked for decades before advanced autofocus could keep up with fast-moving sports. But these days, we’ve got some pretty great autofocus capabilities at our fingertips.

In general, with sports and fast action you’ll want to set your autofocus to AF-C, or continuous focus mode. AF-S mode, or single-servo focusing, focuses on the subject and stops, which is a problem if the subject is moving quickly. AF-C mode, just as the “continuous” name implies, keeps focusing and refocusing as the subject moves through the frame. Mirrorless cameras offer some impressive focusing tools for sports photographers too. Eye control autofocus, available on the Canon EOS R3 for instance, tracks the photographer’s eye and focuses where he or she is looking. Another great tool is eye-tracking autofocus, which can identify and lock on a face to follow focus as it moves through the frame.

Consider Deliberate Blur

In some cases, it’s not sharpness that best conveys the feeling of motion, it’s blur. When you want to deliberately add the appearance of motion—ideal for racing sports such as running, cycling and auto racing—motion blur is an ideal effect. To accomplish this, you can take two approaches. First, you can hold your camera steady, slightly lower your shutter speed and let the subject move through the frame to add a hint of blur to their moving parts. The steady camera means the background will be sharp, and the slow shutter speed allows the moving subject to blur.

Another option for communicating speed with blur is to pan with the camera. Do this also by lowering the shutter speed (the faster the subject, the faster the shutter speed can be and still create motion blur), and during the exposure, moving the camera with the subject. This way, the subject will be sharp while the background will be blurred—an ideal combination to see speed without obliterating subject detail. If the opportunity arises, pair either of these motion blur options with a flash to freeze the subject and get the best of both worlds: sharp detail thanks to the flash and motion blur due to the slow shutter speed.

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