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Digital Sports Photography Tips

How to stop action in sports photos

Digital sports photography tips to help “soccer moms” and “baseball dads” capture great photos of their star athlete.

Digital photography has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for parents to capture memories of their children’s school, drama and sports activities. Visit any baseball or soccer field, basketball court or youth sporting event and you will likely see several parents taking photos of their child and his or her team.

This page on digital sports photography tips is to help answer some of the many questions that parents often have about what type of equipment is needed for sports photography as well as providing some key sports photography tips to help improve your digital sports photos.

What is the Best Type of Camera for Digital Sports Photography?

Point-and Shoot Cameras

Point and Shoot CameraTypically compact point-and-shoot cameras do not work well for sports photography. Their longer lag times…the time between when you press the shutter and when the image is captured…is often too long to capture the fast paced action in a sporting event.

Also most of them are somewhat limited in their zoom range and when it comes to most sports photography you need a longer focal range than the typical point-and-shoot camera offers. Another disadvantage is they normally have a more limited ISO range and are more susceptible to digital noise at higher ISO settings, which means they are not well suited for low light situations, such as a gym or night time sports event.

Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras...DSLR's

DSLR CameraThe best camera choice for digital sports photography is a digital single lens reflex…or DSLR…camera. The combination of a DSLR with the right combination of lenses will give you the tools needed to capture the special memories of your star athlete’s achievements.

One affordable DSLR-type of camera worth considering for someone wanting to take pictures of their favorite athlete is the Sony SLT-A55 translucent mirror camera. Able to capture 16.2 megapixel images at 10 frames per second this mid-level camera has great potential for sports photography.

Super Zoom or Bridge Cameras

Super Zoom CameraFor those that do not have the money to invest in a DSLR with the different lenses needed, or simply do not want to mess with interchangeable lenses, or the extra bulk of a DSLR…another possibility would be one of the “super-zoom” cameras on the market today.

These cameras come with the focal range…ability to zoom in on your subject…as well higher frame per second burst rates and more manual controls than your smaller point-and-shoot cameras do. Also their design is more similar to a DSLR making them easier to hold securely and steady. They will also normally feature some type of viewfinder which when used can also help you hold the camera steadier and avoid inducing motion blur into your picture.

Two recent "super-zoom" cameras to released are the Nikon Coolpix P500 and the Sony DSC-HX100V. Either of these would be good considerations if you are thinking about getting this style of camera.

What should I look for when buying a DSLR to use for sports photography?

Here are a few features that should be considered when you are looking to buy a DSLR to use action sports photography.

  1. Good low light performance. Since many sports are played outdoors at night or indoors, often in poorly lit gyms, having a camera capable of capturing images at high ISO speeds with acceptable digital noise is very important. Depending on the lens you use and the lighting conditions of gym or night time sports fields you will likely have to boost your ISO speeds to higher levels to have a high enough shutter speed to capture fast paced sports without motion blur. Many of today’s digital cameras offer outstanding low light performance with acceptable digital noise levels at the higher ISO settings. Look for a DSLR that is able shoot at higher ISO’s and still have acceptable image quality. That way the digital noise that is inevitable when using a higher ISO’s will be able to easily be cleaned up using one of the many software programs that do a great job of filtering out digital noise.
  2. Faster frames per second burst speed. While some people will say a higher burst speed is not necessary, the fact is that it helps increase your chances of getting the peak point in action such as the “bat on ball” moment of contact in baseball or softball. A higher frame per second rate allows you to begin capturing in anticipation of the action and continue capturing on through the action. It can help you capture the moment the bat hits the ball, the reactions after the amazing catch and also provide a sequence of photos that can be used for a cool collage or poster. Five to seven frames per second works well for sports photography and you can find some intermediate level DSLR’s in that range. Most entry level DSLR’s are able to capture at a 3 fps rate.
  3. A Longer telephoto lens. For outdoor sports you will typically need a longer telephoto lens at least in the 200mm-300mm range or even longer. This allows you to zoom in on the player and cover more of the field. You can often find a fairly inexpensive 75-300mm lens for most DSLR's that will do an adequate job on outdoor sports in the daylight. However if you want to do night time sports photography you will need to invest in a “faster” and more expensive lens such as a 70-200mm F2.8 or a 300mm F2.8.
  4. A Fast Lens. For indoor sports you can get by with a lens with a shorter focal range, generally between 50mm to 200mm, depending on the sport and how close you are able to get to the court or mat. However you also will need a “faster” lens such as an F1.7, F2.8 or F4 lens in order to be able to use a high enough shutter speed to stop the action and get sharp photos.

When shopping for a camera to use for sports photography the brand of the camera is not as important as the type and features it has. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax all make DSLR's that are suitable for sports photography.

What camera settings should be used for sports photography?

