In sports photography, timing is everything. The classic example is catching a baseball on the bat. This is a great example because you are capturing two fast-moving subjects colliding, an action that takes less than a millisecond to happen. But there is more to timing than just ball on the bat photographs.
When I say timing is everything, I mean it is literally everything. Capturing players fully off the ground, when their celebration is at its peak, or with fully extended arms and legs reaching for the ball are scenarios that need to be timed correctly. All elements of sports photography require perfect timing and it will make or break your photos.
Anticipation is a key element of timing. Humans have innate reaction times, leading to delays when taking photos. Knowing when peak action is going to happen before it does is very important, since it allows you to press the shutter button the moment the action happens, rather than reacting after you see it in the viewfinder.
As you gain more experience, timing will become easier no matter what sport you are covering. But knowing a sport well inherently makes timing easier. You will already know what to look for and will be able to anticipate actions before they happen.
When shooting with a DSLR camera, and some mirrorless cameras, if you see the moment you wanted to capture, you missed it. This is because the shutter will be obscuring your view while the photo is being taken. However, if you have a blackout-free mirrorless camera, you can see what you capture.
Some mirrorless cameras also have a pre-release function that can be turned on in the settings. This is a rolling temporary storage of photos for up to a second before the shutter is pressed – if autofocus is engaged or the shutter button in half-pressed. Once the shutter is pressed, the camera writes the images it has stored in memory to the card and continues shooting. I have used this on my Z 9 a few times, but I find I often end up with a lot of extra photos I don’t want. Personally, I see it as a case-specific tool for my personal workflow.
Challenge: If you want to improve your timing, go to a batting cage or tennis practice and take about a 70-200mm lens. Put the camera in single shot mode. Spend the entire practice trying to get the ball on the bat or racquet. Do this until you can consistently catch the ball making contact. I don't recommend trying this at a game because they don't hit the ball as often. There are also a few other factors that affect where and when they hit the ball, such as pitch speed or where the player is trying to hit the ball. Before taking any photos, watch a few swings to get a rough estimate of where the point of contact is for each player. Everybody's swing is different, and if you know approximately when in their swing they hit the ball, you'll be able to sync your timing with that. For baseball specifically, you should mentally time how long it takes the ball to get from the mound or pitching machine to the batter. This will usually be roughly consistent, especially with the machine. One last important factor to think about is the camera’s “time until capture,” or how fast your camera takes the picture after you press the shutter button. While you should be in single shot mode, if your camera normally shoots 12 fps, then the time between pressing the button and the picture being taken will be shorter than on a camera that normally shoots 6 fps. An example of the different "time to capture" shutter times is below.
“Time to Capture” Example
I had the cameras below wired together in Single Shot mode with a shutter speed of 1/1000. The D4 (left), which shoots a maximum of 11 fps in Continuous High mode, takes the photo significantly earlier than the D750, which shoots a maximum of 6.5 fps in Continuous High mode.