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What to Look for in a Sports and Adventure Photography Camera

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If you’re looking at capturing moving subjects, you’re entering the world of action photography. To capture great action and sports photography, you’ll need a good camera.

Here’s everything you need to look for when buying an action or sports photography camera.

action shot of a surfer catching a wave

What Is Action Photography?

Action photography is the field of capturing fast-moving objects. These photographers are usually the ones that follow sports or wildlife such as birds. Anything that is moving could count as action photography.

Think car racing, children’s sports day, air shows and boat regattas. They all require certain features from your camera, and possibly your choice in lenses. You could even be a photographer on or in something moving fast, trying to capture a still image of the static environment.

This field is not exclusive to professionals and their business ventures. Action photography is very accessible to enthusiasts, especially if you want to capture your family members playing softball, or just running around.

Why Do You Need a Specific Camera for Action Photography?

You don’t need thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment to be able to capture moving subjects. You could, of course, but it isn’t necessary. Unless you plan to make money from your action photography, there is no point spending a lot of money.

There are two areas that your camera needs to perform well in for action photography. These are the frame rate (how fast your camera can take multiple images) and the auto-focus (how fast your camera can focus on a subject).

When paired together, they make a mighty system, allowing you to capture objects moving very fast. These features are not something you would find in every other camera model.

Having a system that can capture and focus fast needs very sophisticated technology.

Make no doubt about it – cameras with these features are expensive. If you capture wildlife, sports, or even editorial photography, you need and action photography camera.

action shot of players during a rugby game

What You Need to Look for

Fast Frame Rates

The frame rate is how fast you can capture multiple images one after another. This is a very beneficial feature in grabbing a fast-moving subject.

Be them sportspeople, flying birds, or playful pets. Having the chance to capture a burst of images during a second gives you more chances in getting the shot you want.

For a camera to be great for action, we are looking at over five images per second. Some of these cameras have ten. Higher chances mean better results. It will always be better to take ten images and have nine of them out of focus than take one and have it unusable.

Some photographers will know this as fps (frames per second), burst shooting, or continuous shooting. They are all the same and allow you to shoot multiple frames within a 1-second window.

Right Memory Cards

It isn’t just down to the camera. Your choice in memory card affects how many images you can take in succession. When you capture continuously by holding your finger down on the shutter release, there is a limit imposed by the camera.

Each image you take enters a queue. It is held there until it can be processed and saved. Most cameras can’t do this in real time, resulting in a ‘buffer’.

After you take 5-10 or 20 images in a row, your camera will need a moment to process all those queued shots.

By buying a cheaper and therefore slower memory card, your images are further limited. The buffer size isn’t as large and can’t process the images as fast as your camera shoots them. Your choice in camera might take ten images in succession, but your memory card could reduce it to five or less.

For more information concerning memory cards, read our Best Memory Cards for all Photography Budgets – CF | SD | MicroSD article here.

action shot of a motorbike rider

Auto-Focusing

Autofocusing is the trust you put in your camera and its features to ensure your image is sharp. Apposed to manual focus, this happens automatically. Usually, this is done with a half-click of the shutter release, but it can be changed to a back-button focus.

Active and Passive Autofocusing

This setting comes in two forms, active and passive. With active autofocusing, your camera fires a red beam to the subject that you place your focal point on. Light bounces back, giving the camera distance related information.

The information is passed on to the lens via electronic contacts, and it adjusts accordingly. This works even in low light situations. But, it doesn’t work for moving subjects. This is where passive autofocusing comes in, and it works in a different way.

Fast Autofocus

Having a fast auto-focus means that your camera doesn’t waste precious time searching for your subject. It could mean the difference between a perfect shot, and one that’s just out of focus.

When it comes to auto-focusing, there are a few things to take into account. Firstly, there is the type of autofocus, either contrast-detection or phase-detection. On top of that, there is the number of focus points available through each system.

Although the number of focal points doesn’t help with the speed of the autofocus per se, having more points makes it easier to track your subjects.

a group of adventurers tube rafting

Tracking

Another area that directly influences autofocusing is tracking. Most DSLRs have subject tracking, known as Continuous/AF-C (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon). This follows the subject as it moves, keeping it in a constant focus while you capture away.

There are other types of tracking that are extra features, especially with the more recent digital cameras. Face tracking recognizes the subject’s face and, follows it as it moves within the cameras’ frame.

Some cameras are better at this than others and can keep up with faster moving subjects. This area is somewhat restricted to the photographer, as they have to keep the subject in the frame.

You are also dependant on the subject, as covering their face, or turning around might mean a dropped focus and an out-of-focus shot.

Phase Detection and Contrast Detection

There are two types of autofocusing you need to be aware of; Phase Detection And Contrast Detection. Some cameras have a preference, such as DSLRs using phase-detection and mirrorless using contrast detection. Some cameras use both.

Phase Detection

When light enters your DSLR via the lens, most of it bounces off the mirror and heads through the pentaprism. This is how the photographer is able to see what they are shooting.

A little of the light goes through a translucent part of the mirror, allowing the autofocus to work.

This little light that enters the mirror is again split, creating two separate images in the AF sensor unit. If these images line up, the focal point is in focus. If the images don’t line up, the distance between them is recorded by the camera, and it changes accordingly.

The focus will fall in front of the subject if the images are close together. If the images are far apart, the focus falls behind the subject.

The camera knows what it needs to do to bring that subject into a correct focus. And it does it quickly, but not without limitations.

a group of hikers on a mountain trail

Contrast Detection

Contrast detection, unlike phase detection, looks at the contrast of the subject and scene. If the subject is in focus, the contrast is at its highest. The problem here is that the focus of the lens needs to move forward and backwards, making it a slower was to focus compared to phase detection.

Even if it’s slower, it is the most accurate way to ensure your subjects are in focus, especially with still subjects. As the movement of the focusing slows down the speed of this type of autofocusing, it isn’t the best with tracking and moving subjects.

This is why camera manufacturers have created systems to counteract this, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.

For more information about phase detection, look at our How to Understand Phase Detection Autofocus article.

Conclusion

Ready to grab your own sports photography camera to capture those interesting shots? Head over to our Best Camera for Action Shots – Sports and Adventure Photography article.

Once you’ve found your perfect camera, check out our reviews on the Trilens Lens HolsterOP/TECH USA Double Camera Sling, or the NYA-EVO FJORD 36 Action Camera Bag next!

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