How to Shoot Winning Sports Photos - school
Brought to you by the photographers at SmugMug

This article originally appeared on http://news.smugmug.com on March 22, 2011.Spring has nearly sprung, sports fans!  If you’re a fair-weather photographer, you’ll soon be blowing the dust off of your gear and heading to the track, course, court, or diamond.  We’ll offer some tips we hope will make your photos a home run. Today's Photog Tip of the Week comes from Master Support Hero and sports pro, Steve Mills of Downriver Photography.

What makes a great sports photo?

In a word: Drama! With today’s amazing digital cameras shooting in excess of 10 FPS, it’s tempting to be a ‘machine-gun-mama’ holding down the shutter release anytime there’s action, rattling off shots from your dSLR Uzi.  Fight the urge and use it sparingly!  After your memory card stops sizzling and your batteries return to something below 500 Kelvin, you’re almost certain to have some ‘keepers’.  You’ll likely capture the bat hitting the ball, but it takes practice, restraint and discipline to look beyond, to the player’s wide eyes and the self-satisfaction of their first home run and capture the shot you really want.  Drama.

Know your sport!

For great sports photography, it’s essential to know your sport so you can anticipate the decisive moment.  The swing on the pitch, the slide to home, and the frustration of a strike-out are all important decisive moments not only to anticipate the action, but the emotion of each. If you’re not sure what a flag on the field means, or what a feat running 100 yards in 9.4 seconds is, you’re sure to miss some drama.

Isolate your subject(s).

One rule of composition says, ‘If it doesn’t contribute to the scene in some way, it’s best left out’.  This is especially true in sports photography. Nearly every sport has tons of distraction.  From refs, to spectators, to sponsors, they all compete for attention in your frame.  Don’t let a screaming spectator steal the scene from your slugger.  Use a respectable telephoto lens to fill your frame with drama and adjust your aperture to control the depth of field, blurring out the blight.  If most of your shots show the whole infield and cause viewers to hunt for the action and drama, it’s time to upgrade your lens.

Get a Proper Exposure

Most cameras have a number of different exposure modes including spot metered, center weighted, and evaluative metering.  Most are pretty reliable if you understand how they work.  I’ve often heard, “It was such a bright, sunny day, but all my photos came out dark!” followed by cursing their camera.  Regardless of the exposure mode you choose, the camera will look at the metering area you defined (a spot, the center, or the whole scene) and crunch some numbers to come up with a value for that area.  That value will be considered the middle value for the scene.  This means if your metered area consists mostly of bright clouds, sky, or player uniforms, the camera will now consider them the mid-tone! This turns your bright whites into something near middle-gray, and your whole scene turns dark.  To combat this, add exposure compensation to let your camera know, ‘these whites should be white!’ then check your camera’s histogram for proper levels (see Canadiann’s histogram tips).

Optimize Camera Settings

ISO: The old standards still hold relatively true with 50-200 for bright sunny days, 400 for overcast, and 800-3200 for downright gloomy, with even 6400+ for twilight sports.  Newer dSLRs can handle high ISOs with surprisingly little digital noise so don't be afraid to push it.

Shooting mode: Just say ‘No’ to sports mode!  AV (Aperture Priority) is my favorite for outdoor sports.  It allows you to control the depth of field [depth of focus], and lets the camera worry about shutter speed. Consider bumping up your ISO for a faster shutter speed if needed.

Shutter speed: How fast is enough?  This depends on three things:  

Mood: A fast shutter speed will freeze action.  If you want to convey motion or speed with some motion blur, a slower shutter speed will be required. (1/60th of a second will blur most bat swings, where 1/250th will freeze most)

Sport: Formula-1 racing will require a faster shutter speed than badminton, to freeze action.

and Lens: For hand-held photography, your shutter speed should exceed the focal length of the lens to prevent camera-shake.  Example:  With a 200mm lens, you’ll want to shoot at a minimum of 1/250th.  Many cameras and lenses now have image stabilization that compensates for hand jitters that cause camera-shake, which allows you to shoot at even slower shutter speeds without noticeable blur.

I hope these tips inform, inspire, and encourage you to get out there and get shooting.  We’ll be looking for all your action-packed artistic drama on SmugMug!

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