The Addiction of Sports Photography: Capabilities of the Camera
Today’s digital cameras are computers with lenses. And like computers, there is a powerful operating system, called firmware, that controls all functions. The firmware has evolved to such a degree that incredible images can be taken without fully leveraging the camera’s true capabilities. Just image the possibilities if you knew more about your camera.
Most people are familiar with the camera settings that are accessible from the LCD panel, buttons and dials on the camera. But fewer people are familiar with the customizations that can be made from within the many firmware menus.
For example, my Canon 1DX has greater than 115 functions that be customized. That seems overwhelming. Thankfully, only 15% of these settings really affect the quality of your sports photography.
The content in this chapter builds upon the discussion on shutter speed, aperture and ISO in the preceding chapter. This chapter discusses those configurations that will significantly improve the quality and remove the frustration in your sports photography.
For the purpose of simplicity, these sections use terminology for Canon cameras. Canon is the world largest provider of digital photography equipment. All the major equipment manufactures offer the same basic functions. Use Google to identify the equivalent term for your camera brand.
Digital cameras have two autofocus (AF) modes: One-shot and AI Servo. One-shot AF is for use with stationary subjects. AI Servo is used for tracking moving subjects and it is essential for photographing sports.
AI Servo is Canon's predictive autofocus system. The name is derived from the use of Artificial Intelligence to anticipate the speed and distance of moving subject. AI Servo greatly increases your chance of getting a sharp image when your target is moving.
AI Servo continually monitors the shot and refocuses as the subject moves. An athlete can race directly toward you and the camera will re-focus as the position changes. How sensitive the camera is to changes is a feature that can be configured, which we’ll discuss in the advanced settings section.
Drive Mode refers to how many images are taken while the shutter release is depressed. Your options are single shot, burst and variations of both.
I prefer the fastest burst rate available for the camera, which is usually between 6 to 20 frames per second (fps). This allows you to catch small variations in movements that can make the difference between a good shot and a great shot.
You can get good images shooting at slower burst rates, but it becomes heavily dependent upon the skill and the timing of the photographer. That timing is really put to the test when shooting indoors using single shot with remote strobe lighting.
I encourage you not to go overboard and just continually depress the shutter button while shooting in burst mode. This behavior creates several undesired affects. First, it indicates your level of sophistication, or lack of it, because your shutter can be easily heard by people nearby. Second, eventually you will fill your buffer and your camera just stops until the buffer is emptied. And third, you now must take the time and look at each of those images in post-processing. I usually shoot in burst of three frames at a time.
White balance (WB) is the process of removing unrealistic color tints so objects appearing white in real life are rendered as white in the image. White balance takes into account the color temperature of a light source.
The Auto White Balance (AWB) setting will prove accurate in setting the WB in most occasions. Where possible, select a specific WB setting. The Sunny, Shade and Cloudy settings are easy to determine. Interior lighting (e.g., fluorescent, tungsten) and outdoor lighting at night is harder to judge. We’ll introduce a technique to more precisely set the white balance in the advanced setting discussion.
Your camera has a built-in light meter that measures the amount of light in the image. This allows the camera to calculate the shutter speed, aperture or ISO for the selected shooting mode.
The amount of light in the picture will vary across the image frame. This is caused by uneven placement of lights and naturally occurring shadows. In addition, some lights may cycle in intensity, something not noticeable to the eye but detected by the camera.
Light Metering allows you to select from which portion of the image the reading is taken. There are three modes that are most used in sports photography:
o Center weighted – Uses the full frame but emphasizes the center area.
o Partial – Uses a center spot that is approximately 9% of the frame.
o Spot – Uses a center spot that is approximately 3.8% of the frame.
My preferred light metering setting is center weighted, unless I’m challenged with backlighting. Backlighting is when there is a light source in the background of the frame. A common example is illuminated advertisement boards that are at field level (e.g., ribbon boards).
The best remedy to a backlighting is to change shooting positions. Sometimes that not possible. Spot metering comes in handy, but is not a cure-all. The slightest movement of the camera, especially of subjects at a distance, will change the spot metering location and produce a poorly exposed image.
Focal Point Selection
Focal point selection is an important aspect of sports image composition. If I were photographing landscapes I would try to use as many of AF points as possible. But it’s not that simple in sports photography.
In sport photography, the camera with a zoom lens are usually focused on a key object surrounded by secondary objects. The image will be in focus if the AF point is centered on the key object. If, however, the AF point focuses on the secondary objects, the key object will be blurred because of the shallow depth of field affect discussed in the previous chapter.
We address this challenge by reducing the number of AF points that are aimed at the key object, and by moving the focal point to track the key object in the frame. I prefer to use Point AF with a single focus point, supported by focus points above and below, and to the left and right, for a total of five focus points.
The location of the point AF within the frame can be moved by pressing the AF point selection button, then using the joystick or arrows on the back of the camera, to change the point AF position.
Your camera will automatically determine the proper exposure in all modes except manual. However, sometimes the camera may not get this correct and the camera must be instructed to to make the image a little brighter or darker.
