For sports, autofocus (AF) is your best friend. In this section, I will share a few tips on how to utilize autofocus for better results. I’m not going to talk too much about what settings to use because when shooting sports, AF-C or AI Servo (the name of this setting will vary between brands) is going to be essential. I personally prefer back button AF, because it allows me to continue tracking a subject using autofocus when my finger is not on the shutter. Most of this section will be about the different AF modes and focusing techniques you can use.
The focus area mode I use depends a lot on the sport I am covering. The three I typically use are Wide-area AF (L-people) on my mirrorless cameras and 9-Point Dynamic Area AF or 3-D tracking on both DSLR and mirrorless. Since I primarily shoot Nikon, I may refer to uniquely Nikon modes, but most manufacturers have something equivalent.
If you are not familiar with the 3-D tracking mode, essentially it allows you to choose a single focus point in the viewfinder. Once you engage AF, the camera will track the subject as it moves around the frame, starting from the initial point. When the focus button is released, the point will jump back to the location it started. This allows the user to easily track moving subjects in sports with erratically moving players, keeping them in focus while the user adjusts the framing when the subject falls, dives, or jumps.
To the left is a mock-up of what I see through my viewfinder when shooting with the Wide-area AF (L-people) on my mirrorless cameras. This mode allows me to select an area of the frame I want the camera to find a face/eye to track. This is great for sports like volleyball and tennis where you have a general idea of where the subject will be in the frame. The camera will pick up faces/eyes only in the box, meaning you won’t accidentally focus on another player elsewhere in the frame.
I mainly use the 9-Point Dynamic Area AF when shooting sports that have very consistent player placement, like hockey from ice level. Typically, I will switch from 3-D tracking back to 9-Point if the camera is struggling to track subjects correctly. This primarily happens when the lighting is poor, making it difficult for the camera to acquire focus.
Focus Point Positioning
When shooting, I find people have a tendency to leave the focus point in the center of the viewfinder. This is a very natural thing to do; I used to do it as well. Having the point in the center allows you to easily see what happening throughout the whole viewfinder, and you can just point your lens straight at the subject. However, this will inevitably lead to players on the left or right of your subject being cut off.
As you can see from Example A, my focus point was too close to the center meaning I failed to capture #2’s legs as he dived for the tackle. Example B, from later in the same game, shows the results after I moved the focus point off to the side of the frame. This allowed me to capture all of the defender, meaning neither subject is cut in half.
Several factors – including the sport, which direction the offense is going, and what side of the field you are on – will determine where the focus point will need to be. Since I used two football photos, I will continue using football as the example.
When shooting, you want the focus point to be on the side of the frame the offense will be running toward. For Example A, that would be the left. And for Example B, it would be the right. This is because when the players are running with the ball, they will often get tackled from behind, allowing you to capture the whole tackle. If a tackle happens to come in from the other side, that is where having 3-D tracking AF comes in handy. It allows me to quickly recompose the photo, while the camera tracks the subject.
DSLR cameras are very limiting when it comes to focus point spread, with some only having 9 focus points clustered around the center of the frame. These days, mirrorless cameras have upwards of 99% focus point coverage, so you have no excuse not to move it around when using a mirrorless camera.
With every rule comes exceptions. While most of the time you will want the focus point off to the side, there will also be times you may want it centered. Sometimes this can be useful when photographing a new sport because it allows you to learn how players will need to be framed in the viewfinder. Once you get the hang of the sport, I urge you begin moving the focus point around.
The only time I use the center focusing point is when I am trying to get a specific composition. As you can see with the curling photo on the left, my focus was very close to the center of the frame. This was because I was trying to get this exact photograph. Having the focus point to the right or left would have cut off one of the sweepers in the foreground, ruining my vision for the image.
Frame each photograph with purpose, making sure the focus point position is a conscious and intentional decision that enables you to get the image you want.
As you shoot different sports, you will learn where the best placement for the focus point will be. There are so many different factors that come into play that I simply don’t have the space to talk about them all. Everything from the sport itself to the individual players can make a difference in how you position your focus point. As you gain experience with various sports and teams, you will learn where the focus point needs to be for your specific shoot.
Challenge: There is a quick way to see if you are leaving your focus point in the center of the frame. Open a gallery of your best images, preferably uncropped. Place your phone in the center of the laptop screen and scroll through the images. If your phone blocks the main subject in most of the photos, you definitely need to move the focus point around more while shooting. Like many habits, this will be hard to break. But once you start moving that focus point, you'll never go back.