Have you ever wanted to photograph your child while swimming or playing and didn’t get the result you wanted? Ever tried to take an image of a moving car and it came out a blurry blob? Are your sports images blurred where they needed to be sharp or maybe too static where you needed them blurred? I will try and explain what to look out for when shooting sports, and how to increase your keeper rate when shooting moving subjects.

As with any genre of photography, equipment does play a role in the situation, but for the purpose of this post, I will not be going into much detail with regards to equipment. As an amateur, it will be sufficient if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a lens that has enough reach to isolate your subject from its busy surroundings.

There is a vast amount of different sports to photograph, including motorsport, airshows, water sports, field sports and everything in between. Whether you want to photograph a school event, kids at play, other moving subjects or professional sport, there’s only a couple of possible scenarios you need to learn to handle. For the purpose of setting up your camera, your child running in the backyard and a professional athlete running on a track is exactly the same, and likewise, a race car speeding around an apex will need similar settings to your son or daughter riding on a bike.

There are a few checkpoints I normally check off in my head and certain things I need to decide on before I know what settings I will be using. It will be impossible to touch on all the different scenario’s one can encounter but I will explain my train of thought and how to practically apply these ideas and principles in detail below so you can compensate in the field and on the fly.

1. Light
Most images will be shot with available light, whether it is the sun or stadium lights or a combination of other light sources. Flash is not often used with sports photography, mainly because it blinds the subject. There might be a situation where you are able to use flash, but it won’t be discussed here.
The very first thing I consider when setting up is what does my light look like? Where is it coming from? And is it changing continuously or is it constant?

Your light situation determines your location and angle, your available range of settings, your contrast, and whether you have to keep changing settings as the shoot progresses or whether you can set and forget.

The best way to quickly assess the light conditions are to study the shadows of your subject, if it’s a very defined edged dark shadow, you are likely in sunny conditions or very bright single spotlit scenario. If the shadows are non-existent, very faint or ghosted in different directions you either have an overcast or multiple spot lit scenario.

Most cameras struggle with autofocus in harsh backlit (light coming from behind your subject) conditions. Try and position yourself with the sun/light behind you when the shadows are harsh, or at the very least from the side if the location allows. This is important for proper exposure on your subjects face as well as to help your camera to autofocus. These conditions will render beautiful high contrast results, but can also be too contrasty, and you also run the risk of blowing out your background so be sure to review your images and to check your histogram to make sure your detail is retained.

I personally prefer shooting in overcast conditions, or where artificial lights are shining from multiple directions. This does lower contrast slightly but tends to give a much more even exposure without overexposing the background. The drawback with this type of light is you need fast aperture lenses to compensate for the darker lit conditions. Entry level lenses that take in less light will often result in a situation where you would have to push your ISO way higher than you would normally want to. This is one of the reasons why you see the big lenses used by photographers at certain events.

Lastly if its sunny with patches of clouds scattered across the sky you will have to be aware of the fact that you are dealing with two or more different light intensities, and that your settings will have to change depending on whether the sun is behind the clouds or not.

Overcast lighting made for soft even tones

2. Angle and Background
This is where you can greatly improve your images from that of the average guy with a camera. I suppose it ties in with general composition, but these are often overlooked and not even considered. While keeping in mind where I want to be positioned with regards to the light, the next thing I would do is look at what is available in terms of clean backgrounds behind my subject. I would also consider the distance from my subject to the background, as an example, a busy background 100m behind my subject might render a “cleaner” image than a less-busy background 20m behind my subject. To determine which is best, you will have to take test images in both directions and physically look at the amount of blur behind your subject on the image.

Using the widest open aperture available on your particular lens will help isolate your subject and maximise background blur.

You might want to consider lowering your angle for certain subjects to get rid of the background completely or to give a strong and powerful look to a normally plain scene. For example, photographing from a low perspective when your toddler is riding his bike in front of your house. I’ve also seen some brilliant images taken from above, some even taken with wider focal lengths, showing the subject as well as his/her environment. Think about a photo taken from the top of a dune shooting down on a Dakar contestant racing through a golden valley at sunset with long sharp shadows.

The low angle used with this image gives a different perspective than other eye-level images of the same subject

Low angle for dramatic effect

3. Type of Motion
My best advice would be to determine what type of motion is involved with what you are trying to photograph. You mainly need to figure it out in order to decide whether you would need to show any motion blur in the image or not.
To explain a bit further, running, swimming, jumping, punching and horse riding are all examples of types of movements that would typically be shot in such a way as to freeze the action. For instance the wings of a bird, or the splash from a backstroke swimmer, or the water spray on an AstroTurf surface being propelled forward by the strike of a hockey ball.

 

Here I opted to freeze the water droplets by using a faster shutter speed

There are no hard rules as to what should be “frozen” and what should be left slightly or partially blurred, this is where you can be creative. Perhaps you might want to show a slight movement in the fist of a boxer striking his opponent or the follow through of a flyhalf’s boot, but maybe you would rather want the ball leaving his foot sharp and in focus, or a photograph where the impact of the punch is crystal clear with the droplets of sweat in the air perfectly sharp?

Images that would always look better with motion blur is when you are working with wheels and propellers. This mainly includes motorsport and certain aircraft. Shooting these types of images at faster shutter speeds will result in it looking static. Imagine a propeller driven plane or a helicopter with frozen props, it will look weird and unnatural just “hanging” seemingly in the frame mid-air with nothing that shows motion or movement.

Slow shutter speed emphasizing the fact that the car is in motion

Often beginners opt to set their cameras on the automatic sport setting (running man icon), this is certainly a way to experiment with hit and miss, not something one should want to do on purpose.

