In my first two articles I discussed how to prepare for a sports shoot and how to photograph sports with less than ideal equipment. With that behind us, now it’s time to get serious.
You know the team, the venue, to look for things other than action shots, etc. So what equipment do you need and how can you get great action shots like you see in sports magazines? There is no single or easy answer to either question. There is a wide variety of equipment to chose from and every photographer has their own technique and style. We will briefly cover the equipment you need and the adjustments you will need to capture those action shots.
You will need a DSLR if you want to get top quality action shots. There are many manufacturers and cameras to chose from and buying guides available to assist you in your selection. You first need to consider if you will be shooting mostly indoor or outdoor sports. If you plan on shooting indoor sports you will want a camera that is capable at shooting at a high ISO and maintain a high quality image. This will allow you to shoot at a high shutter speed in low light conditions. If you will be shooting mostly outdoor sports, I recommend a camera that can shoot at the fastest frames per second (FPS) you can afford. If you plan to shoot both, then try to find the camera that has a the highest combination of the two. The buying guides will inform you of which cameras provide the highest quality images at the various ISO settings and their FPS ratings. Your lens selection should include the fastest lenses you can afford. Most action sports photographer carry lenses capable of shooting at f/2.8 or wider. The higher the range and wider the aperture the more you can plan on investing. For example, a Sigma 70-200mm cost around $800. A Nikon 400mm f/2.8 is well over $9,000.
RAW vs. JPG
I won’t cover the differences here, but if you are new to sport or action photography start with jpg. You can fire more shots before your camera buffer will fill and you won’t need a pro level flash card. You can switch to RAW later if you need the extra data it offers for post process editing, The goal is to become so proficient at action photography you don’t need to do a lot of editing later!
Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO
The conditions (sunny, cloudy, stadium or field lights, etc.) will determine your settings. In action sports, as in all photography, there is a balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. My personal style is to shoot extremely fast and with a wide open aperture. This allows me to freeze the action with a shallow depth of field. There is a rule to consider when shooting “ball sports” such as baseball, basketball and football, it is “two faces and a ball”. If players are side by side you can still shoot wide open, however; if one is in front of the other or along side but further back and you want them both in focus you will need a longer depth of field. This will require you to shoot with a smaller aperture such as f/5.6 which will result in a slower shutter speed. When doing this, check your shots by previewing them and zooming in on the image to ensure your aren’t getting unintended motion blur with the slower shutter speed. If you aren’t getting the shutter speed you prefer, increase the ISO. Start at ISO 100 or 200 and work your way up. The lower the ISO the less noise and more clarity in your image. So if you want to reduce your aperture or if you have a lens that isn’t capable of shooting at a wide aperture, increase the ISO to 400, 800 or even 1,600. This will allow you to shoot at a higher shutter speed and eliminate any motion blur you might see.
You will also want to become familiar with the exposure compensation option on your camera. Most cameras will allow you to further adjust the exposure determined by the light meter in your camera, up to 2 stops up or down. For example, if your cameras light meter determines your camera can shoot at 1/500 of a second at F/4, you can set your exposure compensation to +1, to get a full aperture improvement to F/2.8, and still maintain your shutter speed of 1/500.
Regardless of whether you want to shoot fast and wide, or a little slower and smaller, try a variety of combinations of shutter speeds, aperture settings, ISO and exposure compensation to get the desired results.
The first question asked by photographers new to sports photography is what mode do you shoot in? I usually start in aperture priority and take test shots at multiple apertures to see what shutter speed the camera provides. However, before long I usually end up in manual mode. I’ve taken an informal poll of some of the top sports photographers around and there is no clear consensus. Experiment! Try them all and see what works best for you.
The bottom line is, like any kind of photography, you need to practice and experiment. You will become so familiar with your equipment, you will be able to determine with reasonable accuracy the mode and settings that will work for the given conditions.