How To Master Sports And Action Photography

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Sports photography and action photography can result in some dynamic images. But it's not the easiest genre of photography to master. You need to do some photography training yourself, very much like a runner would train, and it starts now. Once you complete your training, you need to stay warmed up, so your form is as sharp as the athlete you are documenting. 

But here is the cool thing… this type of photography is not just about sports. When it comes to action photography, we can be also talking about children playing, on-the-run animals and birds in flight or vehicles traveling at high speed. Anything moving fast might fall under the category of action photography.

AF mode or AI Servo/AF-C
Set your camera on AF mode or AI Servo/AF-C, which stands for automatic focusing or artificial intelligence servo automatic focusing. This mode was designed for shooting moving objects (or for you to take photos on the move). The camera can track the moving object and focus and re-focus on it while it moves. While it isn't 100 % foolproof, it is a fantastic setting that helps you nail that shot. 

High-speed drive mode
When your camera is set on high-speed drive mode, it is continuous shooting frames. Often your speedy subject will be moving faster than you can react. By holding your shutter down and letting your camera take a series of images, you can go through them during editing and choose the best frame. 

Shutter speed
If you set your shutter speed to a fast setting, it will freeze the fast-moving object. The faster your subject moves, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. If it is too slow, you will have a blurry image. 

Some lenses are perfect for sports and action photography because they perform well in low-light situations, have accurate and fast AF, zoom in on subjects and produce high-quality images. For example, the Canon EF 70-200 mm f2.8L IS II USM lens ticks all the boxes. It also blurs out the background, so the subject is the main focus.

Keep in mind that f/2.8 can affect the focal plane with multiple people. For example, if you have a group of runners and want the first and second place runners in focus, you might need to use a deeper depth of field (like f4 or f5.6).

If you are using heavy lenses or shooting for long periods, a monopod will significantly help. A monopod keeps your lens and camera stable as you shoot. It offers support and lets you shoot at slower shutter speeds without compromising the image quality. 

Buy a tall enough monopod so you can stand up straight and be comfortable rather than bending over to look through the viewfinder.  

For times you are in the field or on-site for long periods, invest in a small portable camp chair with a back (not a typical oversized camping chair). This will keep you comfortable and make the photoshoot more enjoyable as there are often long waiting times between action shots, especially when it comes to sporting events. Don't get too relaxed in that chair because if you miss the shot, you can't get a second chance!

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Framing of shot
A lot of action photography will be taken in landscape format as it is easier to capture the moving image as it moves through the frame. But portrait action images can be stunning too. Practice changing between the two orientations by anticipating the movement of your subject. Remember, you can crop a landscape image into a portrait image during the editing process. 

Sometimes portrait is much better than landscape. For example, if you were photographing a marathon and documenting runners as they passed a certain point, you would usually go for portrait orientation to focus on the single runner or two runners. If there was a group of runners or you were shooting at the finish line, you would use landscape to show more people and some of the surroundings (such as finish line tap and spectators cheering). 

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Be aware of background distractions such as trash cans, irrelevant signs and distracting elements. Arrive early to sporting events to find the best spot or perhaps move any unsightly objects if possible. You can crop objects out but editing them can take hours of unwanted work because shooting sports usually involves editing a large number of images. 

Rules To Remember

  1. Never use live view to shoot sports or action
  2. Have your settings on AI Servo/AF-C
  3. Use high-speed continuous shooting mode
  4. Use fast shutter speeds of 1/500 or 1/640 if possible (no lower than 1/400 in most situations)
  5. Keep your aperture at f/4 if shooting in daylight or f/2.8 if indoors or in low light
  6. Keep your ISO low enough to keep your light meter in the middle. You can always raise your ISO and deal with noise in the editing process, but you can't fix a blurry photo, so don't be afraid of using a higher ISO if needed.
  7. Use single point focus in the middle
  8. Evaluative metering (don't use spot metering as white or black uniforms can throw it off)
  9. Be mindful of shooting portrait and landscape orientation 
  10. Ensure the clock on your camera is set correctly, especially if you're working with other photographers, so the times are accurate
  11. Bring plenty of batteries and extra memory cards
  12. Wear a hat and sunscreen

As with any genre of photography, you need to practice to get better. Sports and action photography certainly takes practice, but with the right settings, equipment, and rules to follow, you will be able to build your portfolio nicely. 

Sometimes with fast-moving objects, it comes down to getting that lucky shot. A once-in-a-lifetime image can be on your camera, and you might not even realize it until you are editing—just another reason why sports and action photography are so exciting and thrilling. 

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