Exposure compensation is the control by which you temporarily adjust your camera's definition of what is “properly exposed.” Put simply, it's a way to force the camera to make your photos darker or brighter to the degree that you tell it.
This comes in handy when taking a photo in a direction that is dimmer, like shooting into end zones of football fields under night lighting.
People have strong differences of opinions about many things in life; photography included. One example is a long-standing difference of opinion with equipment manufacturers: Canon versus Nikon, now replaced by Canon versus Sony. Another area of strong opinion is file formats: RAW versus JPEG.
The best file format depends upon many factors, including your intended end-use, available post-processing time, file size, and read / write speeds of the camera and memory card.
Shooting in RAW format creates a larger file because all data created by the camera is captured. The larger file size quickly fills your camera’s buffer which limits your rapid-fire bursts. The larger file size also takes longer to download from the card to your computer
The benefit of shooting in the RAW format is it provides a wider array of options in post-processing. The downside is the amount of time required to perform those post-processing edits.
JPEG format uses the camera’s internal firmware to take the information off the sensor and quickly process it before saving it. JPEG files are smaller because less data is generated, enabling you to take more images in burst mode before your camera’s buffer fills.
JPEG files require less post-processing because the camera does some of that processing, saving time. The down side of the JPEG file format is the color and resolution data is not as detailed.
The bottom line: Use the RAW file format if you are looking for a smaller number of artistic images. Use the JPEG file format if you are looking for larger number of action images and don’t have time to edit the images.
Memory cards can be purchased from a wide variety of vendors in all capacities and read / write speeds. The only limit is how much money you want to spend.
I use memory cards with a 16GB capacity with read / write speeds of 45MB/s and 40MB/s, respectively. I never have problems with buffering when firing in rapid-fire bursts.
The benefit of larger size memory cards is they hold greater number of images. The potential disadvantage is the loss of more images if that card goes bad. Thankfully, cards do not often go bad, but it is a major blow when a card does go bad, regardless of its size. You can mitigate the risk of a memory card going bad by using smaller memory cards, or simultaneously writing to two memory cards, if your camera holds two cards.
I never remove images from a card until I have two copies of the files: one on my computer and another in a backup storage drive. I always reformat the card to remove the images; I never erase or delete the images. Formatting is a more complete way of clearing old files from your card and reduces the risk of data corruption. Erasing or deleting images doesn’t fully clear the card of data fragments.
Thus far the discussion has been pretty basic. It is time to move on to less commonly discussed topics.
One of the most frustrating moments in game is having an official or another player obstructing your view of a player you are tracking. The AF turns its attention to the obstruction, and when the obstruction clears, the player you were tracking is now out of focus and you lose the shot.
Another source of frustration is tracking a moving player and your focus point shifts momentarily from the player to something else, producing a crystal-clear image of the something else but not the player.
Tracking sensitivity addresses these frustrations. Tracking sensitivity adjusts how quickly your AI Servo AF changes focus when an obstacle enters the AF points, or when the AF points stray from the subject.
There are two ends of the spectrum of tracking sensitivity.
At one end, you can set your camera to “lock on” to the subject. The camera will try to continue focusing on the subject even if an obstacle enters the AF points, or if the subject strays from the AF points. If, however, the camera focuses the wrong subject, it may take slightly longer to switch subjects and refocus on the intended subject.
On the other end of spectrum, you can set your camera to be very responsive to changes in subjects. Once an AF point tracks a subject, the camera will focus on a new subject at a different distance.
I prefer the “lock on” end of the spectrum.
Acceleration / Deceleration Tracking
A second adjustment to the AI Servo AF is acceleration / deceleration tracking. This sets the tracking sensitivity for moving subjects whose speed can suddenly change dramatically by starting or stopping suddenly.
Again, there are two ends of the spectrum. At one end we have subjects making sudden movements, sudden acceleration/deceleration, or sudden stops, like a hockey player. Even if the moving subject’s speed suddenly changes dramatically, the camera continues to focus the target subject. At the other end of the spectrum we have subjects that move at a steady speed, like a racer.
The preferred setting for sports photography allows for sudden movements, accelerations, and decelerations.
AF Point Display
There are times when you think you’ve taken the world’s greatest shot. Perfect light, perfect composition, perfect action, except when you look at the LCD display the image is it not in focused. You wonder why?
To help understand if was “me or the camera”, I use the AF Point Display. The AF point display appears on the LCD view as a red dot(s). The red dot(s) is what the camera was focused on when you took the shot.
Custom Shooting Modes
As discussed in the chapter on Light Management, you are familiar with the standard shooting modes of the camera: aperture priority, time priority, manual.
And now you’re becoming familiar with some of the customizations you can make with your camera. (And there are more to come). But these customizations are not applicable to all shooting scenarios. You can store these different scenarios in your camera using Custom Shooting Modes. A custom shooting mode allows you to save a particular configuration and call upon it when needed. This is a wonderful shortcut.
I use two custom shooting modes, one for Sports and one for Portraits, as described in Figure 13.
High ISO Speed Noise Reduction
Nighttime and indoors sports are shot in low light / high ISO environments. A high ISO setting produces a grainier final appearance in the photo quality.
