Philip Andrews reveals his top sports photography techniques for capturing great sporting moments, regardless of whether it's a climactic rugby moment or an egg and spoon race at a school sports day.
A lot of photographers shy away from shooting action or sports photography because they say they don’t have the equipment needed to make great action photographs.
In some respects this is true. Great action photography can take a lot of skill and good equipment to produce, but this shouldn’t be a barrier keeping new photographers, or the occasional action shooter, from trying their hand.
Photography should be an enjoyable and memorable activity and nothing could be more so than spending the afternoon shooting a local village football match, or the kids on the carousel on Brighton beach.
And to capture great images from these activities you will need some of the skills of the sports photographer.
In fact, I believe that shooting action or sports events will help develop a range of skills that might be missed if the photographer avoided the area. Timing, thinking ahead, seeing and working seamlessly with your equipment are all skills that can be learnt while ‘having a go’ at shooting action or sports photography.
How to shoot action and sports photography: It’s all in the timing!
Timing is crucial. It’s the photographer’s job to look and anticipate where and how the action is going to unfold, and then be ready to capture it.
In a sports photography context the area where the action will be is fairly predictable, bounded by sidelines, and governed by the norms and rules of the game.
In football, for instance, you know, or rather hope, that there will be some action around the goalmouth. The pitch and the game’s structure itself, dictate this.
If timing is the key, then how does a new sports photographer develop great photographic timing? Simple – practice, practice, practice!
How to shoot action and sports photography: Pre-planning
If possible, it is worth checking out the location beforehand. Look to see where the best vantage points are, and assess how far you will be from the action.
A rough rule of thumb is that for each 10 metres you are from your subject you will need 100mm of lens length if your subject is to fill a standard vertical 35mm frame. In practice this means that if you are shooting a football match and you are 30-40 metres from the penalty area, a 300-400mm lens should give you full-frame shots.
In sports like cricket, photographers will often use lenses of 600mm with ‘doublers’ attached, giving an effective lens length of 1200mm. Being close enough is only part of the equation when choosing your shooting spot.
Watch out for distracting backgrounds. It’s true that some of the distraction of the crowd in the background can be minimised by using a shallow depth of field, but it is best to have as clear a background as possible. This will help to make your subject stand out.
How to shoot action and sports photography: Expect the worst
From the weather, that is. This doesn’t mean you need to be laden down with all manner of wet weather gear. A ‘pac-a-mac’ and a couple of plastic bags will see you and your valuable equipment through most wet-weather conditions.
How to shoot action and sports photography: Finding shots
Know your sport
Ensure you have a good working understanding of the activity you are shooting. Then you can pre-empt where some of the action will be, and make sure you are in the right place at the right time.
You will also be able to pick the peak shooting points of the action, a moment which typifies the activity. For instance, in golf, it’s the end of the swing at the moment of contact with the ball.
Think about the nature of the action and try to capture the parts of the activity that are most visually descriptive
When analysing the action, you are not just looking for the most aesthetically representative moment, but also the one that can most easily be captured by your camera.
Take a competitive diver as an example. There is a point in the execution of the dive when just after leaving the platform the upward motion ceases and for a fraction of a second the diver is suspended in mid air.
In photographic terms this part of the action can be frozen more easily than at the fastest point of the activity where the diver enters the water.
The final pre-planning activity for sports photography is to check with organisers about any restrictions beforehand. This will determine the equipment you need and the range of shots you will be able to get.
Often photographers are confined to a particular part of the arena, or you’ll need clearance to photograph pitch side, or flash will not be allowed.
Don’t watch – shoot!
There is an old sports photographer’s adage that says: ‘If you see the action through the viewfinder then you’ve lost it’, and this is largely true.
At the moment of exposure for most digital users, the viewfinder goes blank to allow the mirror to retract and the shutter open. So if you see the action then you have missed the chance to record it.
It takes practice, but anticipating the action point is one of the most important skills needed to take good sports photography images.
