Photographing Action Sports

Nov 26, 2013, 5:54:00 PM

Sports and action photography is all about timing. It’s about reacting. It’s about being in the right place at the right time and it’s about execution. Each sport has predictable and unpredictable moments. An essential ingredient to becoming a good sports photographer is to know the sport so you know those predictable moments don't turn into unpredictable missed shots. For instance, in tennis, there are opportunities to shoot someone serving, returning serve, hitting forehands and backhands, overheads, and volleys, but it's the critical moments during the match that everyone wants to capture. "Chance favors the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur


By knowing these moments you can anticipate the action. This helps in two ways, one it helps you with focus, and secondly, it helps you press the shutter at the right time. As the saying goes "If you see the action, you missed the shot."This basicallymeans if you wait for the tennis player to hit the ball and then press the shutter release, the ball most likely will be sailing out of the frame. You have to push the button "before" the action so that the mirror has time to flip out of the way and the shutter open and close. There is a delay between the image hitting your optical nerve and the shutter closing. One has to, through experience, learn what that time is and adjust for it.

As you'll note below, the shot of Victoria Azeranka making contact with the ball is more exciting with the ball hitting the racquet than without the ball in the frame It is also clear that this shot was taken at the W&S US Open Series event held in Cincinnati as displayed in the background. (I'll talk more about choosing the best background for your photos later)

Raising your camera’s ISO

Most professional sports photographers use a shutter speed of around 1/1000 of a second to stop motion. This is not a problem during the day when there is sufficient sunshine or natural light. Remember though, the faster the action, the higher shutter speed is required to freeze action. A shutter speed of 1/1000 may be suitable for stopping the action at a soccer game, track meet, or football game, however, when shooting a NASCAR event, I recommend increasing the shutter speed to 1/1600, 1/3200, or 1/4000 of a second.

Sometimes when I shoot at night, I may need to use a faster “f stop” than my lens is capable of delivering. To compromise, I simply increase the ISO setting. This now allows my camera to see more light without sacrificing my shutter speed.

The photo of the World's Greatest Doubles Team, Bob & Mike Bryan, (below) was taken around 10:00 PM at night using an ISO of 3200 which still allowed me to freeze the action by using a shutter speed of 1/1600 sec.


So, how high do I raise the ISO to insure quality pictures?  Actually, it all depends on the camera being used. My Nikon equipment, for example, is capable of shooting at an ISO as high as 3200. Years ago, when shooting with a 35mm film SLR and selecting an ISO of 3200, my results would diminish drastically.  I’d see a lot of noise and pixilation. With newer camera systems, though, pictures look great shooting at any level. So don’t be afraid to experiment by shooting at a high ISO.

That being said, I usually shoot at 1600 ISO. It provides a good happy medium between 800 ISO and 3200 ISO and allows me to shoot at a much faster shutter speed for my action sports assignments.

The photo (below) festures Mike Bryan stretching for a forehand volley while playing around 1:00PM in the afternoon on a very hot day with a high sun. In this instance, I shot the photo using an ISO of 800 and a shutter speed of 3200/sec. As you can see by the clear background, I chose to use a higher aperture so that I could increase my shutter speed.

When light conditions fade or vary, I use the “Auto ISO” setting to allow my camera to automatically choose the best setting for the situation. The one unique feature about this is that the “Auto System” doesn't change the ISO at full steps, such as 400 ISO to 800 ISO, instead it can change the ISO from 200 ISO to 210 ISO. I highly recommend considering using this setting if you are just starting to use ISO settings for improved night shooting.


Try Something Different 

Every sports picture doesn't have to look the same. Instead of shooting at eye level with a telephoto or zoom lens, I alter my shooting positions and focal point.  Don’t be afraid to lay on the ground and shoot with a wide angle lens in the end zone or soccer field.  Climb a ladder or shoot from an elevated vanish point. For example, I constantly change my court position when shooting a tennis match because shooting the same athletes from a variety of different positions and angles helps tell my story. The first photographers to use this technique were …. you guessed it, Sports Illustrated photographers. Now, everyone does it.

The picture (below) features Mardy Fish serving to his opponent during a noon match when the sun is high in the sky. In order to change the perspective of a "straight on shot" where the sun would undoubtly effect the details and contrast of the photo, I chose to shoot from 3 stories up behind the grandstand court. By shooting down, I use the sun to my advantage rather than trying to cope with shooting into it. This not only changes the perspective, but adds a little artistic drama by including Mardy's shadow.

When I shoot, I think “originality” - try something different. At each event I cover, I look for as many new ways to approach the match as possible while keeping in mind those predictable moments. I primarily work as a professional tennis photographer, but at each tournament there is a new setup. This allows me to try new backgrounds, new angles, and a wide variety of shooting locations.

You don't have to be shooting professional sports to try something different. Whether it’s photographing high school football or pee wee soccer, challenge yourself to make a picture - rather than just taking one.

(Above) Here's another good example of a predictable moment. Doubles teams in tennis typically acknowledge their partnership and support of each other by slapping hands between points. In order to to emphasize the importance of this unspoken ritual I focus on Mike and Bob's hands to draw the viewer into the action.

(Below) Another example of changing the viewer's perspective is by lying on the ground and shooting a tennis ball before the player picks it up. The ball now becomes the certer of attention and changes the dynamics of the photo.

I hope you enjoyed this new post. I'll continue to add a few more tips on how to improve your sports action shots tomorrow. In future segments I'll discuss - Choosing the Right Background,Tell a Story,Choosing Your Equipment", "Using Long Glass, Special Effects, and the Sports Photographer's Code of Conduct"  In the meantime, keep snapping photos and ....

Happy Thanksgiving!