A beginner’s guide to sports photography

First published:
November 25, 2022
February 5, 2024

A beginner’s guide to sports photography

First published:
November 25, 2022
February 5, 2024

Blurred action of NFL football by PCN photography

Discover a host of top shooting tips and camera tricks to help you capture sporting action in all it’s glory

Sports offer so many opportunities for great photos, whether it’s moments of breathtaking action, superhuman endurance or high passion. But to capture these moments you need to master a few essential camera skills….

1 Use the right kit, and leave everything else

Long lenses with wide max apertures like f/4 are ideal for sports photography but they can be heavy and cumbersome. A monopod helps to take the weight off, and allows for smooth tracking movements. Photo by Keith Johnson - f/2.8 | ISO 1000 | 1/500s

Perhaps more than any other kind of photography, it’s vital to use the right kit when shooting sports. Often the action takes place at a distance, so if you want to fill the frame a long lens is essential. A 70-200mm or 100-400mm lens is ideal. As for cameras, the need for fast shutter speeds often means compromising with a high ISO, so a camera with good low-light performance gives you a great advantage. A fast drive rate is handy too, as it means you can rattle off several frames per second. Consider too that you’re likely to be shooting in all kinds of weather conditions so a camera/lens with weather sealing and a waterproof kitbag is preferable. But as important as it is to choose the right kit, it’s also vital to stay nimble and mobile. Bulky gear like a tripod or flash kit may be unnecessary unless you have a specific need for it.

2 Freeze the action

To keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze moments of action, try using Manual exposure mode with Auto ISO. This way you can choose the widest aperture your lens will allow, set a fast shutter speed like 1/2000 sec then leave the camera to work out the correct ISO. Photo by Mick Haynes - f/4 | ISO 400 | 1/4000s

A high shutter speed is a must for capturing fast-paced action. But how fast do you go? 1/200 sec sounds quite fast, but for any object or person moving at speed it’s likely to be nowhere near fast enough. As a rule of thumb, you need to be shooting upwards of 1/1000 sec for running people, and higher for intensive motion like jumping or horse racing. Keep in mind too that sharp camera movements can result in blurry photos, and any movement is exaggerated the longer the lens. So the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need.

3 Get your focus spot on

Whatever camera you own, it’s worth taking the time to understand the different focus modes on offer. You’ll want to use continuous focus (or AI Servo) as this means the autofocus will track the subject rather than simply locking on once, which is especially useful when the subject is moving towards you. Photo by Jon Davatz - f/7.1 | ISO 400 | 1/1600s

Focusing is one of the most crucial camera skills for a sports photographer to learn. When subjects are moving fast through the frame or dashing quickly towards the camera then achieving sharpness can be frustratingly difficult. Of course, this is an area in which camera technology has vastly improved over the past few years. Lightning-fast eye detection autofocus in cameras like the Canon EOS R3 or Nikon Z9 can lock on to and track a subject with astonishing accuracy. But no system is perfect and at times you may need to use other methods, like pre-focusing on a spot where you know the action is likely to happen. Many sports and wildlife photographers like to use back button focusing rather than half-pressing the shutter to engage the autofocus, as this keeps the act of focusing  and shutter release separate from one another.

4 Don’t be afraid of high ISOs

A high ISO is the price you pay for fast shutter speeds in dim interiors, but many modern cameras are perfectly capable of clean shots upwards of ISO3200. Photo by Richard Wareham - f/2.8 | ISO 1600 | 1/640s

Many photographers feel uneasy about using higher ISOs. An ISO of 6400 may be high enough to give some of us a nosebleed, but it’s a regular setting for capturing sports action, especially in dim daylight or under artificial lighting. Of course, this increases image noise, but that’s often the price you pay to unlock the fast shutter speeds you need to capture moments of action without motion blur. Better to have a slightly noisy photo than a blurry subject. This is where a camera with great low-light performance proves it’s worth, which is why sports photographers often prioritise ISO performance over pixel count in their choice of cameras.

5 Ask for access

Lower leagues and small sports venues are ideal places for you to learn your trade. If you have a few good sports photos already, set up an online portfolio so you can quickly share links with potential venues and contacts. Photo by Duncan Palmer - f/4 | ISO 100 | 1/1000s

If you’re just getting started in sports photography then top sporting events will be out of reach. You’re more likely to gain access to smaller events. Local athletics meets, non-league football and other semi-professional leagues are a good place to start looking. You’ll find just as much passion and emotion here as at the larger events, and you’re likely to have far more freedom to roam and shoot. Contact a few venues or sports clubs and ask if you can shoot at the event in exchange for a few photos, and you might be surprised where you can end up.

6 The right time and place

Cheltenham silhouette. Photo by Sharon Lee Chapman - f/7.1 | ISO 2000 | 1/2000s

Whether it’s the goal mouth on a football pitch, the finishing line at an athletics track, the highest jump on a racetrack - with any sport there will be action ‘hot spots’. Knowing where to be and when is perhaps the most important skill a sports photographer can learn. This comes with an understanding of the sport, the participants and the location. So revisit the same venue several times and you’ll get a good idea of the best hot spots, and the best times of day to shoot there. If you have an opportunity to observe training sessions, this can also be a great time to find out more about the characters involved. When things kick off there’s always a temptation to run around and try to capture everything at once, but if you trust in your process and take a considered approach then you’re more likely to capture something memorable. That being said, if it’s obvious that you’re in the wrong position then know when to cut your losses and move on.

7 Tell a story

Seek out interesting expressions or quirky details that help to tell the story of the day. Photo by Hamperium photography - f/3.2 | ISO 200 | 1/1000s

The most memorable sporting moments often have more to do with the emotions on display than feats of skill or sporting prowess. Joy, despair, pride, anger, exhaustion, arrogance - it’s all there for our entertainment, and ripe material for great sports photography. So look for those expressions and interactions that show the emotions of those involved.

8 Be in two places at once

A remote camera could be a great way to get a wide shot of a stadium or arena from an unusual angle while you’re down on the ground capturing the action. Photo by Dan

9 Seek out contrast

Seek out unusual lighting and strong contrast to help your subjects stand out from the surroundings. Photo by Steve Meddle - f/4 | ISO 200 | 1/640s

If you take a look at the work of some of the best sports photographers in the world you’ll see time and again how they’re able not just to capture important moments, but to isolate the subject from all the surrounding distractions and present them in a clean, precisely composed way. So ask yourself, how can you isolate the subject so that they stand out from their surroundings? This is where your lighting and composition skills come to the fore. Look for strong changes in contrast where you have bright light and deep shade, or find a composition where the subject can be isolated against a clean, uncluttered backdrop. Consider too how the light changes during the day, as there might be ideal moments to capture a striking silhouette or a shaft of sunlight.

10 Use creative blur and panning

A slow shutter speed of around 1/20 sec can transform fast-moving players into streaks of abstract blur. Photo by PCN photography

Sometimes a perfectly sharp photo will fail to capture the feeling of constant sporting motion. For a creative effect, try introducing motion blur into the image. Use a slower shutter speed to transform moving subjects into streaks of blur, or try panning with the subject so that they stay sharp while the background is blurred by motion. The right shutter speed will take a little trial and error - it might be 1/20 sec to blur running sportspeople, or 1/200 sec to create panning blur in motorsports photography.

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