Category: Tech

Timing

Timing

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 10000

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.

Nikon D750 | 300mm f/2.8 | 1/1000 f/2.8 | ISO 640
Nikon Z 6II | 600mm f/4 | 1/4000 | f/4 | ISO 200

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.

Nikon D4 vs. D750 Full Speed

Nikon D4 vs. D750 Slow Motion

The Basics

The Basics

Shutter Speed | Aperture | ISO


As a rule of thumb, to get sharp action shots when covering sporting events, use manual mode to control the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) yourself. This will allow you to dial in the exact settings you want or need for each situation. Having manual control keeps the camera from automatically changing exposure and will produce results that more accurately match your creative vision.

To demonstrate my thought process and give insight into what equipment and settings I use for different events, I have listed the settings, camera, and lens for each example image on this site.

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 400

Shutter Speed

Nikon D500 | 70-200mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @293mm | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 200

1/1000 of a second is the classic go-to shutter speed for sports photographers. Personally, the shutter speed I prefer to freeze action is 1/2000. I have found that sometimes, at 1/1000, there can still be a slightly noticeable blur with certain cameras and in some scenarios.

As a camera’s megapixel count increases, motion blur disappears at a higher shutter speed due to the increase in detail captured. In addition, with fast moving dirt or water droplets in the scene, 1/1000 might not be quite fast enough to completely freeze them. To me, 1/2000 delivers crisper images. That being said, I am often forced to shoot a stop slower due to light restrictions.

While 1/2000 is a good place to start, my shutter speed often varies depending on the sport I’m shooting. For sports like baseball or tennis, I will bump my shutter speed up to 1/4000 or 1/8000 to freeze the ball on the bat or racquet.

For other outdoor sports played during daylight hours, you should be able to use 1/2000. As the sun sets and the stadium lights come on, you may be forced to lower the shutter speed to 1/1000.

When shooting indoor sports like basketball, volleyball, and hockey – where light is often limited – I try and use 1/1500 if possible. If I can’t attain that by widening my aperture and raising my ISO, I will lower the shutter speed half a stop.

The absolute minimum shutter speed I will use for action photos is 1/500. Below this you will definitely start to see noticeable motion blur.

Aperture

The next tool to getting quality images at sporting events is knowing what your aperture needs to be.

Most lenses used by professional sports photographers have wide maximum apertures such as f/2.8 or f/4. While these lenses may be bigger, heavier, and more expensive than more versatile super-zoom lenses, their wider apertures let in more light, allowing photographers to use faster shutter speeds in poorly lit arenas. In addition, lenses with wider apertures isolate the subject more when shot wide open, resulting in smoother and cleaner backgrounds.

There are plenty of situations when a smaller aperture like f/8 or f/22 can be used to your advantage. A small aperture can create unique effects, such as sunbursts, or help get wide angle scene setter images. About 95% of the time, I’m at one extreme or the other when choosing an aperture for sports.

Having a wide aperture can be the hardest setting from the exposure triangle for early career sports photographers to replicate. This is because lenses with wide apertures are often extremely expensive. For example, the Nikon mirrorless 400mm f/2.8 costs around $14,000. Nikon’s smaller 400mm f/4.5 is about $3,250. That’s over a $10,000 difference for a lens with the same focal length but is one and a third stops darker.

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/6000 | f/4 | ISO 500
Nikon D4 | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 95mm | 1/2000 | f/22 | ISO 560
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications

ISO

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 25600

ISO is the only setting of the exposure triangle I ever use in Auto, and only in specific situations. Typically, this because there are a lot of scattered clouds or the field I’m shooting on has shadows crossing it. These situations cause the exposure to change rapidly, sometimes in the middle of a play. Auto ISO allows me to concentrate more on composition, rather than constantly changing the ISO.

Other than this, I set my ISO to whatever it needs it to be for a proper exposure. If I don’t want to go slower than 1/1000 of a second and I can’t widen my aperture anymore, I will push my ISO as high as it needs to be to get a properly exposed image. If this means 12800 or 25600, so be it. I’d rather have noisy images over blurry images any day.

While I might be making it sound like there are no limits to high ISO, that’s not necessarily true. Different cameras perform better in low light, while others physically do not go above ISO 6400. You can make your own decision on what the highest acceptable ISO is for your camera and personal shooting style.

