Sports Photography: What’s in Your Bag
Taking photographs of action sports is one of the hardest things you can try to do well with a camera.
I’m reminded of an occasion while photographing a NCAA volleyball conference championship in 2018. I was sitting on floor next to a player’s parent who wrangled credentials. The parent became increasingly agitated as the match went on, not because how well his team was playing, but because his images were dark and blurry.
By the end of the match he said he was going to throw-out his Canon gear and buy Nikon. He seemed like a nice guy, and being a Canon user myself, I offered to help him out. It turned out that he was using the wrong equipment for what he was trying to do.
This article is for the photographer who wants to capture great photos of their athlete in action. It addresses one three things you need to become good sports photographer: the proper equipment.
Why is Action Sports Photography Difficult?
Nearly every other photographic genre has the benefit of the “do-over.”
If you don’t like the perspective of an architectural photography, you just change your position and take another photo. If you don’t like the expression on the bride’s face, you just say a few words to change the mood and take another photo. If you don’t like the lighting of a sunrise or sunset, you just keep coming out on different days until you get the lighting you want and take another photo.
Do-overs may be inconvenient for you, your subject or the person paying the bill, but they always produce a great image.
Action sports photography is very different.
You don’t control the lighting. Capturing an action-image that is properly exposed and sharp can be a challenge. The available light is often marginal, unless you are photographing on a bright sunny day. And traditional flash photography isn’t allowed because it may distract the athlete.
You can’t control the position of the players. The photographer must have the experience to anticipate where the action will develop, and be in the right position to capture the play with the faces of the players.
There are no do-overs in action sports. When the play is over, it’s over. You will never have an image like that again. You must be in the right position with the right equipment with the right setting to capture a useable image. You got to get it right the first time or the play is gone forever.
For these reasons you must have the right equipment that is suited to the purpose.
Equipment Varys by Sport and Lighting
The type of equipment you need varies by the size of the sport venue and its lighting.
The two most common types of cameras are DSLR (digital single lens reflect) and mirrorless. Both types of cameras work equally well for action sports photography. I personally prefer DSLR cameras because the bodies are sturdier and better tolerate the bumping from moving around.
The most important feature of the camera is the light sensitivity, most often referred to ISO. The low to middle end of the normal ISO range is its sweet spot. Image quality degrades at the upper end of the ISO range, especially when using the “expanded” ISO range.
For sports photographed in sunlight, I recommend a camera with a normal ISO range up to 6,000 or greater. When taking photos indoors or at night under the lights, I recommend a normal ISO range up to 12,000 or greater; preferably, 24,000 or greater.
I always want the maximum normal ISO to be far greater than what is needed. Taking images in the lower end of the ISO will give you cleaner, sharper pictures.
Sports are almost always photographed using the burst, or “rapid fire,” mode, where the shutter opens and closes for as long as shutter button is depressed. You will need a minimum burst speed of 6 to 8 frames per second (fps). I prefer 12 to 16 fps to best capture the action. Some cameras have burst rates upwards of 20 fps. That fast a burst rate is great to capture the action, but also generates a lot of images to review.
I also suggest the photographer use two, and sometimes three, cameras for reasons discussed below.
Court Sports Lenses
Court sports are played indoors or out, in a more confined area, with surfaces other than grass or artificial turf. Examples are tennis, basketball, volleyball and ice hockey.
The most common focal lengths (i.e., magnification) of lenses used to photograph court sports are the 24-70mm, the 24-105mm, the 70-200mm and the 300mm. The 24-70mm lens is used to photograph close-in action, like under the basketball hoop. This is often referred to as wide-angle.
The 24-105mm lens is also used to photograph close-in action, and has a little greater reach. The 70-200mm lens is use to photograph action at a medium distance, like mid-court in basketball. The 300mm lens is great to photograph action at the opposite end of the court. The 70-200mm lens is considered a telephoto lens, and any lens with a focal length greater than 300mm is consider super-telephoto.
I suggest using two cameras with lenses to photograph court sports because the action will move quickly up and down the court, and it is not practical to change lenses in the middle of a play.
I photograph indoor basketball with a 24-70mm and a 300mm when positioned at the baseline. I photograph indoor volleyball with a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm because the court is smaller. And I use a 70-200mm and a 300mm for ice hockey when positioned at the red line (mid-ice), between the team benches.
Field Sports Lenses
Field sports are usually played outdoors in a large arena on natural or artificial grass. Examples include baseball, football and soccer.
Taking images of field sports, especially at night, require sophisticated lenses, often referred to “big glass” because of their size and weight. In reality, two and sometimes three cameras with lenses are required to adequately photograph field sports.
The most common focal length used to photograph field sports is the 400mm. The lens provides massive magnification but is so large and heavy that a one-legged stand called a monopod is used to support the weight. A 300mm lens can be used in place of a 400mm, but has slightly less reach.
The second most commonly used lens for field sports is the 70-200mm. It captures plays that are closer in. In a pinch, a 70-200mm lens can be used in place of a 300mm or a 400mm lens provided the photographer does not over-crop.
Over-cropping takes an image of a subject that is far away and removes the unwanted area in editing, making it appear magnified. This produces lower quality images that appear grainy and are not suitable for printing or close inspection.
An optional third lens is the 24-70mm or the 24-105mm and is used to capture close-in images like the coin toss, candid sideline moments and some celebratory moments.
I photograph football and soccer with three lenses: 400mm, 70-200mm and the 24-70mm. In these sports the photographer is in closer in proximity to the player and coaches, allowing use of the 24-70mm. I photograph baseball with only two lenses, the 400mm and the 70-200mm, because even from the photo-well, located alongside the dugout, you are not that close to the players.
Daylight vs Night Time and Indoors Lenses
I tell my students that shooting in daylight levels the playing field between amateur and professional photographers. There is plenty of light for the average camera to permit fast shutter speeds to freeze the action. And less expensive, low-aperture telephoto lenses can nicely get the job done.
Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that allows light to enter camera. A low-aperture lens is one with a smaller opening, letting in less light. The smaller opening doesn’t matter because the sun provides plenty of light. For the purposes of this discussion, any lens with an f/stop greater than f/4.0 can be considered low-aperture.
Unfortunately, most of the games that I photograph are at night or at indoor arenas. A large aperture (low f/stop) lens is an absolute necessity under these conditions.
A large aperture lens could be an f/2.8 or an f/4.0. The aperture of a f/2.8 lens allows in twice the amount of light as a f/4.0 lens. I prefer the f/2.8 lenses, because autofocus acquires the target faster and adjusts more quickly to changes in the target’s position. The f/2.8 lenses are also more expensive.
The f/4.0 lenses are a good substitute, especially with the advances made in the light sensitivity of today’s cameras, provided the ISO setting is not near the maximum of its normal range.
The conventional wisdom is to invest in good quality lenses. This is a good approach provided your camera has sufficient ISO range. Otherwise you will still get photographs that are dark and blurry even with good quality lenses.
That was the problem for the father of the volleyball player at the conference championship. He was using 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, but camera only had a maximum normal ISO of 2000.
I sent him images of his daughter after they won the championship. They were both very pleased.
Oh, and the two other things you need to be a good sports photographer: proper camera settings and proper positioning around the field of play.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski founded Through the Lens Sport Media in 2015 while on a sabbatical from enterprise software sales. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes 1,000’s 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 greater than 1000 social media posts.