How to take action/sports photos.

When taking action photos, whether it’s of a sporting event or your kids playing the key is to freeze the motion. During the summer this is easy, but during winter months or when you’re indoors it becomes a bit more difficult. The trick is light, your camera needs a lot of it, and the amount that it gets can be controlled by three different sources: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.

Aperture is the size of the lens opening. Think of light as water, and your picture is a bucket you’re trying to fill. Aperture is the size of the hose that you are using to fill said bucket. Here is where it gets a bit confusing. Apertures get smaller as the number gets bigger. An aperture of 1.0 is BIGGER than an aperture of 1.4, which is bigger than 2.8, which is bigger than 4, which is bigger than 5.6, and so on and so on. Most entry level lenses have a range between 3.5 (when zoomed all the way out 5.6 or smaller when zoomed in) and 22.

Shutter Speed is the length of time that you have the hose in the bucket.

ISO is a little trickier, but think of it as the size of the pump.

The best way to start getting good action photos is to set your camera to APERTURE priority mode, on Nikon Cameras that would be the “A” and on Cannon cameras that would be “Av”. Once you are there you want to select the smallest number available. When looking through your camera or at the LCD screen it will show up with the letter f in front of the number (f5.6 or F4). What aperture priority mode does it tells your camera that you want to shoot in a specific aperture and then it allows your camera to figure out the best shutter speed to make a good exposure. Once the aperture is set take a photo and see if your subject is sharp. If it is not, if there is still some motion blur then you need a faster shutter speed, which means that you’ll need more water in the bucket in less time. We’re already using as big of a hose as we have, so we need to use a bigger pump.

Now it’s time to adjust your ISO. You want to keep increasing your ISO until you are freezing the action. You’ll want as low of an ISO as you can get away with because as you increase your ISO you’ll introduce more digital noise or grain into your image. Keep in mind though that noise can be forgiven and overlooked but a blurry photo is not usable. It’s better to introduce a little noise into a photo than it is to have a blurry photo. When I photograph high school sports I’m often times using ISO 3,200 to 6,400. Another option is to turn on your camera’s Auto ISO if it has that feature.

Another option is to freeze the action not with a fast shutter speed but with flash. I’ll talk about that in a later post.

Once you’ve frozen the action now it’s time to make a good photo. The most important thing is to know the subject that you are photographing. What is the key point? In basketball look for shots around the basket, or at the top of the key (lots of passes, picks, and ball movement), in wrestling know what is likely to lead to a takedown or escape, when it comes to your kids what will leave a good expression on their face. Know what you are looking for and be ready.

After you know what you are looking to shoot then we need to start making the photograph interesting. The most boring thing you can do is to take a picture at eye level. Everyone sees that every day all day long. You need to either get higher or lower. If you get above your subject they will look smaller, and if you get lower they’ll look bigger. Most sports photographers try to get low and shoot up, When shooting up jumps look more impressive, players look intimidating, the game looks bigger.


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