Thinking Ahead

Thinking Ahead

You should not walk into a sporting event and hope you are going to get something great. It is true that, on occasion, you can get exceptionally lucky, and the perfect photo will fall into your lap. But this is not usually the case. Without a doubt, luck does play a part in sports photography, but have you ever noticed that the same photographers seem to get lucky repeatedly?

This is because they know the best places to increase their chances of “the shot” happening in front of them. The rest of the time they are constantly thinking of the best way to capture the image they want. A lot of this comes from experience, but doing research and thinking about the images you want to capture beforehand helps immensely.

This photo of a Nebraska wrestler was shot at a regular season bout when he was competing against UNC Chapel Hill’s defending National Champion. Once it was clear Nebraska was going to come out on top, I knew there was going to be a great reaction. Even if you hadn’t known ahead of time, you could feel it in the arena’s atmosphere as the two were wrestling.

Nikon Z 6II | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm | 1/1000 | f2.8 | ISO 3200
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D500 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @ 600mm | 1/1500 | f4 | ISO 6400

The next photo was shot at the 2021 College World Series and requires a bit of setup to understand the situation I was in. Vanderbilt had just scored to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on third (#34). Due to COVID-19 precautions, all photographers not associated with the NCAA or teams had been moved to the concourse level, which meant we were continuously being blocked by spectators celebrating when their team scored. At this point, I needed to figure out my plan of action. I only had a few minutes between plays to think about how to get the best photo possible, regardless the outcome of the next play. Feeling that Vanderbilt might win since they had been on a roll the whole ninth inning, I positioned myself over a Stanford fan, making the most of our poor shooting position.

The next play, Stanford’s pitcher threw a wild pitch out of the catcher’s reach. This allowed #34 to steal home and win the game. His reaction was over in a split second, and my next frame is partly obscured by fans. The few seconds difference between Vanderbilt fans jumping up to celebrate and the Stanford fans getting up to leave was the only reason I was able to get this photo.

When shooting, constantly be aware of the light surrounding you and how that light will affect the images you make. Often you will find a sliver of light, or a beautiful sunset, and wish there was something worth photographing in the frame. This is where patience comes into play. Frame up your photograph before anything happens in it. Then wait until someone runs through the light you have found. Nine out of ten times this will not happen. But on that tenth try, you will create a beautiful image.

The image to the right is a prime example of finding light and waiting for the action to come to it. I noticed this strip of light slowly moving up the field and into the stadium as the sun set. I framed up the photo when the line of scrimmage got to about the 30-yard line. At that point, I knew I’d have one shot at making the photo before halftime. So I waited, hoping they would run the ball into the far side of the end zone. That day my preparation paid off, rewarding me with a unique touchdown photo.

Nikon D4 | 70-200mm f/2.8 + 1.4 TC @ 280mm | 1/1500 | f/4 | ISO 280
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D4 | 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 34mm | 1/2000 | f/2.8 | ISO 100
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

It is important to pay attention to each individual athlete on the field. Often, they will each have a unique way of playing their sport. Here, I noticed during my first game while covering the University of Nebraska-Lincoln soccer team that #37 preformed flip throw-ins. On top of that, she only did them when the Huskers were close to the opposing teams’ goal. In that first game, all her throw-ins took place on the opposite side of the field, but I did not give up after the game.

It took a few games before it happened on the side of the field I was allowed to shoot from. Since she was a defender, when they called her up to do the throw-in, she needed to run half the length of the field. This gave me a few seconds to position myself in a way that allowed me to compose the photo before she arrived.

As you can see from the few examples I discussed here, it is very important to think about how you are shooting, instead of simply spraying and praying.

Challenge: 

Go to a game and don't take any pictures for the first period or half - just observe the players and take notes. Do they do anything differently from their teammates? Celebrate in a specific direction or way when they score? Do they move their body in a unique way when playing? Are they more expressive and/or emotional than their teammates? 

After halftime, keep these notes in mind when you take pictures. Try to capture images of the observations you made while watching the game.

The more you photograph a team, the easier this will become. You will notice something one day and be able to take the photo the next game.
Nikon D4s | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 90mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 4500
Shot for RIT SportsZone

Shooting Differently

Shooting Differently

Light | Change Your Angle | Get Close | Panning | Scene Setters & Details | Beyond the Obvious


With digital cameras and long glass being relatively accessible, sports photography has become something the everyday photographer can do. To stand out in the field, you need to produce photos that are different. This means you will want to push yourself – and your gear – to the limits.

