Last Updated on March 5, 2018
Unique challenges make outdoor sports photography a daunting task for photographers. Variable conditions with little to no control over lighting, a fast moving subject, and an inherent unpredictability to the action are some of the reasons photographers struggle learning to shoot outdoor sports.
In this article, we will break down the basics of sports photography and get you up to speed quickly. We will look at equipment, cost control, and share tips for for getting winning shots.
You can get by shooting with a more economical model, but a professional camera built for outdoor use will make your life a lot easier. I’m a big fan of the Canon 1D series. They can be cost-prohibitive for many shooters, but they have several advantages which are crucial to success in sports photography.
The body construction is rock solid. Although I make it a point to cover my camera with a plastic bag on a rainy day, I have been caught in downpours several times while shooting without a bag at the ready. I have yet to experience a problem with the camera in four years.
The auto focus systems are outstanding, and one of the main reasons professional sports photographers love the 1D series. I utilize center point auto focus, and am consistently surprised by how fast it locks onto a subject.
Noise reduction is impressive. Noise can become a real issue for outdoor sports photographers who need to keep shutter speeds high in low light conditions, and have no choice but to boost ISO to 800 or 1600 at times.
Professional level bodies also have extraordinary burst mode capability, allowing you to capture several images per second.
Durable construction is a must for any lens used in outdoor sports photography. Weather is always a concern, but so too is having a football unexpectedly bounce off your lens.
Outdoor sports such as lacrosse, football, soccer, and field hockey take place on large fields of similar lengths and widths. All require significant reach from a lens. I used to believe 400mm was a prerequisite for outdoor sports, but with newer camera models pushing 20 megapixels and higher, you might be able to get by with a versatile 70-200mm zoom.
You certainly want a high speed lens with an aperture of f2.8 or lower. This will grab as much light as possible, and allow you to shoot at high shutter speeds and lower ISO levels.
If you aren’t a professional sports photographer, you are probably wondering if it is really necessary to spend $4000 to $8000 on a huge lens. While more reach is going to make your job easier, you can combine a 200mm reach with a high resolution modern camera to achieve similar results.
Let’s assume you are an event photographer shooting soccer for the local youth sports league. Many event photographers report that the most popular photo sales are 5×7 and 8×10 prints. At 300 dots per inch, that means all you need is 2400×3000 pixels of resolution in your final crop.
If your current camera resolution is 3264×4896 (16 megapixels) and you are using a 200mm zoom lens, you can crop the photo to 2400×3000 and thus increase the zoom factor by 36% on the width. This is the equivalent of a 272mm zoom. Not bad!
I like to set my exposure by aiming the lens at the grass until my viewfinder tells me I am sitting around +1/3. Another method I like to use is to point the camera at pure white on a uniform (such as referee stripes) and adjust my exposure until the whites are just beginning to blink as overexposed on my LCD.
I prefer to shoot with the sun behind me and coming in from an angle. This allows for decent contrasts, while still allowing the sun to front light the player faces.
Getting the player faces properly exposed is probably the most important task for an event photographer. It’s what sells prints. Nobody wants a picture of their son or daughter if the face is too dark or too bright to recognize them. Blow out a little white on their socks, and nobody is going to notice.
Anticipate the Play
Taking the time to learn about the sport you are photographing is important for future success. Spend enough time watching soccer, and eventually you will begin to anticipate how players will respond to plays, and what tactics the coaches might employ.
This is crucial to getting winning photographs in any sport. If you are consistently surprised by the action, you will miss a lot of great plays.
The idea is to be one step ahead of the action, with your lens pointed toward the area where you expect the play to go. Keep your lens center point focused on the key player. When you see that your anticipation was correct and a significant play is about to occur, begin shooting in burst mode. Don’t stop until the play changes and you need to reset your position.
Keep a steady hand and remain loose and relaxed. The more tense you are, the more you will introduce camera shake and increased blur.
Having covered the basics of outdoor sports photography and equipment suggestions, you are ready to begin shooting. At this point, it is important to realize that patience is a virtue. Your initial photo shoots will probably disappoint you, and remind you of how difficult sports photography can be.
Don’t let it worry you. Like any endeavor, practice makes perfect. After a few sports shoots, you will see a significant improvement in the amount of winning images. Take the time to explore advanced sports photography tutorials at forums such as SportsShooter and Fred Miranda’s website, and further hone your skills.
Soon you will become proficient, and you will begin adding advanced strategies. Until you reach that point, refer back to this tutorial often and remember that the skill set will come with time if you are patient. Good luck shooting!
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