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Sports and Action Photography

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Tutorials (61)     

Back when I was a student, my first paid assignments were in sports photography. I figured I’d give it a go, it couldn’t be that different to shooting everything else, right? It didn’t take long for me to learn that there were some very important requirements for shooting action. Among them, the most important requirement of all – you need to be fast!

Sports shooting is a very dynamic and exciting photographic genre. It encompasses everything from motorsports to gymnastics, horse riding to figure skating, surfing to bowling…the list is endless. But no matter what sport takes your fancy, you’ll have a fun time chasing the action.


Let’s start by talking about shutter speed. When it comes to shooting action, shutter speed is our friend! We want to make sure that we’re shooting around 1/500th or higher where we can. At this point we can start to really freeze the motion. For motor vehicles or bikes you will probably find that an even higher shutter speed is required, but for runners, football players and other sports people on foot, 1/500th should be enough.

It’s up to you whether you decide to shoot in full manual mode or shutter priority (TV mode). Aperture and depth of field aren’t as important here, so if you choose to set your speed in shutter priority, your camera will figure out the aperture on its own. This can be a huge time saver and prevent you from forgetting to change your settings as the light gets brighter or darker. However, if you notice that your aperture is getting unreasonably low (below f.4 for instance), you can increase the ISO. Again, the camera will work out a suitable aperture number (which should be above f.4). You should be able to go up to at least ISO 1000 before noticing any obvious digital noise, but always double check by zooming in to your pictures, on camera.


There’s a few things that are very helpful to have in your kit for sports photography, the first being a telephoto zoom lens with a good focal length range. The thing about sports photography is that you can never be quite sure where the action is going to take place, so you need to give yourself the flexibility to zoom as necessary. I recommend choosing a lens that gets you up to 200mm, or 300mm, if you can handle the price tag. It’s certainly possible to catch the action at 100mm or less, but you’ll need to move yourself closer to the subject, which isn’t always possible, and in some situations, can be dangerous.

You may find it useful to have a monopod if you plan on sitting or standing in one place for a long time. This will take a lot of stress off of your back, neck and arms (try holding a camera to your face for hours on end without a break and you’ll know what pain is!). Make sure that you adjust it to your eye level if possible.

In some close-range situations, an external flash may be useful. Not only will it lift a shadowy subject but help to freeze motion. You will probably find though, that to take your shutter speed above 1/250th, you will need to set the set it to high speed sync.

How to get the shot

Panning: A good trick for getting your subjects to appear like they’re moving, rather than frozen in place, is to use panning. This works especially well for motorsports, runners, bike riders etc. We’ve talked a little bit about panning on the blog before, but just to recap, panning is the process of moving and shooting with the action so that the subject is sharp, but the background blurs past. Try setting your shutter speed between 1/30th and 1/60th, focus the AF points to centre (to pinpoint your subject) and choose the focus mode to AI Servo (to track the subject while it moves) for best results. Then follow your subject with the camera, snapping shots when it draws close enough.

Cropping: Ideally your subject should be able to fill the entire frame of the photo. If it takes up less than 1/3rd of the frame, move closer. Avoid cropping off limbs and other important features. If you’re finding that your cropping is too tight, move back.

Positioning: Getting yourself in the right position is essential. You may find it useful to spend the first 10 minutes of your session snapping some test shots and moving yourself according to your findings.

Background: It’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Try and shoot your subject as they’re moving across open grass, dirt or concrete. Avoid distracting objects like bins, cars or other people and aim for a clean background.

Take more than one photo: This one seems pretty obvious, but it must be said. Everything can change in the blink of an eye, so don’t make the mistake of snapping what you think will be ‘the shot’, then stopping there. While the action is happening, keep snapping!


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