Everybody sees the same thing when they look at the world, whether they are a photographer or not. But as Mr. Sherlock Holmes points out in A Scandal in Bohemia, seeing is different from observing. It is our job as photographers to document observations using the photographic tools at our disposal.

Nikon Z 7 | 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 56mm | 1/10 | f/2.8 | ISO 80
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications
Nikon Z 6II | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 3200

To begin creating your own style of work, start photographing the world as you observe it. This will become the basis of how you individualize yourself as a photographer. Show the viewer what they might not have seen while watching the sporting event.

Below are a few techniques to try that can help elevate your work and give your portfolio visual variety.

Light

Light is one of the most essential tools in photography. When shooting sports, it can be easy to forget to pay attention to it. Take time to observe the quality of light, the color, how it shapes the subject, where the light doesn’t fall, the subject’s placement within the light, and how it interacts with the surrounding environment.

Turn light into an element that works with the rest of the photograph to make it more visually interesting. Once you make these observations, use your camera to sculpt the image through your settings, lens choice, and shooting position.

Great light can be found both indoors and outdoors. Inside, you often must rely on spotlights for more dramatic images, but outside presents more possibilities. When shooting outdoors, you can have hard light, soft light, shadows, and everything in-between all in one game. The most beloved light for photographers is golden hour light, found just after sunrise and before sunset, because the sun is lower in the sky causing rays of light to have a less harsh angle and the light has a redder quality to it.

Nikon D4 | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 155mm | 1/500 | f/2.8 | ISO 6400
Nikon D4 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/3000 | f/2.8 | ISO 400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

This rodeo photo is a good example of light being used to the advantage of the image. In the frame, the golden hour light falling on the lasso makes it pop off the brown background. The type of light also gives the image a certain mood, making us feel as if the cowboy is riding off into the sunset. Change the time of day, or add a cloudy sky, and this photo becomes a generic photo of a cowboy using a lasso.

Change Your Angle

Something that will help distinguish you from the masses of sports photographers is your willingness to move around and capture different angles of the same scene. Putting in the effort to lie on the ground or go to an elevated position will demonstrate your willingness to go the extra mile to create a more interesting and unique image.

Changing your angle will do wonders for your images. As you can see in the image on the left, due to my low angle, the runners look taller and more powerful. The background is also much cleaner with the blue sky. If I had been standing or sitting, the fence and trees would have been much higher in the frame, near the athletes’ waists, making it much more distracting.

I don’t recommend you lie on the ground all the time, or even at every sport. At football, you’re likely to get run over if a play comes your way. Kneel if possible and buy some knee pads, trust me on this – you’ll want them.

Nikon Z 7II | 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm | 1/2000 | f/16 | ISO 1100
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications
Nikon D500 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @ 600mm | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 3200

Your best bet for taking photos from a high angle is to try getting where the video crew is, or to the highest point in the general seating areas. Often in high school, lower leagues, or college, there will be an elevated platform where they set up the video cameras. This could be part of the media workroom or the press box roof. Try to get up there and shoot down with a long lens.

Very rarely will you be allowed to walk around in the catwalk (if the arena even has one) during competition like I did for this swimming photo. Usually, if you can even get into the catwalk, it will be well before the game, and you will only be allowed to set up a static remote camera. Remotes (especially overhead ones) require a lot of special knowledge, equipment, and tedious set-up, so I only recommend them if you really know what you are doing.

Get Close

In the words of Robert Capa, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This is important for sports photographers to think about. As I discuss on the cropping page, you want your photographs to have the most impact on the viewer. By getting in close with a wider lens, the players’ emotions become more prominent in the frame. The viewer feels as if they are there with the athletes.

This technique is especially important when shooting trophy and celebration photographs. For example, if I had shot this football state championship celebration from the sidelines, instead of running onto the field, chances are low that I would have been able to see many expressions. The faces are what make the photograph interesting, and since there were a lot of people standing between the sidelines and the athletes, I would not have been able to get this photo without getting closer.

Nikon Z 6II | 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm | 1/2000 | f/2.8 | ISO 125
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D3 | 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm | 1/500 | f/2.8 | ISO 6400

Consider taking some time to hang out near the bench or in the dugout (if you have access) with a wide-angle lens. When their team scores, the players will celebrate, creating a perfect situation to get nice, close, wide-angle shots.

