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How to Focus for Sharp Sports Photography: Camera Settings & Tips

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Sports photography is all about capturing the action. But that isn’t always easy. Everything moves fast, and the athletes aren’t going to slow down so you can take a picture.

A lot of the skill comes from knowing the sport and clicking your shutter at the right moment. But your camera settings are just as important when photographing sports. You need to know about the exposure triangle: the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. And knowing about burst mode is important too.

Here are our tips for capturing super-sharp sports photography. Once you’re through with this article, you’ll be the master of your sports photography camera settings and you’ll never miss a goal, try, or home run.

Ground-level view of person kicking a football
© Md Mahdi (Unsplash.com)

1. Use a Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze The Action

A fast shutter speed is vital for sports photography. There’s always a risk of motion blur when you have fast-moving subjects. And if you’re photos are blurry, the viewers won’t be able to see the action.

Using a fast shutter speed reduces the risk of motion blur. You should think of 1/500 s as your minimum speed. You’ll need to go to 1/1000 s or faster for cycling and motorsports. If your subjects move faster, you’ll need a faster shutter speed.

Shutter priority mode is a good option for sports photography. It’s a semi-automatic mode that lets you control the shutter speed. You can keep your shutter speed as fast as you need it while the camera takes care of the aperture and ISO.

If you get some test shots during the pre-game warmup, great! But remember, when the whistle blows, everyone will be moving at full pace. You might need a faster shutter speed for the actual event.

Racing car going round a bend at dusk, shot with the adequate sports photography settings to capture without a blur
© Toine G (Unsplash.com)

2. Choose a Wide Aperture For a Bokeh Effect

The bokeh effect is the blurred quality in the background or foreground of some photos. It’s the result of a shallow depth of field. And to get a shallow depth of field in your photos, you need to use a wide aperture.

Apertures can be confusing at first. They’re denoted by f-numbers, and the wider the aperture, the smaller the f-number. For example, an f/2.8 is a wider aperture than f/16.

Using a wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/1.4 will give you a shallow depth of field. And this will give your photos that soft blur in the background. And as long as your focus is correct, your subject will still look sharp.

Using a wide aperture also allows you to use a fast shutter speed. A wide aperture lets more light through, so you can capture a perfect exposure when you use a fast shutter. I wouldn’t go for aperture priority mode, however. You need to keep your shutter speed fast.

Many sports photographers like to use a telephoto lens. They’re great for getting close to the action. But telephotos lenses have smaller aperture ranges than a standard zoom lens.

The maximum aperture of a telephoto might be f/5.6 instead of f/1.4. But the magnification effect of a telephoto lens means you can still achieve the bokeh effect in your sports photography.

Two young boxers slugging it out in the ring
© Hermes Rivera (Unsplash.com)

3. Increase Your ISO Settings for More Light

There’s nothing more pleasant than shooting a cricket match on a summer day. But you’re never guaranteed sunshine. And sports events aren’t always outside or during the day. You’ll have to cope with dark conditions during those night shoots or indoor events.

Increasing your ISO setting is the best way to get the most out of your camera when shooting sports in difficult conditions. And when conditions are dark, you need as much light as possible.

You’ll probably be using a wider aperture, which gives you more light. But when you need fast shutter speeds, the ISO also needs to increase.

The higher you go with ISO, the higher the risk of digital noise. But even with beginner DSLR cameras, you can push the ISO to 1600 and maintain excellent image quality. If you’re using a more advanced camera, you can go even higher and still capture fantastic sports photos.

Footballer on the pitch while sprinkler is sprinkling
© Maxim Hopman (Unsplash.com)

4. Use Autofocus For More Freedom

A good autofocus system is a great feature for sports photographers. You already have to think about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO while keeping your eye on the game. With manual focusing on top of that, your head will spin.

Autofocus systems on modern cameras work best in high-contrast situations. It’s easy for your camera to lock on when there’s a clear difference between the subject and its surroundings. The difficulty comes when light and contrast are low.

Many professional-level cameras have advanced autofocuses. They will lock onto a moving subject and track them across the frame. They’ll ensure you get some great shots no matter how fast they’re moving.

Autofocus systems in lower-level cameras aren’t as reliable. They need more contrast to work well. This means you might need to find the best vantage point with better contrast to take your sports photos.

Athletes contesting a sprint race
© Jonathan Chng (Unsplash.com)

5. Use Continuous AF for Predictive Tracking

Predictive tracking is where your AF system predicts the movement of the subject. Using internal AI, it tracks the subject by predicting where it will be next.

It’s impressive stuff. But you’ll only find an autofocus system this sophisticated at the pricier end of the market.

If you do have a camera with a continuous autofocus mode, it’s perfect for shooting sports photography. On Canon cameras, continuous focusing is labeled AF or AI Servo. On Nikon and Sony machines, select AF-C.

This mode activates predictive tracking as soon as the autofocus system detects a moving subject. It continuously monitors the focus distance. When the distance from the camera to the subject changes, the focus is adjusted accordingly.

If you want to compose a shot in which none of the AF points cover the subject, you’ll need to lock the focus distance by pressing the AF lock button. And for greater accuracy, choose a single AF point. Make sure it’s in the area where most of the action is taking place.

Ice Hockey action on the rink
© Logan Weaver (Unsplash.com)

6. Use Back Button Focus for Fast Focusing

Back button focus is when you move the focusing function from the shutter button to one of the buttons on the back of your camera. It’s the most efficient way of using autofocus.

Instead of pressing the shutter button halfway down to focus, you press a button at the back of your camera. You use your thumb for the back button and your pointer finger to press the shutter. It might sound complicated at first, but it’s quick. And every second counts in sports photography.

Pairing back button focus with continuous focusing will help you achieve excellent focus with difficult shots. If your subject is moving, you can hold down the focus button to track it and release the shutter at any time.

Young rugby player making a break
© Quino Al (Unsplash.com)

7. Use Burst Mode So You Never Miss a Shot

Burst or continuous shooting mode is another important feature for sports photography. Your camera will capture several images in quick succession so you can capture those blink-and-you-miss-it moments.

All modern digital cameras have a burst mode, ranging from 8 to 30 frames per second. But while DSLRs have a burst mode, mirrorless cameras are the front-runners in this department. They use an electronic shutter which allows for a faster burst speed.

The problem with burst mode is the storage. When you’re shooting at 18 frames per second, your memory card can fill up fast. It’s best to save the burst mode for when you really need it.

Baseball player hitting the ball with his baseball bat
© Chris Chow (Unsplash.com)

8. Shoot In JPEG To Save Memory

You may have had it hammered into you that you should always shoot RAW images. But shooting in JPEG is beneficial for sports photography.

While RAW is better for editing photos, they take up more memory. JPEGs are smaller, so you can fit more on your memory card. And when you’re shooting sports action, memory cards can fill up fast. You don’t want to run out of space when the game goes into overtime.

Young basketball player jumping for a slam dunk
© August Phlieger (Unsplash.com)

Conclusion

Sport can be fast and ferocious. And a sports photographer needs to be ready to capture the action. That comes down to knowledge of the game and knowledge of your camera. When shooting sports photography, camera settings are crucial.

You need a fast shutter speed and a wide aperture. And you need to master your autofocus and your burst mode. And shooting in JPEG is handy advice for sports photography.

These sports photography tips are sure to help you capture the action. And perfecting your camera settings means you won’t miss any of the action.

Check out our Photography Unlocked ebook to master your camera settings no matter what you’re shooting!

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