How to Photograph Sports
Whether or not you’re a sports fan, you can still appreciate the hard work, dedication, sacrifice and persistence necessary to become a successful athlete and find enjoyment in photographing the effort and the struggle of those athletes while giving it their all and trying to become winners.
Managing to capture those golden moments of incredible skill, the fighting spirit of athletes and the smiles on their faces while celebrating their success can be extremely rewarding for any photographer, especially when you consider the fact that sports photography has its own set of requirements in terms of photographer’s skills of observation and prediction.
Through this article, you will learn all about picking the right gear, things to look for while composing your photos, correctly adjusting all the exposure settings and what to do in editing to make your sports photos really shine. So, grab your favorite drink and prepare to learn about the path to becoming a successful sports photographer.
What types of cameras and lenses should you get?
First, starting with the sensor, a full frame camera will give you the best results in terms of image quality. Since sports photography goes hand in hand with high ISO values, a bigger sensor will produce less noise in those conditions.
Still, even a modern flagship APS-C or a Four Thirds camera will do a very good job if you’re only shooting in daylight and you manage to pair it with a bright aperture lens. When picking the right camera for sports, a capable AF system, fast shooting speed capabilities and a large buffer are also things you should keep in mind all of the time.
Choosing the right lens for the job will depend on your budget, how far is the subject you’re trying to photograph and the lighting conditions you’ll be working in. If you want to get as much range as possible without breaking the bank, one of 150-600mm lenses will serve you well.
If, however, you plan to photograph sports indoors and you need a lens that will gather a lot of light, then pick up a 70-200 f/2.8 or 300 f/2.8 lens. A great thing about those types of lenses is that they are often compatible with teleconverters, so their range can be extended even further, albeit by reducing the amount of light they can gather.
Use a tripod or shooting sports handheld?
Something specific to sports photography is that fast shutter speeds are needed to achieve the best possible results and fast shutter speeds are also beneficial to telephoto lenses, since they need all the stability they can get to produce sharp photos.
So, this means that you can shoot sports handheld, if your job requires you to constantly move around, find different angles and adapt to the action. However, most sports photographers tend to sit in one or a couple of spots and wait for the action to pass by their cameras. On such occasions, using a tripod makes much more sense.
A tripod will allow you to find a comfortable position to track all that’s happening and smoothly pan left or right when necessary to follow a particular subject. It will also eliminate any potential vibrations caused by pressing or holding the shutter button and help you stabilize any of those heavy bright aperture prime telephoto lenses.
What can you do to get the best possible framing?
First of all, you’ll need to have at least a basic understanding of the sports you decide to photograph. This means that you should know how the fields look like, where the most of the action is concentrated, what kind of moves and plays will attract the attention of the viewer, what kind of lighting conditions you’ll be dealing with and more.
Also, you should be aware of the movements the athletes make in any type of sport. Are they just running in circles, jumping, operating a vehicle, moving from side to side and so on. Being equipped with that kind of knowledge will help you immensely when it comes to picking the right time to press the shutter button.
If you have the time, try to capture the athletes and their teams preparing for their events, communicating during the time outs and celebrating after winning the game. Add some depth to your work and try to paint the entire picture of what makes a sports event so exciting to watch.
You will also have to spend some time setting up the focusing settings in your camera. Enable the continuous AF option and subject tracking as well. This will ensure that the camera will try to keep your subject in focus at all times as long as you’re keeping the shutter button pressed down.
The best exposure settings for photographing sports
Different types of sports events will require different exposure settings, but there is at least one setting that you’ll never have to change and that’s the aperture. No matter if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6, you should always keep it set at that value. Doing so will allow your camera to gather as much light as possible.
This means that you’ll have a much easier time increasing your shutter speeds without having to bump up the ISO to extremely high values, so you’ll be able to get sharp and correctly exposed images without too much noise.
Also, you’ll have the best chance of separating your subject from the background and getting the familiar bokeh effect because you’ll be keeping the aperture wide open. When it comes to choosing the right ISO value, you could either let the camera set it automatically or pick your own value if the lighting conditions aren’t changing during the sports event.
If you’ll be constantly changing the shutter speed, it’s a good idea to enable the Auto ISO feature to make your life easier. Try to keep your shutter speeds at 1/800 sec or above. Always make sure that you capture the motion as best as you can, as it’s better to get a noisy image than a blurry one, in this case.
The editing process
You shouldn’t be spending too much time touching up and editing sports photos if you’ve managed to expose them correctly while you were capturing them. The most important thing about them is to keep the colors natural and the athletes themselves clearly visible and bright enough.
Lift up the exposure and the shadows if they appear too dark to your eyes and the faces aren’t recognizable enough. Add some noise reduction and sharpening if the images look a little too noisy or softer than they should. It’s not important to achieve perfection in this case, since most sports photos are published on the web or in the newspaper anyways.
In regards to the colors, don’t play around with them too much. Go for accuracy, instead of a dramatic or artsy look. Also, make use of the crop tool to fix up your composition and put even more emphasis on the action. It’s still better to frame the shot correctly while shooting, but even the professionals need some help from editing tools once in a while.
We hope that this article has helped you realize the unique process behind photographing sports and gave you enough information to overcome most challenges and learn how to choose the correct camera and lens combination to fit your own particular needs.
Remember, use the most of your camera’s burst rate, fine tune its AF system to get the best hit rate, take as many images as you can, don’t be afraid to crop your photos if the composition isn’t exactly how you wanted it to be and always keep the shutter speed high and the aperture wide.
Also, don’t give yourself a headache if some of your images have a lot of noise or aren’t extremely sharp. Worry about capturing the right moment and the essence of sports and deal with other cosmetic stuff later. Your images will be remembered for the story you’ve told, not their ultimate picture quality.