Getting close is not reserved for celebration shots. I frequently shoot action with wide-angle lenses. This lets the viewer see the game from a place they cannot be. Like with celebration shots, the use of the wide-angle draws the viewer into the photo more.

This will be easier to do at low level competitions because the higher the level of competition, the more restrictions there are on where you can shoot from. You also must be very careful not to be somewhere that will injure an athlete or yourself. With a sport like swimming, the pool creates a natural boundary, but you should always keep one eye on the field.

Panning

Panning is a technique that has become less unique for sports photographers. However, I still believe it is an incredibly important skill to have because it will inevitably give you a more creative image than shooting at 1/1000 of a second. A general rule of thumb is to get something in the photo tack sharp. This acts as an anchor for the image and will give your eye something to lock onto. Usually this is an athlete’s face, like in this soccer photo. Panning does take practice, but here is a good way to learn.

Challenge: 

Go to a track or cross country meet exclusively to shoot panning images. Start with your shutter speed at 1/125 and use a lens around 200mm. Find a place where the runners will be running parallel to you and fill most of the frame. Stay in the same place for the whole series of photos you shoot following these guidelines:

Start at 1/125 and shoot until you get a photo where a face is sharp. Then bump down the shutter speed a stop to 1/60 and shoot until you get a sharp face. Drop it another stop to 1/30 and repeat until you get to around 1/2 a second. It will get exponentially harder with each stop slower you go, but this is how you will learn. By about 1/4 you may not be getting anything tack sharp, but try your best. 
Nikon D4 | 300mm f/2.8 | 1/10 | f/2.8 | ISO 100
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications
Nikon Z 6 | 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm | 1/2 | f/8 | ISO 50
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications

Once you get the hang of panning, start thinking about how you can incorporate it into other sports. How can you make a panning photo of something other than just a runner?

A specialty of mine has become wide-angle pans. These are harder than a typical panning image because the subject is changing size relative to the camera at a much faster rate than they do with a longer focal length. This is why I recommended you start with a lens around 200mm.

Scene Setters & Details

When covering every game, I try to get four different types of shots: wide, medium, tight, and detail. Medium/tight shots typically make up most of the photos since on-field action images fall into those categories. The wide and details photographs are still extremely important to capture, since they provide visual variety and help tell the overall story of the game.

When capturing wide shots, please do not just take a photo of the field with a wide-angle lens. Incorporate an interesting element from the event into the composition. This could be a player or fan in the foreground of a nice sunset or skyline. The more interesting you make it, the more it will complement the rest of your coverage.

Nikon D750 | 24-120 f/4 @78mm | 1/1000 | f/5.6 | ISO 560
Nikon D4 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.4x @560mm | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 550
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Detail images can be a little trickier to observe and capture. They can require longer glass, but it is not required. I have shot detail images with my 24-70mm. When you initially go out looking for details, start by trying to capture the thing that makes each player unique. Maybe they have long colorful nails, cool hair, or make a funny expression while competing. Once you start getting the hang of how to capture details, start observing details at all events you cover.

To get in the habit of observing details, find them in your daily routine outside of sports photography. Take in all the visual information you can. Let your eyes bounce around and focus on different elements of the scene you are looking at, especially when it involves other people. You might observe the color of someone’s eyes, an earring, a tattoo, or a unique article of clothing. Get in the habit of doing this all the time so when covering a game, you notice details others might miss.

Challenge: 

Pick a sport you know well and take your longest and widest lenses only. If it's a zoom, use gaff tape to lock it so you can't zoom. Go to the extreme ends of your range. For example, take a 16mm & 600mm or 24mm & 400mm.

Start with the wide and capture a scene setting image that is visually interesting. This will also require that you move your feet and get close to the subjects (but don't go anywhere you're not supposed to!).

For details, find something that makes each individual player unique. Is it how they throw a pitch? Colorful hair? A sixth finger? Once you find the detail you want to photograph, try to make the photo visually interesting. 
Nikon Z 7II | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 80mm | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 72

Beyond the Obvious

Nikon Z 7 | 17-35mm f/2.8 @ 22mm | 1/250 | f/2.8 | ISO 6400

Young sports photographers can get stuck thinking their photographs aren’t good because they are not covering professional sports. While it can be true that professional games can have more intense action and better lighting, they also have a lot more photographers capturing the same moments.

