Sports/Action Photography

Posted by on Jan 20, 2013 in Techniques | 0 comments

Sports/Action Photography
Windsurfer by Lawrence Mengel1/1000s @ F/4.5, ISO 100

Kite Surfer by Lawrence Mengel
1/1000s @ F/4.5, ISO 100

I love shooting sports and action.  Photography is all about capturing a moment in time, and in a lot of cases, you may have a lot of time at your disposal to get the shot.  But with Sports and Action, you often only have a fraction of a second to capture the action in front of you, and if you miss the shot…there is a high chance that you won’t get the opportunity again.  Capturing great sports photos is challenging and can also depend on a lot of luck, like being in the right place at the right time, but with the right preparation, you can give yourself the best chances of maximising your success rate.  Like any photography, preparation is crucial.Shutter Speed

Coffs Rally by Lawrence Mengel1/100sec @ F/13, ISO 200

Coffs Rally by Lawrence Mengel
1/100sec @ F/13, ISO 200

Shutter speed is the key to capturing good action photos.  This is controlled by the Shutter Priority setting on your camera, (S for Nikon & others, Tv for Canon) and you can go about this in two ways.  You can set a very fast shutter speed like 1/500 second and higher to freeze the action, or you can set a slow shutter speed to get deliberate blurring of the action.  If you do choose the “slow” shutter speed method, then it’s important to get the subject of the action sharp and blur the background elements.  For this you would use the panning technique, where you move the camera to match the speed of your subject.  Either method can achieve great results.  If you cannot get a fast enough shutter speed, then you need to use the widest aperture that your lens is capable of (the smallest number like f2.8, f4, etc) and/or also raise the ISO setting.  An ISO of 100 will give clean, good quality images.  The image quality will suffer as you raise the ISO higher and higher, so only raise the ISO in small steps at a time until you get a fast enough shutter speed.   Take a couple of test shots, check the results and adjust accordingly.

Coffs Rally WRC by Lawrence Mengel1/2500sec @ F/6.3, ISO 640

Coffs Rally WRC by Lawrence Mengel
1/2500sec @ F/6.3, ISO 640


Setting a wider aperture like f2.8, f4, f5.6 will enable your camera to use a higher shutter speed by letting in as much light as possible.  These settings will also give you a nice blur to the background therefore putting the focus on your subject.  Aperture is controlled by the Aperture Priority setting (Av on Canon, A on Nikon & others)


I mentioned ISO along with shutter speed settings earlier.  ISO should be the last value to play around with, as the image quality degrades as you go higher.  This is very dependent on the camera, as most modern DSLR’s can handle ISO values up to 1600 very well, and the more expensive ones can handle much higher than that.  Only increase the ISO by small amounts until you achieve the shutter speed you need.  Depending on the lighting conditions, you may have no choice but to use higher ISO settings, but I would much rather get a slightly noisy great photo than a blurry photo, or worse, no photo at all.

Working the Waves by Lawrence Mengel1/1250sec @ F/4, ISO 100

Working the Waves by Lawrence Mengel
1/1250sec @ F/4, ISO 100

Hi Speed Burst Mode

If your camera supports this option, it will enable you to take several shots very quickly.  This mode can give you a much higher success rate as the camera will capture a whole sequence of shots of the action, or that one of the shots will capture just the moment that you were after.  Obviously with this option you will fill your memory card much faster as you could be taking anything from 3 – 10 frames per second, again depending on the camera.

Street Acrobats by Lawrence Mengel1/320sec @ F/8, ISO 100

Street Acrobats by Lawrence Mengel
1/320sec @ F/8, ISO 100


The focus setting is crucial to get a nice sharp photo, and your camera might have several focus modes.  For action/sports, the action is usually moving quickly, so it is often better to select just one focus point.  The camera can lock-in quicker when there is only one pre-set focus point, rather than the camera trying to decide in a split second which focus point to use from several.  Also, if you select the focus mode to be “Auto-Select”, then the camera may select a focus point that is not on the area that you want.  The camera’s processor can work faster when you pre-set a single focus point too, which gives the camera a better chance of achieving a quicker focus lock and increasing the chances of a successful photo.  Because your subject will be moving, another good option to use is “Continuous” focus (AI Servo on Canon, AF-C for Nikon).  When this mode is selected, the camera will constantly adjust the focus as the subject moves, so this setting can also help increase your chances of success.

Point of Impact

Street Acrobat's Leap by Lawrence Mengel1/320sec @ F/9.0, ISO 100

Street Acrobat’s Leap by Lawrence Mengel
1/320sec @ F/9.0, ISO 100

Great action/sports photos will show a form of “point of impact”, a point that is the center of the action.  This could be anything like a cricketer catching a ball, or the stumps being hit, a footballer scoring a try, a racing car hitting another car or wall, etc.  These impact points anchor the viewers attention on that point.  These types of shots require fast reflexes and to have your camera settings all pre-set in advance…and then to be in the right place at the right time!  To strengthen your chances of success, it helps to know the sport or the action in advance.  For a football game, you would try to position yourself near the try-line, a finish line for running, or chicanes/braking areas for motor sports.  Look for strategic spots where incidents could happen and position yourself accordingly.

WRC Disaster 02 by Lawrence Mengel1/2000sec @ F/4, ISO 100

WRC Disaster 02 by Lawrence Mengel
1/2000sec @ F/4, ISO 100

Sports & Action photos can be very challenging, but also very rewarding when you find that you have captured just the right moment!