Shooting Sports 1 – A Primer

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a wide variety of sports. I am a people/portrait/event photographer in Frederick, MD, but I also have two active kids.

I also have a wide variety of friends who have kids active in sports, and who ask me to take pictures of their kids doing the things they do – which include sports. When you tote a camera everywhere, people assume you take pictures “everywhere”.

I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve as the Digital Media Director, responsible for photography and videography, for the U.S. Deaflympics Team at the recent Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan. (See the photos here.)

My goal with the next several articles is to help the budding sports photographer (or the involunteered sports photographer) get better pictures. In my experience, it usually takes two to three games of shooting before you learn the tempo of that particular game, and learn where to stand to improve your odds of getting a better shot. With proper instruction and guidance, my hope is that you will be walking away with keepers on the very first game.

Here’s the sports that I’ve covered

  • Volleyball (court and beach)
  • Basketball
  • Football (American)
  • Swimming
  • Athletics (track and field)

General guidelines about Gear

First, you don’t need the latest Canon 1D Mark III, Mark IV, or the Nikon D3, D300 to shoot good sports pictures. Yes, these cameras have features that make it easier to handle a wide range of situations that you may encounter – especially low-light situations. These cameras have remarkable high ISO capabilities, which can provide action-freezing photos when there’s not a lot of light bouncing around.

The interesting conundrum is that the better the schools, the better lighting they’re going to have in the gymnasiums and on the field – so the less likely you are to need the high ISOs. Smaller schools with smaller budgets are going to have darker gymnasiums, less powerful lights on the football field, etc. You might want to consider auxiliary lighting for these situations. (We’ll talk about that, too.)

If all else fails – consider renting additional gear for those special occasions. My local rental shop will let me pick up rental gear on Friday afternoon after 2:00, and as long as I deliver it Monday morning before noon, they only charge me for a single day’s rental. If you can bundle up and cover several events that weekend, then it’s worth it. I’d also like to put in a plug for Lens Rentals ( — they were one of our sponsors for the Deaflympics, and they did an amazing job of meeting our needs.

Camera Settings

Most action photos should be taken with a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second, and preferably even faster. Image Stabilized lenses (or VR, for the Nikon shooters) will help a lot. The manufacturers claim a 2 to 3 stop improvement with IS. This means that an image stabilized lens shooting at 1/125th will (should) deliver a picture as sharp as a non-IS lens shooting at 1/500th.

Depending on the venue and the lighting, I set my camera on either Manual, or Aperture Priority. If the lighting is even across my entire field of view (indoor court sports, for example, or a cloudy overcast day outside), then it’s Manual. If I find that there are wide variations in the lighting across my field of view (for example, if I’m shooting outside sports and half the field is in the sun, and half is in shadow) then I’ll set it to Av.

My aperture is usually as wide as I can go – f/2.8. Sometimes I have better luck with 4.0, if I find that the players are moving very fast relative to my position.

What this means is that a player might be moving down the court or field very quickly – but if they are moving perpendicular to me, then a narrow aperture is going to result in a sharp picture, because they are staying within the narrow “zone” of focus as I pan the camera from side to side.

If they are moving quickly towards me (a basketball player driving down the court, or a football player rushing) then I will consider going to a 4.0 for two reasons – with the greater depth of field, I am more likely to get them to be sharp in the picture, and when I am in a position where they are coming directly at me, the background usually is much farther away than if I am perpendicular to the action, so a f/4.0 aperture is still going to result in a nicely bokeh-ed background. An example of this might be standing past the end zone in football, looking for that oncoming rush through the line of scrimmage, or being at the end of the court in basketball, looking for that drive down the line.

If you only have variable aperture lenses (typically these are the lenses that come with consumer and prosumer grade cameras) that vary between f/3.5 and f/5.6 – then you have to make some sacrifices. You can shoot aperture priority, open it up as wide as possible, and let the camera set the shutter speed, or you can shoot in manual, with a constant aperture of f/5.6. Having the constant aperture of f/2.8 is why professional photographers buy the expensive lenses – they let in more light, and allow faster shutter speeds with lower light situations.

You should set your ISO to be as low as possible, while still having a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve shot indoor basketball with a Canon 30D, f/2.8 lenses, at 1000 ISO, and gotten good pictures. This was with crappy tungsten lighting in the gym, no strobes. When I’ve had to bump it up to ISO 1250, 1600, the quality of the pictures took a noticeable nose dive.

Most photography books will advise you to “expose to the right” – bumping your exposure up against the right side of the histogram. In sports, I’ve found that sometimes by purposely underexposing my pictures by a stop (or even two) results in increased saturation in the photos, and allows the shutter speed to be quicker – resulting in a sharper photo. Yes, I lose detail in the shadows – but I get the shot. These are your choices: is it better to get a perfectly exposed blurry photo, or an underexposed photo (that I can bring back in post-processing) that is sharp? I prefer sharp.

It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating, you should be shooting RAW at all times. If you want to shoot RAW+JPEG, that’s fine – but those sharp underexposed photos are going to be easier to bring back to acceptable exposure levels in RAW than in JPEG.

My camera also has three different focusing modes: single shot, AI Focus, and AI Servo. Here are my thoughts on each one:

Single Shot: Total control. I can predict the action, pre-focus on a certain point (if I turn off autofocusing) and when I pull the trigger, I get the shot. The downside is that if it’s on autofocus and the subject is moving quickly, then I sometimes get a blurry photo.