Look past the big four (basketball, baseball, football, hockey) and find the local sports and backyard events. As well as allowing you to capture more unique images nobody else will have in their portfolio, they will be much easier to get into. Another great part of covering these small-town games and events is that the organizers and participants will usually be happy to have someone there taking photographs. This can result in them giving you unrestricted access to the event.

Facebook Events is one of the best places to find local and backyard events. Organizations will post an event to see how many people are interested in attending. This allows you to message the organizer to confirm you can take photographs or get credentials. A few examples of off-the-wall events I have found on Facebook are arm wrestling, bikini barrel racing, bikini snowmobiling, Father’s Day Dad Bod Olympics, MicroMania Midget Wrestling, and mud volleyball, to name a few.

Another advantage of Facebook is that individuals post events for local leagues of more traditional sports. I frequently see posts for weekly pickup or club softball, beach volleyball, and flag football. These are great places to start learning the basics of sports photography.

Nikon D4 | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 112 | 1/750 | f/2.8 | ISO 12800
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Backgrounds

Backgrounds

In photography, you want the viewer to look at the subject and not be distracted by other elements in the image. On the page about cropping, I talk about how to crop out distracting background elements, but you should aim to eliminate them before the photo is taken.

With the image of the football players, the action is great, and it is perfectly timed, but the background is very distracting. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could do about it since the photographers had limited shooting locations on the field. Higher level sporting events typically have more restrictive shooting positions and worse backgrounds.

Nikon Z 6II | 600mm f/4 | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 4500
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D4 | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm | 1/750 | f/2.8 | ISO 9000
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications

In the image of the pole vaulter, the background is about as clean as you can get in sports. I was able to position myself where a small orange strip of wall was directly behind the pole vaulters. Then all I had to do was wait until one of the athletes turned around while in the air. In addition, I wanted the athlete to pop off the orange background. To do this, I waited for an athlete wearing colors that contrasted the orange background.

Before covering a game, one of the first things I do is look around and find where the best backgrounds are going to be. For example, in this football photo, there is a solid green background. When shooting from the north end zone of the field, the hill behind the south end zone created a clean background.

Challenge: 

Next time you cover a game, get to the arena/field about an hour before it starts. Take a walk around to scope out what the backgrounds will look like from the locations you can shoot from. 

Once the game begins, you will know which shooting positions have the best backgrounds, making it easier to line up the action with the cleanest backgrounds. 
Nikon Z 7II | 600mm f/4 | 1/2000 | f/4 | ISO 3200
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D5 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/1000 | f/2.8 | ISO 1600
Shot for RIT SportsZone

Getting clean backgrounds can also be achieved by going to the top of the stands and shooting from an elevated position. This can be especially useful in sports like hockey because there is a barrier between the athletes and you. The downside of being elevated is that you sacrifice the ability to see emotion on athletes’ faces, especially when they are wearing helmets.

In my experience, I have better luck with backgrounds from outdoor, non-professional sporting events. Outdoor sports lend themselves to the use of long glass, meaning more compressed and blurry backgrounds even at an aperture like f/5.6 or f/8, which is more common on entry level long glass or super zoom lenses.

Non-professional venues also tend to be more open on the ends and lack advertisements. Another advantage is that you are usually able to shoot from a wider variety of locations. This means you can pick your shooting position, allowing for one with a clean background.

Here is a prime example of why you should take some time to think about your shooting location. These two soccer photographs were shot at the same game, just from slightly different locations on the sidelines.

The first image was shot from the right side of the field. As you can see, there is a distracting advertisement in the background. This was because the whole left side of the field had banner ads along the fence.

The second image was shot from the north end of the field, only a few paces away from where the first image was shot. The background is much cleaner because the south end was in front of a grassy hill.

By positioning myself perpendicular instead of parallel to the ads, they were eliminated from my photographs. The subjects becomes more visible and the viewer won’t be trying to decipher any words on the ad.

Another option was to sit on the left side, in front of the ads. On this field that meant I was shooting directly into the sunset. That can look good for some photos, but I wanted some with golden hour light falling on the players faces.

As you cover games at different venues, you will begin to find the shooting locations at each that provides the best backgrounds.

