Sports photography can give some of the most dramatic shots in your portfolio, and can be mastered with practice, the right choice of kit and techniques. Of course, you won’t start off by shooting the Olympics with full press accreditation that gets you right next to the track, but there are lots of smaller sporting events where you can get access to the action. Here are Adam’s top tips to getting some creative shots of sports or action in general.
Adam Duckworth is an award-winning professional photographer and videographer with over 25 years experience and clients including Red Bull, Honda, Kawasaki, Manfrotto and Lastolite, to name but a few.
Here are Adam’s top tips to getting some creative shots of sports or action in general.
1. USE THE RIGHT KIT
A DSLR is the tool of choice for the vast majority of action photographers, although you can get great photos with mirrorless or even compacts. You can take action shots with a compact, but the snappy autofocus, fast motordrive and the ability to use a whole range of lenses make DSLRs and modern mirrorless cameras ideal.
For successful action pics, a range of lenses will make a big difference to your shots. If you can get in close to your subject, a wide-angle lens will add drama and give a sense of location. Look for different and unique angles.
A telephoto zoom means you can fill the frame with your subject for more impact. Super-fast pro-spec lenses with fast f/2.8 apertures are expensive and heavy but allow you to keep shooting when light levels fall.
A monopod can be useful, too, for taking the strain out of holding a heavy lens all day and for giving shake-free shots.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT VIEWPOINT
There’s no substitute for getting to the venue early so you can check it out for viewpoints which will give your pictures dramatic composition. Like a mountain biker framed against the sky or a footballer against a packed grandstand of cheering fans.
One of the biggest problems with sports images is messy, confusing backgrounds. Look for clean, uncluttered backgrounds or try to blur them with a shallow depth of field by using a wide aperture.
3. GIVE THE IMPRESSION OF MOVEMENT
Sports photography is often about making something that’s moving actually appear like it’s moving in a still frame. The easiest way to fool the brain into thinking something is moving is to use some blur. So a runner at full speed with blurred legs or a racing car zooming past a blurred grandstand at a circuit gives the clear message of speed and it helps the subject pop out from the background.
To do this, choose a slow shutter speed and, ideally, a long focal length lens. As your subject comes into view, try to lock focus on. Then as it passes you, keep it as still as you can in your frame by smoothly panning with the subject.
Alternatively you can freeze the action with the subject doing something that your brain knows can happen naturally, so quickly works out that the subject is in motion. Like a hurdler mid-leap, for example. Or a motorbike leaned right over in a corner. Your brain knows the bike would fall over unless it was in motion!
4. CHOOSE THE CORRECT SHUTTER SPEED
There’s no hard and fast rule for choosing the right speed, as freezing or blurring the action depends on how fast the subject is moving, how far away you are, whether the subject is coming towards you or across your field of view, how big the subject is in the frame and the focal length of the lens. Having said that, a speed quicker than 1/1000th second is quick enough to freeze most subjects at most focal lengths. And anything slower than 1/250th can usually result in some blur, though you can go as low as 1/30th if you have a steady hand. You have to experiment! Image stabilisation can work in some circumstances, but it’s not a cure-all the camera manufacturers may claim. Experiment and see what works for you.
If you are using fast shutter speeds, you may have to increase your ISO to get the right exposure. In general, the lower the ISO the better the quality of the final photo.
5. SELECT THE CORRECT EXPOSURE MODE
Shutter priority – sometimes called Tv or Sv – lets you select the shutter speed you want and the camera works out the right aperture for you. You may want a high shuter speed – like 1/1000th sec or faster – to freeze the action. Or a slow speed to give blur.
However, light or dark subjects can easily fool your meter. If you’re shooting a car race and a black car comes round the corner, followed by a white car, the camera meter can be all over the place. So sometimes it can be better to set the exposure manually. Try metering off a neutral tone – like light-coloured tarmac or grass – then set that exposure. Take a test shot and check your exposure using the histogram.
If you’re a real beginner and your camera has it, a dedicated Sport mode may be easiest until you’re feeling confident enough to take more control.
6. GET IT IN FOCUS!
Getting your subject in pin-sharp focus is the goal of the action photographer. And if you’re using a long lens which gives a shallow depth of field, it’s even more critical and tricky to get right.
Set your camera’s autofocus to Servo or Continuous, then try to track the subject in the viewfinder before you trip the shutter at the right moment. If your camera has intelligent autofocus tracking, give it a try. Alternatively, you can manually pre-focus if you know where the action will take place – like a pole vaulter at the peak of his leap – then fire the shutter at the right time.
7. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TIMING…
The age-old theory of The Decisive Moment is never more apt than in action photography. It’s all about timing your photo at the peak of the action, like at the apex of a corner or a footballer scoring the winning goal. The best sports photographers know their subjects well and can predict the peak of the action. Like when a BMX rider pulls of a high jump or judo pro throws his opponent to the floor.
8. CONSIDER USING FLASH
Many sports allow you to use flash – just be sure to check first! Flash can be used to provide a burst of light to freeze the action if the sport is indoor, or can fill in the shadows and reduce contrast outdoors. Many skateboard and BMX photographers use it all the time – sometimes strobing to get a sequence shot. You can also use your motordrive to do this, if you’re not using flash.
9. DON’T JUST SHOOT THE ACTION
Lots of photographers take lots of tightly-cropped action shots but don’t include anything else. The crowd celebrating, a fisheye shot showing an impressive stadium, tight detail shots of sporting equipment and portraits of competitors can really build up a more complete coverage of a sporting event.
10. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
There are plenty of local or amateur sports that welcome photographers, and it’s great practice! Nobody starts out as a sports photography master, but the more you do it, the better you get. You really get a feeling for how your camera works and how to control it, improve your timing and really get to know the sport you’re shooting so you can predict when things might happen. And it’s fun!