Interested in sports photography?! We’ve got you covered!

Typically, the name of the game in sports photography is being able to capture intense action and freeze a moment in time. Many people will ask, “What settings are best for sports photography?” As in any type of photography, the exact settings will depend on many variables such as available light and the look you’re going for. However, probably the most essential camera setting for capturing a great action shot comes down to shutter speed. In all sports photography, regardless of sport or level of play, the action taking place will only last fractions of a second, which means understanding shutter speed will be critical for capturing great action photos. This article will focus primarily on shutter speed and how it affects moving object so that you are able to go out and start capturing the action. While this article is geared toward sports photography, understanding shutter speed will be very helpful for any type of photography where movement is involved.

What is Shutter Speed and Why Does it Matter in Sports Photography?

Shutter speed describes how quickly the shutter opens and closes, and helps determine how much light hits the camera’s sensor – this is true regardless of what camera brand or model you are working with. It also becomes an incredibly useful tool for freezing fast moving objects, or in this case, athletes. The faster the shutter speed is, the better you are able to freeze an object in motion. Whereas, a slower shutter speed is going to give you more movement to a photo. Regardless of which type of sports photography you will be capturing, however, you will always be dealing with plenty of moving parts and will need to know how to capture them in a way that gives you a clear and in-focus image.

Typically when shooting sports, you’re going to want to have your camera shutter speed set at least 1/1000th. However, remember that the faster the shutter speed, the more motion you will be able to freeze and the amount of motion will be determined based on what sport you’re shooting. When I am shooting a Pro Motocross event, I frequently shoot at 1/2000th because not only are the athletes moving at an incredibly fast speed, but the events also take place in the middle of the day.

Canon 5d Mk iii | Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS ii | ISO: 250 | Focal Length: 200mm | Aperture: f/3.5 | Shutter Speed: 1/2000th

Practicing with Fast Shutter Speeds

The easiest way to get comfortable using with fast shutter speeds (if you aren’t already shooting in full Manual Mode) is to utilize the “Shutter Priority” mode on your camera. On Canon DSLRs, it is labeled as “Tv” and on Nikon’s it’s labeled as “S”.

The easiest way to practice some action shots and really get a feel for how shutter speed affects a photo, before you end up near the field (or in my case, racetrack), is to either grab one of your kids, or a niece or nephew, or any moving object that you can work with and use the shutter priority mode (Tv for Canon, S for Nikon). First, pick a relatively slow shutter speed, like 1/100th and have your helper do some sort of movement for about 20 feet.

If you’re working with kids who know how to ride a bike, this is a great way to practice. Take a few shots at 1/100th and make sure that you are manually selecting your focus points so that you are telling your camera where your subject is and not the other way around. Next, move up to 1/250th and have your helper do the same movement they did for the first couple of photos, again selecting your own focus point. Repeat this step again at 1/500th, 1/1000th, and 1/2000th. Because you are on Shutter Priority mode, the camera will set the Aperture (f-stop) for you. Remember that as you increase your shutter speed because it is letting in less light, you may need to adjust your ISO to compensate.

Now that you have a handful of photos thanks to Shutter Priority Mode and your special helper, you should be able to visually see that the faster the shutter speed is, the more of the movement is stopped. This is going to be key when it comes to freezing an epic moment in time during a sporting event, whether that be at your kid’s Little League game or ballet lesson or if you’re working toward shooting professional level sports. With plenty of practice, you’ll be on your way to capturing a photo that might just be the next cover shot of the sports section.

Canon 5d Mk iii | Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS ii | ISO: 250 | Focal Length: 200mm | Aperture: f/3.5 | Shutter Speed: 1/2000th

Adding Movement to Action Photos (Slow Shutter)

Sometimes when we are shooting sports, things can start to look a little stagnant after freezing action with fast shutter speeds for the entire game, round, match. To break things up a bit, one trick to adding motion back into a sports photo is to use a SLOW shutter speed. Now, I know we’ve spent the bulk of this lesson learning about why a fast shutter speed is going to be pertinent for action photos. However, once you’ve mastered using fast shutter speeds for sports and action photos, you can give slow shutter speeds a try by utilizing the panning technique.

To give panning a go, you’ll want to set your shutter speed at anywhere from about 1/60th to 1/160th of a second and then again manually select your focus point. Once you have done that, when your moving object is approaching, you’ll want to lock focus on the subject and pan at the speed of the object itself. This technique will ideally cause your subject to be sharp and in focus while completely blurring the background. Panning definitely adds another level of interest to sports photos. With motorsports, this is especially useful because of the way the riders move throughout the racetrack. It is a tricky technique to master, but really fun once you get the hang of it.

Canon 5d Mk iii | Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L IS ii | ISO: 320 | Focal Length: 70mm | Aperture: f/8.0 | Shutter Speed: 1/160th

Predicting Action for Great Sports Photography

Once you have a good understanding of how shutter speeds affect moving objects, you will be able to start focusing on the sport to be on the lookout for the best moments. Keep in mind, that whether you are shooting sports at the professional or amateur level, you typically will have limited spaces for where you will be allowed to photograph from. Sure, professional sports photographers have access that the general public does not, but that doesn’t mean that at your local youth sporting events you won’t still be able to get some great photos.

The best advice, beyond mastering shutter speed, would be to carefully observe the game so that you can refine your skill for seeing moments before they happen. You may think that those ESPN or Getty images are just pure dumb luck. However, sports photographers have spent extensive time learning to predict where the action is going to happen. For example, in Motocross, riders will typically take the same or similar lines during every lap of the race. During practice, I am watching the riders very carefully to study how they are riding that particular track for the day and getting a feel for where they are in certain body positions and how I’m going to capture images of them throughout the day. Of course, there are definitely those “lucky shots” that happen, but it’s all about being prepared for them to happen so that you are able to snag that “cover-worthy” image.

Whichever sport you are photographing, your observation skills will be just as important as your camera skills. It should also be noted that with a lot of sports photography, because you are often limited in the areas you shoot, the way to add some creativity to your shots is to switch up between shooting zoomed in and a wider shot that includes more of the scene as well as changing levels and shooting both high and low. This will give some dynamic interest to your photos and will likely make for a pretty stoked athlete as well.

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Bonus Settings and Gear Recommendations

Where a fast shutter speed is used to freeze motion and a slow shutter speed is used to blur motion, a wide aperture is used to isolate the subject, by blurring the background. In sports photography, this is where a fast lens becomes incredibly handy. When we say a “fast lens”, we mean something with a fixed aperture of f/2.8 or lower. Probably the most used and most useful lens for any type of sports photography is a 70-200mm f/2.8. This lens is not only fast, but also gives you a good zoom range. Because you are further away from the action, even for the pros with media credentials, a telephoto lens is essential to get you close to the action without putting you in danger of the action.

This article could definitely go on forever, but this should give you a great foundation for capturing great action shots! Above all, remember that shutter speed is going to serve you well when it comes to freezing those epic athletic moments!


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