The camera sensors have made significant strides to reduce the grainy appearance. But your camera offers additional options to filter out the grainy appearance using High ISO Speed Noise Reduction. The noise reduction reduces the noise in darker parts of the image but at the expense of losing some image detail.
Highlight Tone Priority
One of my biggest frustrations is backlighting caused by video screens and advertisement boards. Backlighting is difficult to overcome, especially in professional sporting venues. It’s always best to change your position when faced with backlighting, but you don’t always have that option.
As mentioned above, spot metering can help overcome backlighting. Another remedy that can help overcome backlighting is Highlight Tone Priority.
Highlight Tone Priority minimizes overexposed highlight areas. It smooths the gradations between grays and highlights by expanding the standard 18% gray to bright highlights. The downside is ISO 100 is disabled, making 200 the lowest ISO setting.
Protecting you work is essential is sports photography. Normally your copyright information is added to the image’s metadata as it is downloaded from the memory card to the computer by the editing software.
Unfortunately, this step is often skipped in the rush to post content to social media directly from the field of play. Images can be transferred from the camera to your Smart Phone via a Bluetooth connection, then lightly edited on the phone, and posted to social media without the copyright protections.
Copyright Settings is a nice solution to protect your work. Copyright Settings allows you to enter your basic contact and copyright information into your camera. This information is then added to each photo as it taken.
As mentioned here, there are dozens and dozens of commands, configurations and actions that you can make from the menu tabs in your camera. Some configurations will be made once and not returned to often. I keep these configuration setting in a spreadsheet just so I’ll know what they are.
But there are a handful of commands that you’ll routinely use.
I used a personalized “My Menu” to provide a centralized view of those routinely used commands, avoiding the need to memorized how to find those command in the larger menu.
Include here are some of the command I have on the “My Menu” on my cameras.
Custom White Balance
I use Custom White Balance whenever I photograph in an indoor arena. I began doing this when the white balance pre-sets (Automatic, Tungsten, Fluorescent) changed the color of the uniforms enough that it was noticeable. Custom white balance enables you to set the white balance for a specific light source for better accuracy.
Perform this procedure under the actual light source to be used. Take a picture of white or grey card, register in to the camera, and all photos assigned to that registered card will be automatically corrected.
Many cameras allow only one custom balance to be stored, but mine allows up to five custom white balances that I can save by arena name. I update the custom balances at the beginning of each season, or when I know work had been done on the lights.
Most photographers rely upon the LCD battery display to monitor battery strength. The display reports available battery capacity in one-third increments and flashes when the strength falls below 10%.
I prefer to know the exact available strength using the Battery Info function. This allows me to maximize battery life by drawing the strength to near zero, before replacing with a fresh batter, and later recharging the depleted battery.
The Battery Info function gives you the exact remaining capacity of the battery (%), how many times the shutter has operated on this charge, and the overall recharge performance of the battery.
The Rating function is a lifesaver for sports photographers because it allows you to quickly identify those images for post processing while they are still in the camera.
Let’s say you take 1000 photos of a game. Chances are only 50 to 100 are worthy of post-processing. The others might be:
· Out of focus
· Not properly composed
· Didn’t properly capture the action
· Didn’t capture the face or the eyes
You can either go through those photos on your computer after they’ve been downloaded, or you can rate them on your camera in spare moments of the game.
You begin by looking at the photos on your LCD display, zooming in to make sure the image is tack-sharp. Zoom-in on an image in the LCD panel by depressing the magnifying glass button and rotating the dial to increase magnification. I then give the photo a score of 1 star (keeper) or 2 stars (definite keeper).
After downloading the images, filter on the rating, and start work editing only your top shots. Much more on this in the chapter entitled “After the Whistle.”
I’ve seen many people try to erase the “bad” photos while shooting a game. As mentioned earlier, erasing images in not recommended because it leaves fragments of files that could corrupt the card. You may also inadvertently delete an image that you could have used later.
I have the card Format command in my personalized menu. As mentioned earlier, it’s a best practice to Format cards, not erase files, to delete old photos.
Date / Time
Time synchronization is a problem I encounter when using more than one camera. Images don’t appear in chronological order after download if the camera clocks are not synchronized. Adding the Date / Time function to the personalized menu is a convenient and inexpensive way to synch the clocks.
Getting a new camera is like getting a new toy. You don’t want to take the time to read the instruction manual; you just want to play with it.
That’s okay, to an extent. Many of the camera’s settings are intuitive; you can figure them out just by playing with it. Unfortunately, some of the really important configurations for your camera are not intuitive and take effort to learn.
You really only need to know about 15% of the camera’s capabilities. Study your camera and identify the 15% that affects you. Or just use the information presented here.
In my opinion, the most important customizations to improve the quality of your sports images are for acceleration / deceleration and sensitivity tracking. You’ll be pleased with the results.
The most important customization to save time and avoid frustration is the use of the My Menu. Use of the personalized menu will allow you to put your energy into the important stuff, like taking photographs.
About The Author
Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests, TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes 1000’s of social media posts.
Copyright 2020 Andy Nietupski and TTL Sports Media