Shoot plenty of images – after all, exposing digital frames essentially costs nothing. Wherever possible, use the continuous shooting feature on your camera to capture action sequences. Or better still, if your camera is up to it, shoot ‘through’ the action and select the best images later at the desktop.
Look beyond the obvious
Don’t forget that there are stories to be had behind the scenes as well. It could be worthwhile following the progress of one individual through the warm ups, heats, the big event and the aftermath, be it jubilation or despondency.
Shoot high, shoot low, but make sure you change your angle of view. Make the most of the location by moving around to find new vantage points.
Also ensure you vary your shots. Use different focal lengths so that at the end of the event you have a combination of close-up, mid-range and long shots.
A couple of good-quality zoom lenses can help cover an astonishing range of focal lengths.
How to shoot action and sports photography: Shooting techniques
Frozen and Blurred Techniques
There are a variety of techniques that you can use for sports photography. These range from those designed to freeze a precise moment to those that give the feeling or sense of movement and those that are a combination of the two.
Freezing the action for sports photography
Freezing the action is the ultimate aim for a lot of sports photographers, and there are essentially two techniques you can use to achieve this:
1. Fast shutter speed
There is a direct link between aperture, shutter speed, ISO value and the light in the scene. Put simply, to be able to use speeds that will freeze motion, you need a fast lens, high ISO setting and good light.
2. Fast light source.
The alternative of shooting with a fast shutter speed is exposing with a light source that has a very short duration, like a portable flash.
Most on-camera flash systems output light for durations of between 1/800 and 1/30,000sec. It is this brief flash that freezes the motion.
Don’t be confused with the shutter speed your camera uses to sync with the flash – usually between 1/125 and 1/250 sec – the length of time that is used to expose your frame is based on the flash’s duration.
Using slower shutter speeds for sports photography
Photographers also like to use slower shutter speeds to capture moving subjects. The blurry results communicate a feeling of motion.
The shutter speed, direction of the motion through the frame, the lens length and the speed of the subject all govern the amount of blur in the final image.
Try a range of speeds with the same subject. Your tests will give you a starting point that you can use next time you are shooting a similar subject.
Using panning and flash blur for sports photography
An extended blurred motion technique is panning. This involves the photographer moving with the motion of the subject, keeping the subject in the frame during the exposure.
When this technique is coupled with a slow shutter speed, it’s possible to produce photographs that have sharp subjects and blurred backgrounds. Try starting with speeds of 1/30th sec.
You can also combine stillness and movement, using a flash blur technique. To achieve this effect you need to set your camera on a slower than normal sync shutter speed. The short flash duration will freeze part of the action and the long shutter will provide a sense of motion.
Focusing issues common with sports photography
In the viewfinder of a modern AF system you will see one, or more than one, focusing area. For the camera to focus accurately, the subject must be in this area.
In entry-level cameras the area is positioned in the centre of the frame. In the viewfinders of more expensive examples you will not only find multiple focusing areas but you will also notice that they are distributed across the viewfinder.
With the aid of a dial, or a thumb toggle, the photographer can choose which area will be used for primary focus. This enables the focusing of subjects that are off-centre.
Either manual or autofocus modes are suitable for sports photography. There are a range of activities that allow the photographer the chance to predict where the subject will be with reasonable accuracy.
A zone focusing technique is most useful for these occasions. To use this technique the photographer would pre-focus (in manual mode) on one point and wait for the subject to pass into this zone before pressing the shutter.
What about AF modes, though? Two AF modes are found on most cameras: single and constant auto focus. These determine the way the AF system works on your camera.
In single mode when the button is held halfway down, the lens focuses on the main subject. If the user wishes to change the point of focus then they will need to remove their finger and repress the button. If the subject moves, while using this mode, then you must refocus.
The constant or continuous focusing mode also focuses on the subject when the shutter button is half pressed, but when the subject moves the camera will adjust the focusing in order to keep the subject sharp. This is sometimes called focus tracking.
Some AF systems have taken this idea so far that they have ‘pre-emptive focusing’ features that not only track the subject but analyse its movement across the frame and try to predict where it will move to. This helps to keep the main subject fully sharp.
