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How to Focus for Super Sharp Sports Photography

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Sports photography can be a very challenging genre due to the need to freeze motion.

It takes skill and some know-how with your camera settings to get those razor-sharp sports photos you see in newspapers and magazines.

Here are some tips to help you focus your camera and get sharp action photos. These will take your sports photography to the next level.

A close up of a baseball player holding two balls

Use Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Action

The first rule of freezing action and getting sharp photos in sports photography is to use a high shutter speed.

Your minimum shutter speed should be 1/500 of a second. For some sports you may need 1/1000th of a second or higher. These include car racing and motor sports.

Try setting your camera to Shutter Priority mode. That way it stays at your minimum shutter speed while the camera determines the proper shutter speed to accurately expose the photo.

Take a few test shots before the game starts if possible. That way you can check how sharp your images are. Also, make sure that you periodically check your photos as you shoot.

If you see any unwanted blurring, switch to an even faster shutter speed.

Choose a Wide Aperture for Shallow Depth of Field

To be able to reach those high shutter speeds, you’ll need to use a wide aperture. Say, at least f/4. This will allow more light to get into the camera and help you hit those fast shutter speeds.
How wide you set your aperture will partially depend on the quality of the lens you’re using. If you’re using a good quality lens, with a maximum aperture of F/2.8 or F/4, it will be easier to get enough light onto the camera’s sensor.
If you’re using a cheaper lens, you might have to stop down all the way to open up the aperture as wide as possible.
Keep in mind if you’re using a zoom lens that if you crop in as close as possible, your lens will not let as much light in. That’s because this is where your aperture is narrowest.
It’s better to shoot wider and crop in post. Most zoom lenses function best somewhere in the middle of the zoom range.
Shooting at a very shallow depth-of-field can also give you a blurred out background. That looks great, especially with high speed sports.
A sharp subject against a blurred background gives the viewer the sense of high speed.

A high speed action shot of a cyclist

Increase Your ISO to Get More Light in Your Camera

Sometimes you just don’t have enough light coming into your camera. Even when you’re at a wide aperture. In this case, you’ll have no choice but to increase your ISO.
Certain cameras handle noise better than others, but generally the lower you can stay with ISO, the better. This is because high ISO will introduce noise, a grainy look in your image that will reduce its quality.
The good news is that even bad grain can be pretty easy to fix in post-production. Adobe Lightroom has a great noise reduction feature.
You can also get a dedicated noise reduction plug-in, such as Dfine by Nik Collection. This is tailored to whichever camera you use and will help you reduce noise selectively in your images.

Use Autofocus in Areas With a Lot of Contrast

If you’re new to photography, learning how autofocus will help you make the best decisions when out in the field.

In order for any camera’s autofocus system to function properly, there must be some contrast in the area of the subject where you want to focus.

This is one of the problems of shooting in low light. When there is very low contrast, the camera doesn’t know where to focus.

It needs a certain amount of light to hit the sensor. Otherwise, it will cause the AF system to hunt for focus. The lens motor will keep moving and trying to focus without locking on the subject.

Also note that the accuracy of autofocus is influenced by the number of AF points the camera has. It can be hard to nail focus if you only have nine focus points on your camera.

One of the biggest differences in price between various cameras is due to the sophistication of the AF system.

More costly professional systems have many more focus points than entry level DSLRs, which may only have a few. Some of the new mirrorless cameras have focus points in every part of the screen.

Use Multiple AF Points to Improve Sharpness

Taking control of your camera’s autofocus system is a must in sports photography,

However, if you are using manual focusing, use a single focus point. This will likely give you more accurate focusing.

A sports photo of runners in a race

Set Your Camera to Continuous AF to Use Predictive Tracking

Continuous autofocus is when the AF system focuses continuously on the area covered by selected autofocus points.
Most cameras have four focusing modes: manual, suto, single, or continuous. On a Canon, continuous focusing is called AF or Al Servo. On Nikon or Sony, 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 camera to the subject changes, the focus is adjusted accordingly.

It uses info from the autofocus system to adjust the point of focus. It does this to account for the change in the subject during the split-second delay between the camera’s mirror being lifted and the shutter opening. 

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 an AF lock button.

AF gives you the best results when capturing action. But it won’t always give you tack sharp photos.
For greater accuracy, choose a single AF point. Make sure it’s in the area where most of your action is taking place.
Depending on which camera you’re using, you can expand the area around that AF point.A portrait of a person playing volleyball on the beach at sunset

Switch to Back Button Focus for Faster Shooting

Back button focusing is the most efficient way of using autofocus. It will help you nail focus like a pro.
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.
Instead of pressing the shutter button halfway down to focus, you press a button at the back of your camera with your thumb and use a finger to press the shutter.
If that sounds complicated, it actually makes focusing and shooting a lot quicker and easier. And time is everything when it comes to sports photography.
When you use back button focus, you don’t have to constantly refocus or move the camera to lock focus. You can keep adjusting your composition. But won’t have to worry about focusing each time. Your focus will hold, even if you release the shutter button.
Removing the focusing function from the shutter button means you can focus and recompose as needed. Your subject will stay in focus.
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.
If your subject is still, you can lock focus with your focus button and recompose if you need to. Then press the shutter to get the shot.

Black and white action shot of professional runners in a race

Use Burst Mode to Shoot Several Frames at Once

Burst Mode is also known as continuous shooting mode. It will allow you to fire off several frames with one quick press of the shutter. This will increase your chances to get a killer shot.
The drawbacks are that taking so many images will quickly fill up your memory card. You’ll also have a lot more images to go through in post-production.
Make sure that you have a memory card with a high storage capacity. And bring some spares along. It might also be a good idea use any breaks to quickly go through your images. Delete any that are obvious fails.
Depending on what sport you’re shooting, you may want to use burst mode selectively. It’s great for crucial parts of the game.

An action sports shot of a baseball game

Shoot in JPEG to Fit More Images on Your Memory Card

You may have had it hammered into you that you should always shoot RAW images. You may be surprised by the advice that you should consider shooting JPEGs.
In sports photography, speed and capturing the action are more important that super high quality files or being able to do a lot of editing.
Shooting JPEG will allow you to shoot more images in burst mode. You’ll also be able to fit many more images on your memory card.
The couple minutes it takes to swap out a memory card could be the couple of minutes that make or break a game.

An action shot of a goalkeeper trying to save a ball Conclusion

Knowing your sport will also help you get great sports pictures. Understanding the sport you’re shooting will help you anticipate where the action will be. Or where the ball will end up.
Follow the action with your camera. If you’re shooting outside, especially on a sunny day, make sure the sun is behind you. This will direct the light out around you. It will let in as much light as possible into your lens and help you use those fast shutter speeds.
When you arrive at the field, arena or wherever the sport is taking place, consider your potential angles. Try to find the place or places that will be the perfect distance for your camera and lens combination.
One of the goals in sports photography is capturing the emotion around a game. This will be reflected in the player’s faces. Make sure to situate yourself in areas where you’ll be able to capture their faces too.

Check out these great posts on shooting boxing or soccer photos next!

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