Photographing subjects in action is one of the most challenging but rewarding aspects of photography. With little time to think, and no room for error, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by situations such as the ones you encounter when doing sports photography, wildlife photography, and similar niches with high-speed subjects.
There are seven tricks however, that everyone can use to improve their percentage of ‘keepers’ right away.
1. Focus Tips
Most DSLR cameras feature continuous focusing, also known as AI Servo or Continuous AF. These modes will allow you to track moving subjects.
Keep your centre focusing point on the subject with your shutter held halfway down. As you follow the subject through your viewfinder, the camera will automatically adjust the focus as it gets closer.
When you are ready to make an image, simply press the shutter all the way down. For even more responsiveness, change the burst mode from ‘single shot’ to the continuous high speed option. This offers more frames per second to capture even the fastest of action.
2. The Right Lens
Even if you’re restricted to the bleachers, it’s possible to capture frame filling action shots. Perhaps the most helpful piece of equipment for sports photography is a longer lens. With a telephoto zoom between 70-300mm, you can cover the entire field from your seat.
This gives you the ability to photograph subjects that are further away. It also means you won’t have to jockey for a place in the front row. To get a different perspective you may even want to stand on a small stool near a fence.
Bring a few business cards as people in the stands will most definitely ask what you’re doing. They may even ask you to focus on a player they know. A small notepad is very helpful to jot down jersey numbers and contact information for potential sales.
3. Shutter Speeds
When photographing competitive sports, or any high action scenario, you will need to push the shutter speed even faster. Many of my favourite action sports shots were taken at 1/500. It’s quick enough to freeze an athlete sprinting down a field without showing any motion blur.
As you work with shutter speeds this fast, it’s important to understand how it’s affecting your exposure. Since the actual shutter is only open for a brief duration, it does not allow much light to reach the sensor. The raised ISO along with a wider aperture like /f4 will compensate accordingly.
Lightning fast shutter speeds like 1/1000 give us the ability to seemingly pause life. Thanks to advances in technology, you are capturing instances that the human eye wouldn’t catch.
I reserve this specific setting for the type of heart pounding action you find at air shows, or in extreme sports. To get a sense of just how fast this is, 1/1000 will freeze the spinning blades of a industrial strength room fan. It will also stop an F-22 jet as it zooms past at 500 miles per hour.
4. Shallow DOF
If you flip through the pages of Sports Illustrated, you’ll notice how most of the players are sharp while the fans are out of focus. The wide aperture chosen by the photographer not only creates that shallow depth of field, but it also lets a great deal of light into the camera.
As such, it’s possible to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. If you are serious about sports photography, a lens that opens all the way to f/2.8 is worth the investment. You may even hear people refer to them as ‘fast lenses’. This describes the speed in which the wide aperture lets light into the camera.
Set your lens to the widest possible aperture. Depending on your specific gear, this will likely fall between f/2.8 and f/5.6. This works to throw the background out of focus, bringing full attention to the players.
You don’t want the cars or houses in the distance to distract from the action. In addition to creating a shallow depth of field, a wide aperture lets in a great deal of light. This is helpful for making a proper exposure even on poorly lit fields.
5. Use The ISO To Your Advantage
You may be surprised to learn that a high ISO can even be helpful on a bright sunny day. For example, if you are photographing sports, the shutter speed can be no slower than 1/500 to prevent subject motion. As noted previously, you’ll also be using a wide aperture around f/2.8.
With these two decisions made, you may take your photo only to find that it’s too dark. This is where the ISO comes to the rescue. Simply double the ISO number and watch as the photo gets brighter. Still need more light? Double the ISO again.
By incorporating ISO control into your image-making process, exposure is no longer limited to just aperture and shutter speed. With this new technical knowledge, it also increases your photographic opportunities.
With the ability to shoot anywhere, the possibilities are nearly endless. Use the ISO to your advantage and you’ll see a definitive improvement in your craft. Problematic scenes that were once too dark are now well within your reach.
6. Raw Or JPEG?
With all of this fast-paced action, you will likely burn through many memory cards rapidly. I used to bring a portable hard drive with me and download the contents of the card while continuing to shoot. This is no longer necessary as large capacity cards of 64GB are now very reasonably priced.
For the most control and best image quality, shoot in RAW format whenever possible. However, if you are short on memory cards, you may want to consider shooting in the Large/Fine JPEG format. This will allow you to fit more images on the card than RAW.
There are some fast paced situations when shooting RAW is just not feasible. For example, for sports photography, I prefer the JPEG Large/Fine setting. This affords a bigger buffer size making it possible to shoot more frames before filling up.
For example, a modern DSLR can shoot 31 RAW shots consecutively, but a whopping 1090 in JPEG. This is a huge advantage for those who never want to miss a moment. By starting with a JPEG file, you also eliminate the extra step of RAW processing when you get home. This is a key consideration for those working on a tight deadline.
7. Try the Rule of Thirds
When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, you’ll likely see a faint outline to indicate the centre of the frame. This is typically how people learn to compose photos. They aim, centre their subject, and capture an image they hope will succeed.
Truth be told, there are many centred compositions that work. However, by working with the rule of thirds as well, you are expanding the potential for truly artistic results.
Above, the balance is off, but it’s still an effective image. The key to making this work is the direction in which the quarterback is looking. By having his head facing the open space, we are witness to the play unfolding.
The surroundings which fall outside of the frame are a mystery. This leaves us to wonder what will happen next. Had the player been centred, none of this drama would exist and the image would be much more static.