Professional sports photographers make a good living from it, and use specialised equipment such as advanced high-speed cameras and ultra-fast telephoto lenses costing thousands of pounds, but even the average hobby photographer with basic equipment can capture good sports and action shots with a bit of patience and effort.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for sports photography, mainly because there are so many different types of sporting event. A technique that might work well for horse racing would be completely inappropriate for beach volleyball, for example.
You have to learn to tailor your technique and the way you use your gear to the event you’re trying to photograph. Many professional sports photographers will specialise in one particular type of event, becoming experts in one or two techniques that work well and can guarantee them the reliably good results they need.
Although there are as many techniques for action and sports photography as there are types of sport, there are some general tips that work well in most situations.
Get close to the action
There’s a reason why ringside or front-row seats are more expensive. If you want to see the excitement and passion of a close-fought contest, it’s a lot harder to do that from 200 yards away over the heads of a crowd. Get as close as you can without putting yourself in danger or interfering with the event you’re trying to photograph. For events where you can’t get physically close, use a telephoto lens to zoom in.
Capture the moment
Although most people seem to think that a fast continuous shooting speed is the key to action photography, in fact the professionals will tell you that good timing and fast reactions are much more important. It also helps enormously if you have an understanding of the sport you’re photographing so that you can anticipate when the best moments are going to come along.
A camera with a good fast auto-focus system and quick shutter response is much better for action photography than one that can shoot at 10 frames a second. Being in the right place is also important. You’re going to get more drama at the finish line of a race than halfway down the track.
Control shutter speed
One of the keys to good action photography is appropriate use of shutter speed. Although the traditional approach to sports and action photography is to use the fastest shutter speed available, and the sports mode on your camera will try to do this automatically, it’s not always the best approach.
Using a very fast shutter speed freezes the action, which can rob the picture of any sense of movement. To capture fast-moving subjects, try using a slightly slower shutter speed and panning to follow the action. If you do it right you’ll have your subject nice and sharp against a movement-blurred background.
If you are using a normal telephoto or zoom lens, i.e. not one that cost £3,000, then the restricted aperture at longer focal lengths will limit your choice of shutter speeds; don’t forget you can get faster speeds at higher ISO settings, although beware of image noise above about 1600 ISO.
Compose your shot
Just because you’re documenting a sporting event, it doesn’t mean your shots can’t be well-composed. Try to find a viewpoint that provides an interesting angle, or at least an appealing backdrop to your shot. If you can compose your shot so that it both looks good and provides an accurate impression of the event, so much the better. One of the most useful compositional tips for action photography is the concept of implied movement; always try to have your subject moving into the frame rather than out of it.