I was recently given the assignment to photograph a race with more than 16,000 runners and that led me to think about what a delightful challenge sports photography really is. Whether you’re a professional looking to hone your skills or you’d simply like a great collection of images from your children’s sporting events, here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks for sports photography. Put these tips to work for you, and you’ll certainly make the most of any sporting event!
Before You Leave
As you’re packing gear for your sporting event, there are several things to consider. First, make sure that all of your memory cards are formatted and ready to go. There is nothing worse than being 14 shots into a game or race and then realizing that you’re going to miss some of the action because your memory cards are already full. If, for whatever reason, you have any unformatted memory cards, leave them at home so you don’t inadvertently put a full card in your camera. Better yet, format all of your cards so that nothing is left to chance.
The next consideration is lenses. Some photographers prefer to take two cameras along — one with a wide lens and another with a long lens. This is because sporting events don’t leave you much if any, time for lens changes. My thought is that if a sporting event doesn’t leave you time for lens changes, then it also doesn’t leave you time to switch back and forth between cameras. For that reason, I stick with a 70-200mm lens because it gives me all of the view angles I use most.
There are a few other pieces of gear that come in handy. Monopods can save your arms, although they make it harder for you to get shots at low angles. Weather-appropriate gear is nice to have too, no matter what the weatherman says. You could face rain or snow, so make sure you’re prepared!
The only piece of gear I don’t recommend is a flash. Not only will it cast your subjects in harsh light — and leave dark shadows — but athletes may also find it distracting, or worse, blinding if they happen to glance your way.
Sports Photography and Your Camera
There are lots of different camera settings and features that can help you out. Here are a few things to remember:
- Using long focal lengths will help you create images with more background blur, which is especially nice to show motion and to isolate your subject.
- Sports photography is one genre that calls for nicely balanced exposures. Don’t take the time to examine each image for areas of over or under exposure on your camera’s LCD display. You’ll get more accurate information faster by using the camera’s histogram, instead.
- Use an aperture of f/4 as a starting point. The depth of field is narrow enough to isolate your subjects, but not so narrow that you lose lots of shots to blur.
- Keep your ISO low, but not so low that you experience motion blur from using slow shutter speeds. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your shutter speed goes no lower than 1/640. You may even want to set your ISO to “auto” just so that you can keep the correct aperture and shutter speed. Remember that we can fix sensor noise in post-processing, but we can’t remove motion blur.
- Continuous autofocus is a must so that you can keep the focus on moving subjects.
- You’ll also need to use single point focus. If you select all focus points, you may miss shots as your camera fishes for a focus lock or focuses on the wrong things. For that matter, make sure to focus on the hips of runners and athletes, not the face. The hips tend to stay relatively stationary but faces move and turn, causing you to lose focus.
- Use your camera’s high-speed drive so that you’re taking photos in quick bursts of two to four. Low speed drives — or even taking photos singly — just isn’t fast enough to get images of everyone at a race or other sporting events.
- When it comes to metering, choose anything but spot metering. You need consistent exposures (no light and dark spots), so choose settings like “Scene,” “Evaluative,” or “Matrix” metering to help you achieve the right balance.
Tips and Tricks for the Big Event
At sporting events, particularly races, the participants are often packed together very closely — especially at the beginning of the event. The key to getting as many unique images of the participants as possible is to stay calm and realize that you’re likely to miss a few, despite your best efforts. Some photographers, because they’re panicking, default to wide-angle lenses so that they can zoom out and capture entire groups. However, zooming into photograph individuals is the preferable option, even if it means you capture a third or less of the athletes. If you want, take a few zoomed out shots of groups of athletes to establish the story you’re trying to tell, then zoom back into focus on individuals.
It’s also important to get the composition and exposure right directly out of the camera. Post-processing tools can fix many flaws, but even if you batch process images, you’re looking at doing so for hundreds or thousands of images once the event is over. Getting it right the first time means less work for you later on and an overall better-finished product.
Speaking of composition, there are a few rules that you should try to follow wherever possible:
- Try to photograph athletes as they’re coming towards you, not from the back or sides. This makes for a more dynamic image, and you’ll be better able to capture facial expressions, too.
- Get as low to the ground as you can by kneeling. Low view angles make the action seem more intense, thus making your images much more powerful.
- As you move around to get the best vantages, always be aware of your surroundings. Never position yourself in such a way that you impede the athletes. Doing so can not only cause injuries, but an accidental misstep on your part gives all sports photographers a bad reputation.
- When it comes to accidents and injuries, adopt a “No Chimping!” rule. Chimping is checking the LCD display after each shot. Not only does this practice make you less aware of your surroundings (and any imminent danger) but it also means you might miss something great in the time it takes you to glance down at your camera.
- Don’t forget to get a few shots of the spectators! Their reactions to the things that they’re watching are just as important to telling the story as photos of the athletes themselves.
Sports photography is a challenge, but as long as you stay calm and remember what’s important, you’ll do just fine. Use these tips and you’ll be prepared for whatever the day brings!