How to Take Good Sports Pictures

Jennifer Betts
Butterfly stroke

Most people don't have access to the technology that sports photojournalists use, but there are some general rules of thumb regarding how to take good pictures that can make your equipment work for you. Taking pictures at a football game, baseball game, hockey game, or some other sporting event presents a unique situation that requires a certain style or methodology. Learn how to freeze the moment at your next sports outing by learning to use the equipment you have properly.

Equipment & Settings

The first thing you need to look at is your equipment. In addition to extra batteries, memory cards, or film, you'll need a few items to photograph the best moments in sporting, along with an understanding of how to capture the action.

Camera

It will be challenging trying to capture fast action with a point-and-shoot camera; therefore, most of the time you will see professionals use a digital SLR or possibly a 35mm camera. While any of these devices will work to shoot sports photography, you need to use them a little differently to get the results you're looking for when photographing that little league game.

  • Point-and-Shoot - With your standard point-and-shoot camera, zoom out as far as you can to get close to the action. Utilize the camera's 'sports' mode (typically, the setting icon is of a runner), if it is available. Additionally, using this mode can help you shoot a series in succession or a burst.
  • Digital SLR Camera - An SLR camera will allow you to have more freedom in choosing how to shoot your sports event. Not only can you use the built-in action mode, but you can also use the shutter and aperture priority modes to capture that touch down. If you're an advanced user, you can even go completely manual.
  • 35mm Camera - The 35mm is very similar to the digital SLR in function, except you need to use film with a high ISO.

Tripod

A tripod or some type of stabilizing system yields crisp photos. However, there are times when it isn't possible to use a tripod at sporting events. For these occasions, try bracing the camera against your chest or resting it on a hand rail, chair, or bench to prevent blurry images caused by camera shake.

Filters

To reduce the glare that sometimes occurs in brightly lit outdoor photos, consider purchasing a polarizing filter if your camera supports filters. If a filter isn't an option, a pair of cheap polarized sunglasses placed across the viewfinder might work, though it may also darken your images. Experiment beforehand and adjust your camera's settings accordingly.

Lenses

As you can probably imagine, it's nearly impossible to get any sort of pictures taken from the playing field itself. Therefore, you'll want to get a digital camera with adequate optical zoom. These are known as telephoto lenses because they allow you to get close-up shots from far away.

Bear in mind, however, optical zoom is significantly different from digital zoom. With optical zoom, the camera is actually taking a picture of the zoomed-in action. With digital zoom, the camera is simply taking a portion of a larger scene and stretching it out to fill the frame. This diminishes the quality of the shot. When looking for a lens, consider getting one that features:

  • Optical zoom (18-300mm)
  • Built-in image stabilization
  • Lower aperture (f/1.4-2.8)
  • Continuous auto-focus
  • Weather resistant

Techniques

While it is great to have the top of the line SLR, if you don't know how to use it, it's not any better than a point-and-shoot for your child's first home run. On that same note, with a little creativity and some practice, you can use that point-and-shoot camera to its full potential in sports photography. It truly is your technique that makes all the difference in catching that epic three-pointer.

Research the Location

Location is important when you are shooting sporting events. If possible, arrive at your destination early and set up somewhere that provides good visibility. Visiting the event location a couple of days early to snag a few practice shots can also help you learn how to take good sports pictures. However, be sure to get there at the same time of day that your event will take place.

Exposure

Photographing Sports

Whether you are shooting your child's t-ball game or trying to get pictures of your favorite hockey team, you want the action to be crisp and the images to be visible. Therefore, you have to know your exposure so your images aren't blurry, washed out, or too dark. Nikon offers some great tips if you are just getting into the field.

Shutter Speed

If you'd prefer to not use the automatic "sports" mode, you can help reduce the amount of motion blur by using shorter shutter speeds. These sports photography techniques are similar to what you would want to do when taking action photographs. By using shorter shutter speeds, you are exposing the photo sensor to light for a shorter amount of time and thus, capturing the image faster. When using an SLR, consider an exposure of a minimum of 1/500, but 1/1000 or higher is even better.

Depending on your chosen photography style, you may or may not want some blur to give the impression of motion. Too much blur makes the picture incomprehensible, however. People want to see facial expressions and distinct players.

Aperture

An aperture (aka f-stop) should be open to let more light in. The faster the action, the more light you need to be able to use those faster shutter speeds. If you plan on doing a lot of sports shooting, look for a lens with an f/1.4-2.8; however, with the right lighting an f/3.5-4.5 work as well.

ISO

This is your camera's sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light. You'll typically want this to be 1600 or 3200 to allow you to capture the action without a flash. While a higher ISO will add more noise or grain, it will help you to get clearer pictures. Remember grain is better than blur in sports photography unless that blur was intentional.

Turn Off the Flash

Now that you know how to expose the pictures, it's important to shut off your flash. While, there are definitely times when using a flash is required, in sports photography, a flash simply does not have enough "throw" to reach the athlete. What results is a picture that is remarkably dark; turn off the flash if possible.

Context and Focus

When shooting sports photography, remember continuous auto-focus is your friend. With the fast movement, this ensures your camera is always focusing to keep everything as sharp as possible.

The player should be the center of attention and should be the one in focus, not any of the background elements. In fact, having background elements out of focus can have quite a dramatic effect. Depending on your target composition, you may or may not want to include more or less context to your athlete subject. A football player rushing at the 50-yard line is not the same as one rushing into the end zone for a touchdown.

Consider the Event

Not all sports photography is the same. The lighting in indoor and outdoor events will be drastically different. Sometimes the lighting in the same event will differ significantly depending on the time of day. For example, you can have both night and day football games or basketball games both inside and outdoors. Therefore, you need to modify your settings for outdoor and low-light situations.

  • Photographing Person Paragliding

    Outdoor - When shooting an outdoor event, play with the shutter and aperture to get the best exposure. To avoid your images getting too light, a polarized lens comes in handy. The sports mode on your point-and-shoot with continuous focus works great for outdoor events, too.

  • Low-Light - Here things get a little tricky, because you have to compensate for low or fluorescent lighting. In this instance, use a higher ISO and the highest shutter speed you can get away with to catch the action. Additionally, open the aperture to allow the most light in. It can also be handy to preset the white balance so you don't get that dreaded gold tone. With your point-and-shoot, this takes some playing around to perfect the lighting.

Burst Shooting

Timing is tricky business no matter what you're photographing but especially in sports photography. It is key to try to anticipate the action and take lots of shots. Continuous or burst shooting modes provide additional help in capturing action shots, so check your camera to see if it offers these features. Burst shooting almost always produces at least a few action shots that are crisp and clear.

Get More Than the Action

Remember sports photography isn't all about that action. If it was, it'd be called action photography. Sports photography is about the team, the game, or the win or loss. It's about those dramatic moments that make or break the game. Not only do you want those high-end action shots, but you want the drama, too. Find the moments you'd like to remember, such as the coach talking to the quarterback before the big play, or the look on the players' faces as they make that win. These moments are just as memorable and precious as the action of your little leaguer sliding into home.

Try Different Angles

Sometimes, it's all about how you take the picture not just the technique. If you only have a point-and-shoot at your disposal, try getting creative with the angles and the content of the scene. Try things like off-centering the athlete or using the blur to your advantage; these little tricks can take a mediocre image to one framed above your mantel.

It's All About the Game

While there are several devices, cameras, and techniques you can use to improve your shots, it is how you use that equipment that makes the difference. Lighting, angles, and creativity can improve your image no matter what you are using. Remember, it's all about capturing the moment for years to come.

How to Take Good Sports Pictures