They key to capturing fast paced, high octane sports action is speed. Just as the subject in front of the lens is mightily rapid, your camera also needs to be set up to be swift, and your concentration and anticipation should be finely tuned.
At first, many enthusiasts find photographing sports a trying challenge. It can be difficult to keep the action sharp, the focus tight and accurate and the composition effective. However, capturing exciting action is easier than you may think, and we’ve put together these 5 simple steps to to help you shoot sports like a pro.
Use a Telephoto Lens
The best way to capture sports action is with a telephoto lens like a 70-200mm. Telephoto lenses are ideal for action for a number of reasons, and the exact focal length required will depend on how near or far you can get to the action. Remember that if you’re using a camera with an APS-C sensor then there’s a built-in 1. 5x crop factor, so a 70-200mm lens will have an effective focal range of 140-300mm which will serve you well.
Telephoto lenses are the preferred optics of sports photographers because they allow you to zoom in close on the action, as often it can be difficult to get closer to the subject due to pitchside restrictions. Those rules are there for a reason though, and wanting to get closer would be foolish as you’d likely end up with a few bruises and a broken camera if the sports players clattered into you. Instead, once you’ve settled in a decent pitchside position, use your telephoto to zoom in reasonably tight on your subject. You don’t want to be zoomed so much you risk chopping off limbs or player decapitation, but the subject needs to dominate the frame for the most impact. Telephoto lenses are also ideal as they produce a bigger ‘bokeh’ effect – where the out of focus background is smoothly blurred – and the compression of the angle of view makes for a pleasing perspective on sporting subjects.
Select a Fast Shutter Speed
In order to keep the action blisteringly sharp, with all the glistening and crunching detail, you need to shoot with a faster shutter speed. Precisely how fast of course depends on the sports you’re photographing, but for field based sports you want a shutter speed of at least 1/500sec. Though if conditions are bright you may as well squeeze a few more stops into that shutter speed, and setup your camera to shoot at 1/1000sec or faster.
The simplest way to do this is to shoot in Shutter priority mode (S or Tv on the mode dial), dial in your chosen shutter speed like 1/500sec and your camera will set the aperture. If the lighting conditions are anything other than bright daylight, the chances are you’ll need to increase your ISO sensitivity to capture a balanced exposure. If your camera’s f/number is blinking or says ‘Low’ then there’s no enough light for your shot, and you’ll need to increase the ISO to make it brighter. Dial it up until your camera displays a solid low aperture, and keep an eye on it during the shoot.
Alternatively, some sports photographers prefer to shoot in Aperture priority mode instead, and select the widest aperture available, such as f/2. 8 if you’re using a professional standard telephoto lens. The reason for using the widest available aperture is that it lets in the maximum amount of light so your camera will always select the fastest possible shutter speed. And that way, if the exposure changes due to a change in the light conditions you’ll still get a good exposure, and your images will have a consistent depth of field. Some cameras also allow you to set Auto ISO, and this works particularly well when shooting action in Aperture priority. You can set up your camera so the ISO increases if the shutter speed drops below a certain value, ensuring your exposures are consistent for sharpness and focal depth, with just the ISO rising and falling to keep your photos well exposed.
Most cameras have three different focusing modes: manual, single and continuous. The mode you need to use to focus on sporting action is continuous, as the focus is tracked and maintained for as long as you’re pressing the focusing button. Different manufacturers have various names for their continuous focusing mode, but Nikon call it AF-C and Canon call it AI Servo. If you’re not sure which it is on your camera, dust off the manual to find out.
With the focusing set up for sport, you can then decide how you want the AF points to operate. Some people prefer to use the single central AF point, which is often the fastest and most accurate cross-type sensor. Others prefer to opt for Group AF mode, where you use a cluster of AF points together to provide a larger area to set the focus, and using this mode can reduce the risk of missing the focus and ending up with pictures of a really sharp background and fuzzy action. It happens. Alternatively some cameras offer 3D tracking, and with this mode the AF point hops around the frame as the focus stays locked on the subject. Give them all a try, and see which one you prefer.
Fast Drive Mode
Another way to set your camera up with speed at the centre is to select your camera’s fastest drive mode – sometimes called ‘CH’ for Continuous High or ‘H’ simply for High – and that way you’ll be able to capture more frames per second, giving you a better chance of bagging the shot. To make your camera perform even faster, set the file format to JPEG, and not RAW. This is one of the few exceptions where photographers will argue JPEG is better, as you’ll be able to shoot at a faster rate and capture more images before the buffer fills, if it fills at all. Often sports shots require much less editing than say a landscape image does to make it more engaging, and so for sports a JPEG really does suffice.
Even though you’ll be using a super fast shutter speed, there’s still a chance of encountering camera shake, especially because the risk is exacerbated when using a telephoto lens. If your lens has Image Stabilisation then make sure it is enabled to minimise the chance of blurring your shot from shake. Also, a monopod is a wise investment when shooting sports. Not only does it help keep your camera steady for extra sharpness, but telephoto lenses are heavy, and after 10 minutes your arms will start to seriously ache. Transferring the weight to a monopod is the solution, no matter how strong you are.
With these 5 steps you’re set up and ready to go. The other important element of shooting sports action is anticipation. It’s no good waiting for something to happen and then responding by focusing and pressing the shutter. It’ll be too late and you’ll have missed it. There’s an old adage amongst sports photographers that goes “If you’ve seen it through the viewfinder, you’ve missed the photo”. It helps to photograph a sport that you’re already familiar with, so you know what’s likely to happen next and can stay on top of the action. Sports photography is incredibly rewarding, so make sure you put these tips into practice and head down to capture and immortalise your local team.. digitalrev.com