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Photog Tip of the Week: Shooting Sports with Steve Mills

March 22, 2011

Spring has nearly sprung, sports fans!  If you’re a fair-weather photographer, you’ll soon be blowing the dust off of your gear and heading to the track, course, court, or diamond.  We’ll offer some tips we hope will make your photos a home run. Today’s Photog Tip of the Week comes from Master Support Hero and sports pro, Steve Mills of Downriver Photography.

What makes a great sports photo?

In a word: Drama! With today’s amazing digital cameras shooting in excess of 10 FPS, it’s tempting to be a ‘machine-gun-mama’ holding down the shutter release anytime there’s action, rattling off shots from your dSLR Uzi.  Fight the urge and use it sparingly!  After your memory card stops sizzling and your batteries return to something below 500 Kelvin, you’re almost certain to have some ‘keepers’.  You’ll likely capture the bat hitting the ball, but it takes practice, restraint and discipline to look beyond, to the player’s wide eyes and the self-satisfaction of their first home run and capture the shot you really want.  Drama.

Know your sport!

For great sports photography, it’s essential to know your sport so you can anticipate the decisive moment.  The swing on the pitch, the slide to home, and the frustration of a strike-out are all important decisive moments not only to anticipate the action, but the emotion of each. If you’re not sure what a flag on the field means, or what a feat running 100 yards in 9.4 seconds is, you’re sure to miss some drama.

Isolate your subject(s)

One rule of composition says, ‘If it doesn’t contribute to the scene in some way, it’s best left out’.  This is especially true in sports photography. Nearly every sport has tons of distraction.  From refs, to spectators, to sponsors, they all compete for attention in your frame.  Don’t let a screaming spectator steal the scene from your slugger.  Use a respectable telephoto lens to fill your frame with drama and adjust your aperture to control the depth of field, blurring out the blight.  If most of your shots show the whole infield and cause viewers to hunt for the action and drama, it’s time to upgrade your lens.

Get a Proper Exposure

Most cameras have a number of different exposure modes including spot metered, center weighted, and evaluative metering.  Most are pretty reliable if you understand how they work.  I’ve often heard, “It was such a bright, sunny day, but all my photos came out dark!” followed by cursing their camera.  Regardless of the exposure mode you choose, the camera will look at the metering area you defined (a spot, the center, or the whole scene) and crunch some numbers to come up with a value for that area.  That value will be considered the middle value for the scene.  This means if your metered area consists mostly of bright clouds, sky, or player uniforms, the camera will now consider them the mid-tone! This turns your bright whites into something near middle-gray, and your whole scene turns dark.  To combat this, add exposure compensation to let your camera know, ‘these whites should be white!’ then check your camera’s histogram for proper levels (see Canadiann’s histogram tips from last week).

Optimize Camera Settings

ISO: The old standards still hold relatively true with 50-200 for bright sunny days, 400 for overcast, and 800-3200 for downright gloomy, with even 6400+ for twilight sports.  Newer dSLRs can handle high ISOs with surprisingly little digital noise so don’t be afraid to push it.

Shooting mode: Just say ‘No’ to sports mode!  AV (Aperture Priority) is my favorite for outdoor sports.  It allows you to control the depth of field [depth of focus], and lets the camera worry about shutter speed. Consider bumping up your ISO for a faster shutter speed if needed.

Shutter speed: How fast is enough?  This depends on three things:  Mood, Sport, and Lens.

  • Mood:  A fast shutter speed will freeze action.  If you want to convey motion or speed with some motion blur, a slower shutter speed will be required. (1/60th of a second will blur most bat swings, where 1/250th will freeze most)
  • Sport:  Formula-1 racing will require a faster shutter speed than badminton, to freeze action.
  • Lens:  For hand-held photography, your shutter speed should exceed the focal length of the lens to prevent camera-shake.  Example:  With a 200mm lens, you’ll want to shoot at a minimum of 1/250th.  Many cameras and lenses now have image stabilization that compensates for hand jitters that cause camera-shake, which allows you to shoot at even slower shutter speeds without noticeable blur.

I hope these tips inform, inspire, and encourage you to get out there and get shooting.  We’ll be looking for all your action-packed artistic drama on SmugMug!

-Steve Mills

  1. Larry Johnston
    March 22, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Thank-you all really helpful tips. I would be interested on your lighting and how you chose it, room light vs artificial light

    Thanks

  2. March 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Larry Johnston :
    Thank-you all really helpful tips. I would be interested on your lighting and how you chose it, room light vs artificial light
    Thanks

    I’m rarely privileged to shoot outdoors, and with the amount of indoor sports I shoot, for consistency and isolating the subject (dark backgrounds), I typically use speedlites, either on or off-camera (last shot). The previous three shots here were stage lighting, dramatic, and sufficient for decent shutter speeds. I prefer natural/ambient light, but it’s only occasionally an option for me. When flash isn’t permitted, it’s time to break out the fast lenses, and crank up the ISO!

