Summer Sports Photography

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My son at a soccer game, shot at ISO 100, F/4.5 with a 70-210mm Minolta zoom lens on a Sony Alpha 700. Cropped, and blurred (for the identity of the other player).

People often ask me, how do I take pictures of sporting events? Usually kids’ events. Here are my tips.

You know how we often hear that it’s not the camera that makes a difference; that it’s the eye of the photographer? Sorry, but this doesn’t apply with sports. As I heard Scott Kelby once say: “Gear counts”. The better the gear, the better the pictures. You’ve got to know your gear, and you also really need to know the sport you’re shooting.

You can’t just leave your DSLR in Auto mode and expect great shots. You’ve got to select one of the priority modes. This is where my tip for shooting sports may appear counter-intuitive. Most people will say: “Sports move quickly, so I’d better use Shutter Speed priority mode and set the speed to something fast; say, 1/500th of a second.” WRONG. You should set the camera to Aperture priority mode and let the camera choose the speed. “Huh?” You say?

Let me explain. By setting the aperture, you will get consistent depth of field across all your shots. If you really know your sport and have a fast focusing lens/camera, set the aperture wide open, say F/2.8 (if you have a very expensive lens). For us common mortals, an F/4 lens will do just fine. If you need a little flexibility for focusing, set the lens to F/4.5 or F/5.6. This will give you a little leeway. The camera will automatically choose the fastest speed it can. What really matters here is the ISO. Outdoors with a slow sport and lens wide open, ISO 100. A fast sport on a sunny day, ISO 200. Overcast or end of the day or if the lens is stopped down (F/5.6 and higher), maybe up to ISO 400. See the trend? The more light is available to the camera sensor, the lower the ISO required. Conversely, the less light available, the higher the ISO. Your camera will always choose the highest shutter speed available for you. If you want to shoot hockey, that’s a whole other game, and I’ll discuss some of the finer points in another blog entry.

Run a few tests before the game. Set your mode (Aperture priority), set your aperture (say F/4.5) and a starting ISO of 100. Take a shot. Go back and check the shutter speed that was used. If it is too slow, say below 1/500th of a second, bring up the ISO. Leave the aperture where it is. The minimum I like to shoot at is 1/500th of a second.

Now for the zoom. Lots of professionals don’t have time to zoom back and forth on the subject. Try to leave your lens around 200mm (or 135mm on an APS-C camera). At a low ISO, you shouldn’t get much noise, so you can blow things up; and if you shoot more field than you need, you can always crop later.

I set the focus on the center point because I want to focus specifically on a player. Continuous focus can help track the subject.

Set the drive speed to continuous shooting. You have to think like a machine gunner. Squeeze the trigger to calmly fire off a burst of shots. You’ll sort through them later. This is a digital world. Keep shooting. During important hockey games, I’ve taken up to 2,000 pictures. Only a few are really good.

So now, you can go out and get some great action shots of your kids. Let me know how it goes!

Happy Shooting.

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