How to Get the Most Out of Your Sports Photos

Shooting sports is inherently difficult, but with practice and the right preparation you can master its complexities.


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Are you dissatisfied with the shots you've been getting at your kid's soccer games? Want to improve your photos from the local race track? Been assigned to cover an airshow for a local paper or website? Generally need to know how to make your sports snaps really pop?

Whether you're shooting with a full-frame DSLR or a cheap superzoom, you can get more out of your sports photos with a few simple steps.

Like any kind of photography, many of the steps are about preparation: doing the research to understand where you need to be, what you need to capture, and what settings will work best to accomplish the task. The rest is all about practice, and learning through trial and error.


Pick the Right Tools

1. Pack Light

Sports events are long. Even the shortest ones are probably going to last a couple hours, and the longest can go on for days at a time. When you're on your feet for hours at a time, you'll find that your bag gets heavy really quickly.

Unless you're a paid pro, you should always pack the lightest kit that you can get away with.

When I shot motorcycle racing in Albuquerque, my basic kit for shooting motorcycle racing included a Nikon D700 (1074g), battery grip (403g), and Sigma 100-300mm f/4 lens (1440g). That was about 6.5 pounds around my neck, and I had a backup body and several extra lenses in my bag as well. Toting all that weight around in the desert heat was a less-than-invigorating experience, to say the least.

Unless you're a paid pro, you should always pack the lightest kit that you can get away with. This is something you'll need to figure out through trial and error. In the beginning, err on the side of over-packing, and keep track of what you haven't used after each shoot. Over time, you can winnow it down to just the essentials. Your back will thank you.

2. Bring a Tripod or Monopod

You're not going to want to keep your camera on a tripod all the time, but there are some scenarios where having that kind of steady footing is absolutely essential. When panning, for instance (more on that later), a tripod takes a lot of pressure off the photographer. It also takes a lot of weight off your shoulders.

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Smaller, lighter, more portable monopods are probably the better choice for most sports, but if you're going to be in one place for a long time, pack a tripod.

3. Use a Stabilized Camera or Lens


Image stabilization systems like Tamron's VC use magnets and gyroscopes to correct for shaky hands.

When you don't want to use a tripod, you can still get some of the same effects from in-camera or in-lens stabilization. Most compact cameras—and especially superzooms—include optical stabilization these days, as do Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, and (some) Sony lenses.

Pentax and Sony DSLRs and Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras include in-body stabilization, which moves the imaging sensor to counter hand shake. That means that any lens you mount will be stabilized.

Image stabilization often allows you to use shutter speeds up to four stops slower than normal, which is a big deal in dim lighting. If you're shooting in the early morning or late evening hours, or if you want to tackle indoor sports like basketball or gymnastics, it can be a lifesaver.

4. Mix It Up—Don't Limit Yourself to Telephoto

You'll definitely want to bring the longest telephoto lens you have. Sports photography is all about getting close to the action, and nothing does that like a long lens. For interchangeable-lens cameras, we'd suggest 200mm as a minimum on a crop-sensor camera (like an entry-level DSLR or Sony NEX mirrorless camera), 150mm on a Micro Four Thirds camera, or 300mm on a full-frame camera. If you're sticking with a fixed-lens camera, look for something that stretches to a 300mm equivalent or beyond—typically a zoom range of at least 10-12x.

Wide Stadium.jpg

Bringing a wide lens along (or using the wide end of your superzoom's focal range) can enliven an otherwise monotonous gallery.

But a portfolio composed entirely of telephoto shots can quickly become boring. Spice up your shoot by packing a wide-angle lens—maybe even a fisheye. Find different ways to capture the action, and work on including off-field elements like the crowd, stadium architecture, and even dramatic weather.

Sports are as much about their pageantry and social aspects as they are about the athletes, so keep an open mind when framing your shots.

Next: Know Your Sport, Know Your Venue

Photos: High School Football by Steve Allen via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Stadium by Jarret Callahan via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Know Your Sport, Know Your Venue

1. Scout the Location

If you're shooting at a new venue, do your best to get there well before the event begins. Better yet, visit a day or two ahead of time. This is important for any event, but especially crucial for sports that take place over a larger area, like road races.

Walk around and get a feel for the place. Look for interesting vantage points, unique architectural features, and the position of the lights. Think about how the area will look when it's full of people, and how the athletes will fill it out. Create a mental list of shots you want to cover. You might even want to draw yourself a map, or make use of Google Maps for events that take place over a huge geographical area.


You can find detailed routes for many larger events, like this one for the London Marathon.

Also consider the time of day when your shoot will take place. If it's a day-into-night event—like many baseball games, soccer matches, and auto races—the lighting will change drastically from beginning to end. You'll have to adjust white balance to account for stadium lighting, and sometimes even that might not be enough.

2. Get Familiar with the Sport

There are plenty of enthusiasts who photograph for love of the sport, but many do it as an assignment or a favor for a friend. If you fall into the latter camp, you might not be familiar with the sport's ins and outs. Never been to an equestrian dressage event? Not big on airplane races? And just what the heck is curling?