  3. MTB
    March 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I cannot agree more on the ISO topic. I shoot in horrible lighting conditions and newer cameras with low noise at high ISOs are great. Other photographers think I’m insane, but when comparing results, they understand my point.

  4. March 22, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Good tips on knowing your sport and knowing what exposure settings to use versus letting the camera decide. If you don’t know what type of shot you want to take, your camera won’t find it on auto at 10fps!

  5. susan
    March 23, 2011 at 8:27 am

    Good info! I’m getting ready to start shooting bicycle track racing with my new camera and lens, hoping to have much better results this year! I am a sponge for all this info and appreciate the article! :)

  6. March 23, 2011 at 8:31 am

    Great tips! While I am a wedding photographer rather than a sports photographer, I do have two sons. Perhaps I will be a de facto sports photographer in the near future ;-)

  7. March 23, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Great info. I shoot a lot of hockey and would love some tips…..they are hard to come by. Thanks!

    • March 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

      Hockey is definitely challenging. Shots can turn blue/yellow, blurry, or grainy, and too dark. My advice is to observe the exposure tip above for nice, bright shots, push the ISO for a faster shutter speed to stop most motion, and use a custom white balance (white balance target or gray card) to set it as accurately as possible. If the WB isn’t quite right, or you have high grain/noise, tinker in post. Adobe Camera RAW/Lightroom 3+, and Noise Ninja have great noise reduction technology that’ll amaze.

  8. March 23, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Good tips. I recently started photographing indoor volleyball. The shots are better with a frozen, crisp, airborne ball in them. But at those shutter speeds, under mercury vapor, I can’t predict the color of the light. Is this always going to be something I’ll cope with in post, or is there something that can be done in camera?

    • March 23, 2011 at 9:26 am

      If you’re dealing with mixed lighting (mercury vapor + window light or flash), it will always be a bit of a challenge as you’ll be forced to pick the predominant light source and balance to that. If it’s solely mercury vapor, or another light source, they make some great products to help deal with it. Check out the ExpoDisc here: http://www.expoimaging.com/product-overview.php?cat_id=1 X-rite also offers some great products. I use the ColorChecker Passport here: http://www.xrite.com/product_overview.aspx?ID=1257

    • March 23, 2011 at 9:45 am

      Mercury vapor, as I had it explained to me, color shift over a 60hz cycle, which means with fast shutter speeds, from one shot to the next, you’ll get an entirely different colorcast. The best advice here is unfortunately to use auto white balance in camera, then tweak in post, if flash is not an option.

      • March 25, 2011 at 6:29 am

        Thanks! That’s what I’ve been doing. Luckily the volleyball itself tends to be pretty neutral.

  9. March 23, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Great tips! Thank you for sharing your insights and experience. I am so glad to read that you shoot mainly on AV mode for fast paced sports photography. I shoot cowboy races and rodeo, where the competitors are moving in and out of the shadows and terrain, so I cannot adjust the manual settings fast enough. I’ve settled on AV mode and control the aperture and ISO to keep the shutterspeed up high enough.

  10. March 23, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Andrea Kaus :
    Great tips! Thank you for sharing your insights and experience. I am so glad to read that you shoot mainly on AV mode for fast paced sports photography. I shoot cowboy races and rodeo, where the competitors are moving in and out of the shadows and terrain, so I cannot adjust the manual settings fast enough. I’ve settled on AV mode and control the aperture and ISO to keep the shutterspeed up high enough.

    This is what I love about the Canon pro-level bodies. Two wheels, one for your finger, one for your thumb. I can adjust both shutter and aperture pretty quickly using these. Too bad I don’t own a Canon body (or any dslr). :( But my old Olympus e-20n has two dials as well and it’s very quick. And shooting high speed cars is probably just as bad as the rodeos. :O

  11. March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Good tips.
    I shoot a lot of running events and everything you said is spot on.
    gene

  12. March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Great and helpful tips, can’t wait to try them out. I play with my settings constantly seeing what works best. I take a lot of action sports (baseball, LAX, Volleyball and football). I typically use the TV with great success. I will try your recommendations though. And you are so right, you need to know and understand the sport in order to anticipate what comes next. I captured an outfield at the college stretched out to catch a ball and the ball is just shy of landing in his glove! See my album AACC Baseball 3.22.2001 on my sunnyimagephotography smug mug site!

  13. March 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Thanks so much for the tips. I love shooting high school and little league sports but rarely find good instructions.

  14. March 25, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Thanks so much for the tips. I love shooting high school and little league sports but rarely find useable instructions.

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