Sport Photography, Photography 103

 by: Vafa Adib, edit: Ryan Adib

This topic assumes that you already have an SLR camera and you are comfortable with your camera’s settings and its features. Please click here to review my “Photography 101” for tips on how to use your SLR camera prior to this lesson.

Sport Photography can be challenging due to lack of light and the fast speed of athletes. This style of photography, like the other styles, needs a lot of practice, so don’t get disappointed by the first, second or even third try! Remember it is not about “not failing”, it is about learning from failures, and practice, practice and practice.

Consider the main key functions in your camera as:

  • Shutter Speed

  • Aperture

  • ISO

You need high speed, low aperture and relevant ISO to make sure you meet your target for the first two.

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Searching Google you may find lots of tutorials about Sport Photography that mention Aperture Priority or Shutter Speed Priority settings. After experiencing those settings in events such as soccer and karate competitions I did not find them the best approach. Based on the speed of your subject you need to come with a proper setting in order to be able to freeze the movements. Depends on the lighting, which can vary foot by foot, you’re setting always changes from photo to photo. Due to the nature of sports you do not have enough time to change the setting accordingly for each photo. This is when AUTO ISO comes handy. Decent SLR cameras are advance enough to manage the proper ISO based on a selected aperture and shutter speed, so trust your camera for that!

For sports like hockey or any martial art, which are usually indoor, the lighting is poor and it adds to the complexity of the proper exposer.

So, getting to the main point, start with manual setting, a high shutter speed like 1250 and set the aperture to lowest. (Depends on your lens it might be different, but the lower the better.)

Apertures like 1.8 or 2 give you a blurry background that helps with showing off the subject. Choose Auto ISO. Set the focus point to one single point.

About light meter options, there are three main choices:

  • Spot Metering

  • Centre Weighted metering

  • Evaluative metering in Canon, which is matrix metering in Nikon (not sure about the other SLRs though).

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To be honest the spot metering doesn’t have too much impact. If it’s karate I would suggest spot metering since in karate the athletes’ outfit is white and background is dark. If it is hokey then I suggest centre weighted since the hokey outfit could be different colors and the background is white. That would also apply to soccer too. The light meter setting might need some quick test shots sine it can be different from field to field and sport to sport.

What AF Modes or Auto Focus Mode to choose?

In sport events things move fast. Subjects are always in motion. The best option is the “Continuous Focus”, which is AI Servo in Canon and AF-C in Nikon. This focus mode will detect the subject movements and tries to keep the subject in focus as it moves. Remember this feature goes well with single spot metering.

Aside from camera setting and photography skills you also need to know the sport. Most of the time you press the shutter release button as soon as you see the athletes setup their action. For example in soccer I would follow the players and press the shutter as soon as I see them pulling back their foot to shoot the ball. By the time they kick the ball photo will be taken. Or in Karate I would do the same as soon as they lift their legs off ground, then photo will be taken by the time they hit their opponent . This is where the value of practice shows up. Practice, practice and practice.

Proper Lens

A zoom lens, like 200mm or higher, is the best for such events. Most of the time you do not get a chance to get close to your subject. Also a low aperture of 2 or even lower would give you the professional look of dominant subject and blurry background, and the low aperture prevents ISO to go too high. So a better chance of more vivid and noise-free photo is being created.

Choose Raw

Make sure you set your camera to save RAW format photos. Raw always gives you more details and data about the photo. That comes handy while doing the post processing (There is anther topic on my website about Post Processing). You would need something like LightRoom or camera specific software in order to process the RAW photo, edit and export (to jpeg) your photos.

Avoid flash

Do not take your flash with you! And do not use your built in flash either! It’s going to distract the athletes, it’s going to distract audience, and you are too far from subject for the flash to be effective. Most venues do not even let you use a flash during the event.

Avoid tripod (except for the moment of receiving medals and trophies)

But take a monopod with you. Not that you are going to use a monopod all time but at some point you might be tired holding the heavy camera and its attached lens. The monopod might come handy.


Try to include the whole body of the athletes, do not cut hands or feet. Since they are moving you might want to frame a wider area. Remember you can always crop the photo and edit the framing. But do not choose too big of a frame since you end up including too much noise in the cropped photo. Sometimes there are judges or other athletes in the frame too, same rule applied to them. However, in case you really have to exclude some parts of the other athletes, then be creative. Take their half body out, or something reasonable. Do not chop their hands or fingers and so on.

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Advertisements around the court

Include the existing banners and advertisements in case you are doing photography for the event sponsors and organizers. Showing off the logos and names of sponsor companies has very positive impact. They have spent some money and have the right to have their names all round the social media.

Capture the award ceremony

Here is when tripods come handy! Usually award ceremonies are better with tripods. You just set it up once and just keep taking photos of different athletes. This moment there is a good chance that you get a pair of closed eyes! So maybe try a couple of shuts for each winner. You do not want them upset with their closed eyes!

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Close Up Photos

Try Close Up too, it gives you the opportunity to show off the passion and power of the athletes

9 tips to remember:

  • Use Manual setting

  • Dial to lowest aperture

  • Dial to 1200 or more for shutter speed

  • Dial to Auto ISO

  • Choose single spot for auto focus (rather than multi-spot or area)

  • Choose Continuous Focus mode (Canon: AI Servo/ Nikon: AF-C)

  • Use a zoom lens, at least 200mm

  • Know the sport

  • Practice, practice and practice! 🙂