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5 Fast Action Tips For Sports Photography

Sports photography offers challenges which many new photographers are unprepared for. Combining some of the most difficult conditions from various other forms of photography, sports photography requires patience and perseverance if one is to capture the winning shot. In this article, I outlay my top 5 tips for shooting fast action sports.


Pro Camera Body

I shot NCAA football for seven years. The first two I used a low end professional Canon DSLR camera. The last five years, I switched to the Canon 1D series. The difference in performance was so noticeable that I often wondered how I survived the first two years.

Canon 1D series offers several advantages for shooting sports which are not available in other models. A huge factor is burst mode, which I will touch upon next. But not to be overlooked is the solid, tight construction of the camera bodies in the 1D line.

Sports photography requires you spend a lot of time shooting in dirty, dusty, and rainy conditions. Forget the pristine studio. When mud-covered 230-pound linebackers and running backs are colliding in front of you, your camera had better be well-sealed. I use my 1D in downpours, snow, and extreme heat shooting NCAA football. It has never once experienced a performance glitch.


Burst Mode

Burst mode allows a DSLR to shoot numerous images in rapid succession. While almost all DSLR cameras will have a burst mode, cameras suited for fast action photography offer the ability to capture more images per second than a normal DSLR can capture.

To effectively capture the action, a DSLR should offer a burst mode of at least 7 to 10 frames per second. In fact, the latest camera models are pushing close to 15 frames per second.

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This is critical. Even if you are tracking the action well, and have pinpoint focus, you will often only get 1 or 2 really good shots after a burst capture of 20 images. The more images your burst mode can capture, the higher the odds that you will come away with a great shot.


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AI Servo Center Point Focus

Image by Gareth Williams

I am often asked how to best focus the camera when shooting high speed sporting events. My favorite methodology is to set my lens to autofocus, utilizing AI Servo. This focusing mode is great for capturing fast, unpredictable movement. (DSLR autofocus Q&A)

Camera focusing technology is changing fast, but I still prefer the tried and true center point focus. The center point has always given me the most accurate focus in the quickest time. Utilizing the center point also makes it easy to track my subject in the center of my frame, knowing my subject will be in sharp focus.


Max Out the Whites

Prior to the start of a game, and at least a few times per quarter, I manually adjust my exposure. I am typically shooting in manual mode, with a fairly wide open aperture to maximize light entering the camera and also to send a distracting background into a blur. What I usually do is lock my ISO at 100 and my aperture to my preferred depth of field, and then adjust shutter speed to get my desired exposure.

There is very little time to make exposure changes in between plays. A quick method I like to use is to take a picture of a white uniform, or the stripes on a referee's shirt. If the white is just starting to "blink" in my LCD, indicating the whites are about to be clipped, I find my exposures are usually pretty good. (Using your camera's histogram)

One thing to keep in mind when choosing which parameter to adjust is that you want your shutter speed to be at least 1/500s to freeze the action in a sport like basketball, soccer, or football. I use this speed as a minimum threshold, and often prefer to shoot at 1/1000s or faster. In lower light conditions, your only choices will be to completely open the aperture and increase your ISO.


Know the Game

No matter what camera you are shooting with, or how much photography experience you have, being knowledgeable about the game you are shooting will give you a big advantage over other photographers on the scene.

Watch enough sporting events and you will begin to anticipate the action even before the play starts. This knowledge only comes from following the sport, and knowledge of the teams you are photographing. At the very least your pregame preparation should include studying the teams' programs to find out who its key players are, and how they are used in certain circumstances.

This simple task will allow you to keep an eye on a key player on the field at all times, whereas other photographers may be completely lost in the action wondering what is going to happen next.


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Sports photography requires practice and patience. If you are new to sports photography, expect that your first few outings will be a bit disappointing. Don't get discouraged. Apply what you have learned in this article, and continuously strive to improve your technique and the amount of winning shots you produce per game. Most sports photographers report a substantial improvement after their first few games, so keep working hard and the results will come.

About The Author:

Daniel Padavona is a sports and travel photographer for Warmpicture Images, which provides stock photography to designers and bloggers. Daniel has nearly a decade of experience shooting NCAA football, and enjoys helping others learn sports photography.

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