AI Servo: This is great for photos of fast-moving subjects. The camera will “predict” where the subject is going to be when the shutter pops, and pre-focus to that point. The problem for me is that I use single-point focusing most of the time. The combination of single-point focusing and AI Servo means that the subject must be centered in the shot – every time. This often results in static, boring photos.   I would rather have some space around the subject – space ahead of a running football player, for example. By using single point auto focus, the camera will focus on something off in the distance, and I miss the shot.

AI Focus: This is supposed to be a combination of the two – it works like Single shot until the subject starts moving, then it will go into servo mode. My issues with these are the same as above – I like to choose my composition.


Auxiliary Lighting

If you find that you cannot get sharp pictures with the constraints of your camera, your lenses, the ISO capabilities of your camera, and the amount of light in the venue, it’s time to consider adding lights.   Most of us cannot afford to rewire a gymnasium or a football field with additional spotlights, so we need to use strobes.

I was talking with the Superintendent of the school where my kids go (The Maryland School for the Deaf, in Frederick, MD), and he was asking me about how the photos were going for the Homecoming football game. It was a night game – and the field was rather dark. It was misting, not quite raining, so I wasn’t about to bring out battery packs and strobes. (In my experience, water and electricity are not a good combination.) On top of that, the home team was wearing black uniforms. As a result, the pictures were not as good as I would have liked. The field had 4 large poles with lights (not bad for a high school) – but I told him we needed to put up an additional four to six light poles in order to get really good pictures, and I asked him when he’d be able to work that out.

“Sure, Bill, so you can get better pictures of your son playing football, yep, I’ll just slip that in the budget as a line item for next year, I think a million will cover it, we’ll see how it works out.” (I did point out that I was getting pictures of ALL the boys playing, but I still didn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling that the light towers were going to be in place for next year’s Homecoming football game. But, I digress.)

If you do need auxiliary lighting in the form of strobes, there are two ways to go – battery powered, and AC (wall) powered. I have used speedlights (the small battery powered flashes typically seen on-camera, but I use them off-camera) as well as AC powered strobes – I have Alien Bee strobes. I also have a Vagabond II, which turns the AC-powered Alien Bee flashes into portable battery-powered strobes. Portability is a big deal with me, and the work I normally do.

For more information on lighting gymnasiums, there’s the Strobist website, with articles here, here and here:

David does a far better job of teaching off-camera lighting than I could. I strongly recommend starting with his Lighting 101 series, and then branching out into the more esoteric applications, like sports.

When you read the articles, make sure you read the comments — sometimes there is a lot of additional information in the comments, pointers to other articles, etc.

Access to the Best Places to Shoot

I’m assuming that you’re shooting elementary through high school sports or perhaps a smaller college or university, where access to the venue is not a problem. If you’re in a Big Name High School, College, or University, then you may not be able to get on the court, or on the field.

One thing I’ve found that helps with access is to make friends with the Athletic Director (AD) of the school, as well as the coaches of the various teams. Approach them during quiet times (Note: 10 minutes before the game starts is not an ideal time), and explain that you’re interested in shooting pictures of their teams. If you offer to provide the pictures back to the teams – for publicity purposes, for the school yearbook, for the walls of the AD or the coach, then you’re much more likely to get the access that you want.

A free print here and there is a remarkable application of grease to the political machinery. Especially when Costco now has 20×30 prints of spectacular quality for $8.99! One of those gracing the AD’s door will go a long way.



One thing about shooting sports – you’re going to have a LOT of photos when you get done. I highly recommend that you find some way to sort and manage all these photos. I use Adobe Lightroom to manage the files, and do most of my post-processing. Others use Photo-Mechanic, Bridge, etc.

The reason I chose Lightroom was because it was able to manage the files, AND do rudimentary edits. Over the years that I’ve been using it, they have added more and more features to LR – so that now I rarely go into Photoshop at all. The adjustment brushes are an awesome feature that allow you to quickly dodge and burn. As of the writing of this article, Lightroom 3 Beta is available for free – check it out.

Additional resources

Delivery of the Images

One thing you do not want to do is to become a CD duplication house. By this, I mean that everybody that sees you taking photos on the sidelines is going to assume that your pictures are easily duplicated and deliverable on CD. Yes, they are … but I’m not in the CD duplication business. Yes, it only takes 5 minutes to burn a CD – but it takes longer to do all the work leading up to that point, and to deliver the CD.

So, when people say, “Can you?”   I say, “I don’t, sorry.”

I use Smugmug as a delivery platform and print sales manager. I go through my photos, and I upload them to Smugmug.   I then send out an email to all the parents whose emails I have, I drop a line in my Facebook, I might blog a few selects and then point to the rest.

After that, the parents are free to go in and order what they like. I do watermark the images, and I do allow medium-sized web downloads for free. This may or may not cut into my print sales – but I’d rather have the advertising out there than spend all my time chasing people who copy/paste illegally off the website.

There are other alternatives to Smugmug – I use it because I’ve been using it, if you know what I mean.

Last, I want to give a shout out to the folks at – who have a huge number of helpful articles, videos, etc. – designed to help the professional sports shooter.

Subsequent articles will focus on the various individual sports; next up is volleyball and basketball.

If you have questions, experiences, or additional tips – leave them in the comments!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this very interesting and informative article. I shoot College Basketball and Billiards here in the Philippines. I love the bit about using a smaller f/number when the player is coming your way. I will consider that next time I shoot basketball. Do check out my work on or add me on flickr. “bhobg” is my ID there. Cheers! 🙂

  2. WoW, this is fantastic. Am learning photography at this moment. This article has help me so much. I have also learnt more than enough. Especially setting of the appature, shutter speed and ISO. This article confirmed what my photography lecturer has been teaching me.

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