If you're less than well-versed in the sport you'll be covering, do yourself a favor: Do some research. Hop on YouTube and watch relevant videos. Head to Flickr and search for photos from representative events; you'll end up with a whole mess of photos, probably both good and bad. And the bad can be just as instructive as the good.

Read the related Wikipedia pages and learn whatever you can about the rules and flow of the game. Figure out what spots on the court, track, or field are likely to see the most action, and when that action is most likely to occur. Arm yourself with this knowledge beforehand, and you'll have a much better chance of getting the crucial shots.

3. Forget the Flash


Skateboarding is one of the few sports where flash photography is commonplace.

It's pretty much a guarantee that the sport or venue you'll be shooting won't allow flash photography. As you can probably imagine, flashes going off mid-game—particularly when they're eye-level with players and referees—can be extremely distracting. And it's not exactly friendly to the spectators, either. Really, that's fine—most photos taken with the on-camera flash look awful anyway.

But there are a few sports where flashguns can come in handy. In particular, on-camera or carefully positioned remote flashes can create a dramatic look when shooting outdoor sports like bike races or skateboarding—sports where you can get really close to the action. On bright days, fill flash can also be helpful if you need to overcome strong backlighting, though we'd recommend simply positioning yourself with your back to the sun whenever possible.

Next: Develop Your Skills

Photo: Skateboarder by Hamish Baxter via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Develop Your Skills

1. Use Shallow Depth of Field to Isolate Your Subjects

Wide-aperture lenses (typically f/2.8 or wider) provide a quick and easy way to separate your subject from the background (though less so with compact cameras). If you want to get a player in crisp focus while turning the grandstands behind him into a soft, colorful blur, this is the ticket. Just shoot in Aperture Priority mode, set the lens to its widest aperture, and snap away.

Depth of Field.jpg

Selecting a wide aperture (here, f/2.8 at 200mm) helps separate the subject of your photo from the background.

When it comes to isolation, the wider the aperture the better. Professionals use exotic telephoto primes like the 300mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, and 800mm f/5.6. But these rare beasts can cost anywhere from $5,800 to $18,000. Enthusiasts tend to prefer more affordable options like the ubiquitous 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zooms, which can go for anywhere from $700 to $2,000, depending on the manufacturer.

If your budget is really tight, even slower lenses can produce decent background blur on DSLR bodies. The biggest caveat is that you'll need to get closer to your subject to achieve the same blur effect as you would with wider-aperture glass. If you've got a cheap 55-200mm kit telephoto zoom, try shooting it at 200mm and the widest aperture setting possible. You might be surprised how much pop you can get.

2. Panning is an Alternative That Works Even on Smaller Sensors

Shallow depth of field is great if you can afford it, but what if your budget is only big enough to justify a superzoom like the Canon SX50 HS or Nikon P520?

Another great way to isolate an object in motion is panning. With this technique, you can keep the subject of your photo in sharp focus while turning everything else into streaks of colorful motion blur. This works particularly well with high-speed sports like track and field, motor racing, and skateboarding.


By stopping your lens down or setting a slow shutter speed, you can create a different kind of subject/background separation without having to use wide-aperture lenses.

How do you do it? You pair a slow shutter speed (or narrow aperture) with your lowest ISO setting and track the subject through the viewfinder. And make sure you keep that hand steady!

Cameras with optical finders are far better suited to the task than those with LCDs or EVFs only, since they don't have to deal with refresh rates and screen blackout when you press the shutter release. But with some patience and practice the same effect can be used on many point-and-shoot cameras, too.

3. Get Comfortable Using High ISO

If you're shooting indoor sports, you're going to be starved for light—it's just a fact of photographic life. This means you're going to need to bump up your ISO sensitivity setting, regardless of your lens's widest aperture, if you want to freeze motion.

If you're shooting indoor sports, you're going to be starved for light—it's just a fact of photographic life.

The higher your ISO, the more image noise you're going to have to deal with. To prepare properly, you should do some practice shooting in similar lighting and figure out how much image noise you're prepared to tolerate. Tweak some of these images in an editing suite like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom and figure out how much of the noise you can remove without destroying image details.

More advanced cameras will let you set the upper limit of your camera's Auto ISO function, and some even let you specify a minimum shutter speed that the camera can use when Auto ISO is activated. Through some trial and error, you can arrive at settings that will net you sharp, blur-free images even in sub-optimal indoor lighting.

4. Don't Lose the Ball


Keeping the ball in-frame helps ensure strong visual interest.

This one might sound simple, but it's easy to overlook. If you're shooting a stick-and-ball sport, be sure to keep the ball somewhere in the frame. Without it, you just have a bunch of guys standing around on a field.

The ball is the focal point of the game—a fact that's reflected in the motion of the players and the faces of the fans. If you want to maintain visual interest in your action shots, this is the best way to do so.

Photos: Staff

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