Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Photographing Sports and Action

Action photography requires all the same care in selecting a viewpoint and composition, focusing, depth of field, direction of lighting etc. as any other type of photography, with the added ingredients of split second timing and critical focusing on a fast moving subject.

Diving into the pool


When you press that button becomes critically important.

I have tried the 'continuous burst' mode on my old Canon 300D, which admittedly wasn't that fast, but I found that it wasn't fast enough. A while ago I saw a series of pictures taken on a Nikon at nine frames per second of a tennis serve. Even at nine frames a second the 'money shot' where the ball is just leaving the racket but is still in the picture wasn't there.

So my advice is set the camera to single shot and practice getting that timing right. It seems a tall order to get the timing of a shot to within a tenth of a second but, if you think about it, the guy hitting the ball has to achieve a similar feat which, because we see it every day, we take for granted. Actually it's not as difficult as it looks, my reactions are the world's slowest (I'm hopeless at computer shooting games) but I learned to anticipate the action then, with a few practice attempts, I started to get the shots I wanted.

Tennis player Tennis serve
Here are a couple of tennis shots, the one above is just before the ball is struck, you can see that the ball is pretty sharp and looks stationery, it is traveling relatively slowly. The racket head is moving very fast as it about to strike the ball and appears blurred in the picture. In this shot we see the ball just after it has been struck, it is now traveling at a much faster speed and appears quite blurred. Even with the shutter only open for 1/320th of a second the ball has moved quite a distance in that time.


Focusing can be a nightmare in sports photography especially when the action is coming towards you which is quite often the case, the auto focus often can't cope well, even in so called 'sports' mode. I would advise you to go back to the 'bad old days' and focus manually.

Trying to follow a field game like football can be quite a challenge when focusing manually, it's best to practice first on a sport where there is more predictable movement, such as athletics. In most track and field events you can predict exactly where the athletes are going to be at the moment you want to take your picture and you can pre-focus on that spot.

Long jump Long jump close up
In the two examples above I have set the focus to manual and pre-focused on the far end of the sandpit, knowing that I am going to wait for the athlete to be in that spot before I take the picture. A shallow depth of field is desirable in these shots because you can never be absolutely sure what is going to be cluttering up the background. To get a dramatic viewpoint for these pictures I was laying on the ground, much to the amusement of people around me.
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