While most cameras have some type of “sports action mode”, I normally recommend using either aperture priority or shutter priority modes on your DSLR. Here are brief descriptions of the three main modes you will use when photographing sports.

sports modeSports Action Mode. This mode will automatically adjust your camera settings giving a faster shutter speed the highest priority. It also will turn on your camera's burst or continuous mode, if it has one and set the camera for continuous auto focus. Because this is an “automatic” mode it limits your ability to control the three main settings of ISO, shutter speed and aperture which in turn limits your ability to control things like depth of field. If you do not want to mess with any camera settings yourself this would be the mode you would normally choose but you will usually be better off using another semi-automatic mode that allows you more control over the main camera settings.


aperture modeAperture Priority Mode. Many sports photographers use this mode as it allows you to set your aperture to control your depth of field while maintaining your shutter speed high enough to avoid motion blur, if possible under those lighting conditions. You are essentially controlling the aperture and ISO and while the camera adjusts the shutter speed up or down as needed. For sports photography you monitor the shutter speed and make adjustments as needed to the aperture and or the ISO to keep the shutter speed at or above where it needs to be to avoid motion blur in the image.


shutter speed modeShutter Speed Priority Mode. In this mode you control the shutter speed you want the picture to be taken at and the camera will control the aperture opening to get the correct exposure if possible. This mode gives you control over the shutter speed and ISO while the camera will adjust the aperture as needed.

The reason most photographers will use a semi-automatic mode such as shutter speed or aperture is that those modes allow you to control all the major settings and still use the cameras automated light metering system to get the proper exposure.

Most fully automated modes limit the ISO speed to a certain range where as in a semi-automatic mode you can leave the ISO on automatic mode or manually set it when you want to control the ISO as well. This is helpful in low light conditions where you need to raise the ISO to a setting that is above what the automatic mode would stop at.

Here are links to some additional information on the different camera modes and camera settings.

Digital Sports Photography Tips for the best picture

Sports Photography Tip--Anticipating the ActionAnticipate the action...The more you understand about the sport the better able you will be to anticipate the action. This will help you not only find the best vantage point to shoot from but also can help you be pre-focused on a player or a point on the court or field.

Some sports like baseball are more unpredictable than others and therefore harder to know where the ball will be hit to but you if you see that the majority of hitters are hitting the ball to the left side of the field you can focus on the shortstop or third baseman in order to anticipate them fielding a ball and making the play.

Other examples from baseball include: anticipating the catcher throwing to second base to try and throw a base runner out. Focusing on the first baseman or runner in anticipation of a pitcher trying to pick the runner off.

Of course with each different sport you can apply similar scenarios to try to anticipate the action and help capture the highlight moments of the game.

Get the money shots...What does that mean?…it means to be sure and take photos when and where you know the action will take place. In baseball or softball that means taking pictures of each batter when they bat, as well as the pitcher and catcher as they are involved in every pitch. It also means to take pictures during warm-ups, etc. That is an ideal time to get a fielder just as he fields a ball or makes a throw or a basketball player as he shoots the ball.

When shooting warm-ups look for those opportunities to get a picture of the player without other teammates in the background. When done properly a great “warm up” photo is hard to tell from one that is captured in the height of action and they are much easier to get.

Sports-Photograpy-Tips-Capture-the-EmotionsLook for unusual angles...Experiment with different angles and viewpoints. Look for those overlooked photo opportunities.

Capture the emotions of the game and more than just the on field action. Take photos of the fan’s reactions, the umpires as they make a close call, the coaches and players on the bench.

Take advantage of the light...Change your location as the light changes. Know how different light conditions will affect your photos and adjust for them.

Use a fast shutter speed...For most sports such as soccer, baseball, basketball, etc. you need a shutter speed of at least 1/250th of a second and even at that you could easily have some motion blur. Remember the faster the shutter speed the better. Having a shutter speed of 1/500 or 1/1000 of a second or faster is ideal. How fast your shutter speed will need to be will also depend on the level of the athletes you are photographing. Everything is much slower in T-ball or youth leagues than in a high school or college game.

Use the lowest ISO speed you can and still keep your shutter speed at or above the minimum level needed to stop the action.

Sports-Photography-Tips--Holding-the-camera-steadyHave your camera set to continuous focus mode so that you can track your subjects and be prepared to capture the action.

Learn to hold your camera steady. As many sports require using a telephoto lens it is important that you avoid any camera shake when zoomed in on a subject. Monopods are great for sports photography because they help you hold the camera steady while providing more range of motion and versatility than a tripod allows.

Be aware of the action around you. Depending on the sport and the location you are shooting from you need to always be aware of any potential dangers like a foul ball, or a player or players coming out of bounds and colliding with you. Be respectful of the players, coaches and fans.

Tags: Digital Photography Photography Tips Camera Settings Sports Photography