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/3000 | f/4 | ISO 160
Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/3000 | f/4 | ISO 320

Autofocus

Autofocus

Nikon Z 6II | 24-70mm f/2.8 @35mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

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.

Nikon Z 9 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 20000
Nikon Z 7II | 600mm f/4 | 1/1500 | f/4 | ISO 6400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

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.

Example A

Nikon D4 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1500 | f/4 | ISO 6400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Example B

Nikon D4 | 600mm f/4 | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 6400
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D750 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/750 | f/2.8 | ISO 2200
Shot for the World Curling Federation

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. 
Nikon D4 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/2000 | f/2.8 | ISO 1800
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Gear

A Note on Gear

Gear, gear, and more gear. Although I use Nikon, I won’t say Nikon is better or worse than any other brand. There are personal reasons I stick with Nikon, but I’ve used Canon, Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm, Hasselblad, and Leica cameras to shoot sports.

When I was in high school, I started with my grandfather’s Nikon D300 and 80-200mm f/2.8D ED before getting a full frame D750. I made nice images with what I had at the time. This basketball photo may not be the sharpest, or the cleanest, but it’s still a solid image. If I’d shot this on, say a D5 and 70-200 f/2.8, it would probably be tack sharp and have less noise. But in high school I couldn’t afford that set-up, so I used what I had.

One very important piece of advice about your gear – whatever you’re using, learn how to use it. Know it so well that you don’t have to take your eye away from the viewfinder to change the settings. This will be invaluable when you need to make split-second decisions.

Nikon D750 | 80-200mm f/2.8 @ 112mm | 1/1000 | f/2.8 | ISO 8000
Nikon D1X | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm | 1/750 | f/2.8 | ISO 1600
Shot for RIT Athletics Communications

Almost anywhere you look online, people say gear doesn’t matter and your photos will turn out fine if you know what you’re doing. This is the wrong approach. As much as we wish it wasn’t true, gear does matter. Especially when it comes to photographing sports.

My mantra has always been that gear does not affect the content of your photographs, it only affects the technical quality of them. Start with the gear you have, learn the core skills of sports photography, and upgrade equipment when your budget allows.

These days, you can find used gear that is great for a tight budget. In fact, I still buy most of my long glass used. Many companies also offer budget super zooms or primes, making long glass more accessible to new photographers. You will have to raise your ISO to compensate for the loss of light, but learning to get in-focus photos that are timed and composed properly is more important than how grainy the image is.

A great example of being able to use old and inexpensive equipment to take nice images is this hockey photo. It was shot on a Nikon D1X that I bought from a friend. The camera was released in 2001, so it is almost as old as I am. It has one of the worst autofocus systems I’ve ever used in a digital camera, terrible low light performance, horrible battery life, and very few megapixels, but I made it work.

The Nikon Z 9 is my primary shooting body, while the Z 6II and Z 7II are secondary cameras. In addition, I have several old DSLRs I use as remotes and backup bodies.

As for lenses, my main kit includes:

  • 17-35mm f/2.8
  • 24-70mm f/2.8
  • 70-200mm f/2.8
  • 300mm f/2.8
  • 600mm f/4
Nikon D7200 | 300mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @450mm | 1/1000 | f/4 | ISO 800
Shot for NASCAR
(L to R) Nikon Z 9 w/ 70-200mm f/2.8, Nikon Z 7II w/ 600mm f/4, & Nikon Z 6II w/ 24-70mm f/2.8 at a golf tournament I covered for Getty Images

For outdoor sports, my main shooting lens is the 600mm. For indoor sports, I typically use the 70-200mm. However, I have been known to use a 600mm from the floor for volleyball and basketball to get more unique images.

Since I am a full-time photographer, this equipment is necessary to provide high quality images for my clients. If you’re early in your career, use the gear you have access to or can afford on your budget. If you have a special assignment or want to try a new camera/lens before purchasing it, you can usually get a rental. Local camera stores can have some rental options, but online websites often have a wider selection. Lensrentals.com and borrowlenses.com are two good places to look.

Cropping

Cropping

Cropping is one of the most essential tools you can take advantage of as a sports photographer. Since sports are fast-paced and the action can happen anywhere on the field, you may not be able to shoot everything in a way that allows you to have an uncropped image. Almost every image on this site has been cropped to some degree.