Each mode has its uses. Single focusing is handy if you wish to focus on a zone into which the subject will appear. Constant is more useful for subjects that move more randomly.
Using continuous shooting mode for sports photography
Many digital cameras have the option to shoot a rapid sequence of pictures. The rate at which sequential images are captured and the total number possible for a single burst varies.
If you plan to take part in sports photography regularly, use the list below to compare the continuous modes before buying a new camera:
- Check the frame rate (in frames per second)
- Check the sustain rate. Look for how many frames can be shot at the fastest rate before slowing. Find out which file formats work with the fastest rates
- Check the compression level used if the mode is only available in JPEG format. Low-compression images process faster but they have lessquality.
- Look at the picture dimensions for each mode. For example, a very fast mode that produces pictures with only enough pixels to print a postage stamp isn’t that useful.
- Check the type of memory card used for the statistics as the speed with which the card saves the files can affect the overall frame rate.
How to shoot action and sports photography: Equipment
If you’re serious about action and sports photography then equip yourself with the right kit for the job.
Check that your camera has the option to select a high ISO value. This can help capture sports or action photographs.
Professional action photographers use very fast auto-focus cameras, but this does not mean that good shots can not be taken with the slower entry level systems or even with focus control switched to manual.
In fact, in some cases, the pros prefer to turn off their AF systems and use manual focusing.
Generally, the fastest (widest maximum aperture) and longest lenses are best suited to action and sports photography.
These factors allow you to get in close and maintain a high, action-freezing, shutter speed.
This said, most 80-200mm f5.6 zooms are suitable for outdoors events if fast ISO settings are used.
Image stabilisation or vibration-reduction lenses are also handy. Great for shooting in low light, they enable you to continue shooting with slower shutter speeds.
In the interest of getting the sharpest sports photography images possible it’s also advisable to use a tripod or monopod.
Heavy lenses are very difficult to hold steady. You will also find that camera shake becomes a lot more of an issue when you start to use long focal length lenses.
A good tripod with an easier to use head or a monopod fixed to the tripod collar of your lens will help solve these problems.
Ensure that your camera’s batteries are fully charged and that you have a spare set stashed in a side pocket of your bag.
Auto focus cameras are notorious for their power consumption, especially so when you are asking the camera to drive a long lens back and forth during the whole of a sports event.
Sports photography has a higher ratio of shots taken to shots used, than other types of photography, so ensure you have plenty of space.
How to shoot action and sports photography: Editing in Photoshop
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t improve your action images with a little post-production ‘tweaking’ in Photoshop.
With that in mind, here are a couple of common tweaks that could make all the difference to the quality of your final image.
Tip 1: Action comp
Do you have several great action images of an event? Rather than display one picture, make a simple composition of several in Photoshop, then output the file to larger poster paper.
Step One: Open the chosen images in Photoshop. Use Window>Arrange>Tile to view them all on screen. Resize each photo (Image>Image Size) so they are all similar dimensions. Create a new document big enough to encompass all images.
Step Two: Select the new document, do View>Show>Grid, and ensure the View>Snap to>Grid option is activated. Click each picture and drag them onto the new document’s canvas. Use the grid to align each picture.
Step Three: Open the Layers palette. Notice that each of the ‘dragged’ images have created a new layer. Add a simple drop shadow or stroked line to each image by selecting the layer and then selecting Layer>Layer Style>Drop Shadow.
Tip 2: Motion blur filter
Add blur to a frozen subject to recapture a sense of movement. To retain some sharp elements and add blurry ones, we will apply Motion Blur through a graded selection.
Step One: Click on the Quick Mask icon, bottom right of the toolbar. Double click it and select Masked Areas. Choose the Gradient tool and select Radial Gradient from the options bar. Click drag the tool from the helmet towards the edge of the shot to create a Quick Mask gradient.
Step Two: To switch back to Standard editing mode, click the Standard Mode icon. The mask will be converted to an active selection. Do Filter>Blur>Motion Blur and adjust the Distance and Angle of the blur. Click OK to apply.