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Sports Photography Settings (8 Tips & Best Camera Settings)

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 8 min read
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Sports photography settings are 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. Your camera settings are just as important when photographing sports. You must know the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) and how to work burst mode.

American football scrum to illustrate sports photography settings
Shot with a Nikon D5100. 195mm, f/4.8, 1/2,500 s, ISO 800. Victoria Prymak (Unsplash)

8 Tips for Sports Photography Settings (Camera Settings)

Here are eight tips for capturing super-sharp sports photos. After reading our article, you’ll never miss a goal, try, or home run!

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 your 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 need to go to 1/1000 s or faster for cycling and motorsports. If your subjects move faster, you 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. Keep your shutter speed as fast as needed while the camera handles the aperture and ISO.

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

Start of a off-road motorbike race to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Nikon D5500. 32mm, f/6.3, 1/1,600 s, ISO 400. Johann Noby (Unsplash)

2. Choose a Wide Aperture for a Bokeh Effect

A bokeh effect is a blurred quality in the background or foreground of some photos. It results from a shallow depth of field, which you can achieve by using a wide aperture.

Apertures can be confusing at first. F-stop numbers represent them. The wider the aperture, the smaller the f-number. So, f/2.8 is a wider aperture than f/16.

A wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/1.4 gives you a shallow depth of field. And this gives your photos that soft blur in the background. And if your focus is correct, your subject still looks sharp.

Using a wide aperture also lets you use a fast shutter speed. It also lets more light through. So, you can capture the perfect exposure using a fast shutter. But I wouldn’t use aperture priority mode. It’s best to use a fast shutter speed.

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

The max 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 a bokeh effect.

A boxer in a ring to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. 70mm, f/2.8, 1/800 s, ISO 1,600. Chris Kendall (Unsplash)

3. Increase ISO Settings for More Light

There’s nothing more pleasant than shooting a soccer match on a summer day. But you’re never guaranteed sunshine. And sports events aren’t always outside or during the day. You must be comfortable shooting during night photoshoots or indoor events in dark conditions.

So, what’s the best way to get the most out of your camera when shooting sports in difficult conditions? Increase your ISO settings. When conditions are dark, you need as much light as possible.

You’ll probably use a wider aperture, which gives you more light. But the ISO also needs to increase when you need fast shutter speeds. The higher you go with ISO, the higher the risk of digital noise.

But even with beginner cameras, you can push the ISO to 1600. This helps maintain excellent image quality. You can go even higher using a more advanced camera and still capture fantastic sports photos.

Football players playing in the rain to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Nikon D500. 185mm, f/5.3, 1/1,000 s, ISO 2.500. Leonid Antsiferov (Unsplash)

4. Use Autofocus for More Creative Freedom

A good autofocus system is a great feature for sports photographers. You must consider the 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. Camera autofocus is easier, with a clear difference between the subject and surroundings. The difficulty comes when light and contrast are low.

Many professional-level sports cameras have advanced autofocuses. These cameras lock onto a moving subject and track it across the frame. It ensures you get some great shots no matter how fast subjects move.

Lower-level cameras’ autofocus systems are less reliable. They need more contrast to work well. You might need to find the best vantage point to take your sports photos with better contrast.

Track-and-field sprinters racing to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Sony a7 II. 85mm, f/1.8, 1/2,000 s, ISO 2,000. Jonathan Chng (Unsplash)

5. Use Continuous AF for Predictive Tracking

Predictive tracking is when your AF system predicts the subject’s movement. Internal camera AI tracks the subject by predicting where it will be next. It’s impressive stuff. But you only find an autofocus system this sophisticated at the pricier end of the market.

A camera with a continuous autofocus mode is perfect for shooting sports photography. On Canon cameras, continuous focusing is labeled AF or AI Servo. On Nikon and Sony cameras, select AF-C.

This mode activates predictive tracking when the AF system detects a moving subject. It continuously monitors the focus distance, adjusting the focus when the distance from the camera to the subject changes.

Do you want to compose a shot in which none of the AF points cover the subject? If so, press the AF lock button to lock the focus distance. For greater accuracy, choose a single AF point. Ensure it’s in the area where most of the action occurs.

A downhill mountain biker racing to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Canon EOS 90D. 70mm, f/8, 1/1,600 s, ISO 500. Nathanaël Desmeules (Unsplash)

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 not seem easy initially. But it’s quick, and every second counts in sports photography.

Pair back-button focus with continuous focus. This helps you get excellent focus with difficult shots. If your subject is moving, you can hold down the focus button to track it and release the shutter anytime.

Two fencers dueling to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Canon EOS 90D. 70mm, f/4, 1/1,250 s, ISO 3,200. Nathanaël Desmeules (Unsplash)

7. Use Burst Mode to Never Miss a Shot

Another important feature of sports photography is burst or continuous shooting mode. In this mode, your camera captures several images in quick succession, enabling you to capture those moments where, if you blink, you will miss it.

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

The problem with burst mode is the storage. Your memory card can fill up fast when shooting at 18 fps. It’s best to save the burst mode when you need it.

Basketball players playing a game with fans in the stands to show sports photography settings
Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. 70mm, f/2.8, 1/320 s, ISO 800. Markus Spiske (Unsplash)

8. Shoot in JPEG to Save Card Memory

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

While RAW files are 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.

A kid dribbling a soccer ball in a football match to show photography settings
Shot with a Canon EOS Rebel SL3 (200D Mark II). 163mm, f/6.4, 1/1,000 s, ISO 250. Bhong Bahala (Unsplash)

Conclusion: Sports Photography Settings

Sports can be fast and ferocious, and a sports photographer needs to be ready to capture the action. That comes down to knowing the game and your camera. So, sports photography settings are crucial!

It helps if you have a fast shutter speed and a wide aperture. You then need to master your autofocus and your burst mode. Plus, shooting in JPEG is handy advice for sports photography.

These sports photography tips are sure to help you capture the action. Perfecting your camera settings ensures that you won’t miss a moment.

Check out our Photography Unlocked e-book. It will help you master your camera settings no matter what you’re shooting!