Here are a few important reasons to crop your images:

  1. Remove unnecessary distractions/elements
  2. Clean up backgrounds
  3. Fix framing
  4. Straighten horizon lines
  5. Crop for impact

Next, we will look at a few images that show why it is important to crop images in sports.

Example 1

Version A – Uncropped

Nikon D500 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @ 600mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 720
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications

Version B – Crop #1

Nikon D500 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @ 600mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 720
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications

Version C – Crop #2

Nikon D500 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @ 600mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 720
Shot for RIT Athletic Communications

In Example 1, you can see two different crops of Version A. Both crops remove the main distractions from the background of the image. The red truck and the goal posts are gone, making your eye look at the subject instead of the background. Version B has her whole body showing the dive, but I would argue it would only be a better crop if she was entirely off the ground. In Version C, I have cropped in far enough to see the details in the image. This crop brings action to the forefront of the image, and you see details lost in the wider crop such as the holes in her glove and hair in her mouth.

In addition to this, cropping the image brings out the rule of thirds. In the original version, she is basically centered in the frame. The moment it is cropped, her face and the ball end up in the crosshairs, giving the image a more visually interesting composition. Please see below for reference.

Example 2

Version A – Uncropped

Nikon D4 | 600mm f/4 | 1/8000 | f/4 | ISO 560

Version B – Crop #1

Nikon D4 | 600mm f/4 | 1/8000 | f/4 | ISO 560

Here is another example of why cropping makes a huge difference in sports. As you can see in Example 2, the uncropped image, Version A, has a lot of dead space around the baseball player. To get the most out of a photograph, you need to remove everything that isn’t necessary. In this case, about 90% of the frame falls into this category. Like with the last example, a wider crop might be better if he was entirely off the ground.

As you can see that in Version A, the player is on the left side of the frame. But when it’s cropped, the ball, his hand, and his glove each intersect a rule of thirds’ sweet spot.

For the most part, loss of quality isn’t that big of a problem. Unless you are planning on printing the images poster size and need extra detail, the quality level will be fine for most uses. Images I’ve cropped like this have run in newspapers as well as online and looked fine. Plus, with newer cameras having upwards of 50 megapixels, you can crop like this and still have plenty of detail.

I don’t want to lead anyone into thinking it’s better to shoot wide and crop later. I wish I didn’t have to crop. Unfortunately, that would require lenses equivalent to 1500mm, sometimes more, for some of the crops I have done. Often, I will shoot with a 600mm lens at events where other photographers have assured me that I do not need longer than a 300mm. This is because if you practice enough with long glass, you will be to be able to shoot tighter images and thus need to crop less.

Horizon Lines

Straighten up those horizons. Fields are level and you don’t want the images to look like the ball is rolling down a hill! If you can’t see the horizon line in an image, look for something that is vertical – such as a flagpole or fence post – to use as a reference for straightening the image. I can’t stress how important it is to have level photographs.

Aspect Ratio

Unless you are shooting for a client who wants you to deliver images cropped to a specific ratio, feel free to crop images to whatever aspect ratio works best and brings out the important elements in the frame. Squares, rectangles, or “bacon strips,” anything goes – just make sure the crop works well with the content of the image.

Nikon D5 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/1000 | f/2.8 | ISO 2200
Nikon D4 | 400mm f/2.8 | 1/1000 | f/2.8 | ISO 9000
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

Cropping for Impact

You probably hear “crop for impact” a lot, but what does it mean when cropping photographs? Basically, you want your photos to be as dynamic and interesting as possible, showing the action and raw emotion on athletes’ faces. Sports are intense, so show that intensity. Crops should help the viewer see what you want them to see. This is accomplished by using all the techniques discussed above (cleaning up the background, fixing horizon lines, the chosen aspect ratio, and removing distractions).

It is important to remember that you also need to use good techniques when shooting the initial photograph. Cropping cannot make a bad image great, but it can make a great image spectacular.

Challenge: 

Every so often I take the time to look through my archive and see how I can improve on my current portfolio using skills learned as I’ve grown as a sports photographer. 

Take some time to look back through your archive and pull out a handful of your favorite images. Try some of the techniques here and perform fresh crops. Can you make your portfolio stronger by re-cropping images you already have? 
Nikon D750 | 300mm f/2.8 | 1/1000 | f/2.8 | ISO 6400