While this setting does sometimes work for purposes of freezing action, it does not work when you want to leave certain parts of your frame with motion blur. This is often the reason why so many amateur images of cars, bikes or other vehicles are shown with frozen wheels. A good image of a moving car would have the body of the vehicle sharp with the wheels and background blurred. Learning how to incorporate motion blur into these shots will set your images apart from the average photographer.
Learning to use slower shutter speeds and to pan (following subject movement through the viewfinder) with your subject takes practice to master, but this skill is essential if you want to produce world-class motion blur sports photographs.

 

If I opted for a fast shutter speed this car would look static, as if it were parked on the track.

 

 

 

Notice the slight motion blur on the wheels is enough to sell the idea of movement. This is easier with motorcycles around a bend, because the lean help sell the idea.

 

4. Framing your image
I always try and imagine what I want my shot to look like. This will determine which lens or focal length I am using, as well as whether it will be a tight crop or a wider image.

When framing your image try and find straight horizontal or vertical lines to anchor your image.

Here I used the small part of the upright poles on the right hand of the frame as the anchor. Without this upright, I would have used the horizontal lines of the advertising boards in the background.

Tight framing to emphasize the fierce competition

An example of a skew image without utilizing a horizontal or vertical line. Notice how this image feels unnaturally tilted. Also note the slight blur in Morne Steyns lower leg and the ball. This as a result of not enough shutter speed available for the light conditions. I could have pushed my ISO up, but with the risk of increasing noise.

If you have several converging lines use the strongest of the lot. This will help to give a natural feel to the image. Generally I try and leave more space in front of my subject if its moving horizontally across my frame.

5. Exposure Settings
The available range of settings will be determined by your equipment and the lighting conditions. The settings you use will be determined by a combination of the above and your type of subject. I tend to shoot in manual mode, but making a point of checking my histogram regularly for changes in light.
I divide sports photographs into two main groups in terms of the settings used. This is my thought process.

  • Settings determined by the amount of blur I need.

When I am photographing motorsport I would choose a shutter speed that suits my subject as well as the location on the track, for example, I would use 1/125th for a race car around a corner but I can get away with 1/500th for a motorbike on a fast straight section. If the above was to be on gravel I would use a slightly faster shutter speed in both cases. Here I would set my chosen SS manually and play with ISO and aperture settings to balance the exposure. Essentially Shutter-Speed priority will work roughly the same, but you will have to make sure your aperture doesn’t reach its smallest limit (some lenses can only close down to f16), and that your ISO is as low as needed, otherwise you will risk overexposure. Remember that even though your aperture will be closed down to compensate for the slow shutter speed, you would not have to worry about the large depth of field and your background being in sharp focus because it will be rendered blurry by your panning, essentially isolating your subject.

Here I opted for a longer shot but including the surrounds. A high speed car mixed with slow shutter speed resulted in a beautiful effect with a great sense of speed. Also notice how this slow shutter speed pan got rid of the busy background, which would otherwise be a bunch of parked cars and dustbins.

Quick Tip: Keep in mind the surface on which your subject is traveling. Vehicles on asphalt are easier to photograph at the same shutter speed than for instance a rally car or motorcycle on gravel. The uneven surface of gravel might introduce vertical motion blur which will be picked up with super slow shutter speeds. Make sure you review your images at 100% while on location, to make sure you don’t fall into this trap. This is a tip I was given years ago by motorsport photographer Simon du Plessis while attending his course.

  • Settings determined by the aperture I chose.

Almost all other subjects I would categorize under this heading. Depending on the actual sport, you can get away with shutter speeds from 1/250th for slow-moving subjects like a netball player up to your cameras maximum speeds for freezing faster movements like sprinters or boxing. Here I would suggest shooting a wide open aperture. By using a big aperture, you are ensuring optimal background blur, fast shutter speeds, and in turn, keeping your ISO as low as possible. Here I would set my chosen aperture manually and experiment with ISO and SS combinations to balance out my exposure. Essentially shooting Aperture Priority will work roughly the same, but you will need to make sure your that your SS is fast enough, by setting the correct ISO, otherwise you run the risk of blur or underexposure.

Freezing the action

 

6. Other camera settings
Other camera settings that you need to set to get the best results are;

  • Autofocus to continuous focus (AF-C or AI Servo) This means that if you keep your shutter button depressed halfway while following your subject it will keep on focusing on whatever you aim the active Af points at.
  • You also need to set your drive mode to continuous (normally indicated by three little rectangular blocks) With this setting selected, keeping your shutter button depressed will fire off multiple shots.

Most of the higher end cameras have a multitude of different AF settings or case-based ways of how the cameras AF will react to certain situations, this is something you will have to experiment with and find a setting that works for you.

7. Other Equipment
Other optional equipment I would recommend for general sports photography is a sturdy monopod with a swivel head. I use the BENRO C48T with a DJ90 head. A dust-proof camera bag or hard case is a life saver especially if you are shooting something like a rally. I recommend a small lightweight chair or stool for when you are shooting for extended periods, I use a Walkstool because of its strength to weight ratio. Alternatively I use my trusty B&W outdoor case as a seating option, it doubles as a dust-proof roller case for my gear as well as seating. For airshows I would strongly suggest a tripod and gimbal head, as this will make your life so much easier, not having to worry about  supporting your lens with your hands, and yet you still have free movement in all directions. I use a BENRO Mach3 set of legs and a GH-2 gimbal. Lastly I would suggest investing in fast memory cards, as there’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for your camera’s buffer to write to the card.

 

The info contained in this post are merely what I use when I am faced with shooting a sports image. Its without a doubt not the only way to get to the desired result, but following these steps will get you in the ballpark, pun intended.