Most folks will tell you it’s all about the gear. But gear, is only half the story. Yes - it’s sure easier to get consistent sports images with really big, fast, sharp lenses coupled to the latest / greatest / coolest camera – but – thankfully, photography still requires a photographer. And sometimes, a modest kit is all that’s needed.
But like many things – it’s take the 3P’s: practice, practice, practice. You’ll need to literally shoot thousands of pictures (in a lot of environments) to get reliable sports images. And every sport has a “shot” that defines top action. It’s your responsibility to study the action, figure out where to be, anticipate it, grab it, and then, make it your own. Fortunately, the web offers lots of examples if you’re new to a particular sport.
My setup, in the world of sports, is humble – and, at times, a bit restrictive. Right now, I’m packing a 20D and the Canon 70-200 f/4L. If I’m too far away from the action – the 200mm is a bit short – and if the light is low – f/4 isn’t quite fast enough. The rest of the time, it works pretty well. But, take note, with this gear list, I stick to outdoor sports that are well lit.
Don’t get me wrong, a 20D (or a 40D / 50D) plus the 70-200mm f/4L is serious kit (and not inexpensive – though there is much more expensive gear out there) – but within the genre of sports photography, where 300mm f/2.8 lenses (or bigger) are commonly coupled to those really expensive cameras (say, something like a Nikon D3) – I’m simply not in the same league as those other guys. On the other hand, let me persuade you, that with a modest kit – and a little elbow grease – you can have a lot of fun.
So, I encourage you, whatever you’re carrying – go experiment (“back in the day”, I could be seen with a Canon Rebel G and a Canon 50mm f/1.8…). Snap through a few hundred frames and figure out what works and what doesn’t. And then go snap some more.
Right now, I shoot a lot of ultimate frisbee, some frisbee dogs, and a little rodeo. It’s a heck of a lot of fun – and, as the events are local, I’m able to get pretty close to the action.
Keep in mind that I’m not a professional sports photographer, and someone like Rod (a much better sports photographer – who happens to do this sort of thing for the Seattle Times) or Michael Clark (another great pro photog), will likely disagree with me (and if they do – that’s OK – you should probably follow their input over mine) – but here’s where I typically start:
- Aperture Priority @ f/4 (as wide open as this little lens will go)
- Lowest ISO setting I can manage and keep the shutter speed above 1/250.
- Auto focus point set to the center only.
- Auto focus is set to AI Servo.
- Partial Metering: this is 9% on the 20D (the 20D doesn’t have spot metering)
- On the 70-200mm f/4L lens – there’s an option for 1.2m or 3m minimum focus distance. Set to 3m minimum distance, the lens focuses quicker.
- JPG, not RAW, so as to get faster write speeds.
- Continuous shooting mode.
And it’s likely that your optimum starting point will be slightly different – but whatever your setup is – focal length, focus speed, and frame rates will go a long way to helping you make consistently good images.
From here, there’s a lot of technique to pan, zoom, tuck elbows, keep one eye on the action, breathe, anticipate, and hold that hammer down… and that’s where that practice comes in.
Two more thoughts: (1) shoot a lot frames and throw out a lot of frames – only a small fraction are going to be “keepers” and (2) don’t be afraid to crop.
If you have more input for new sports shooters – or simply disagree – drop it in the comments.