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.
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.
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.
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.