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Three Tips for Shooting Great Sports Photos

Kids playing soccer

Getting consistently great photos takes not only a lot of experience but also equal amounts of patience, trial and error.

However, by understanding a few basics of photography, you can get some great shots with any type of equipment. Of course, having a high-end camera with top-of-the-line lenses certainly helps. With that said, my father always told me (years ago) that "Tiger Woods will always be a great golfer, even with the worst equipment." 

In this Pro Tip, we'll look at three use cases around the three main variables in photography: ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

Use ISO to Compensate lighting conditions

No matter the lighting situation, you're going to have to manage ISO. All things considered, you'll want to be using the lowest ISO possible. Depending on the camera, you'll start to get unwanted distortion (noise) when increasing your ISO setting.

Ideal ISO conditions are usually found outdoors when you have ample light and can set your ISO to as low as 100. Along with optimized aperture and shutter speed settings, this will give you the best picture.

When you are outside on a sunny day, go ahead and set your ISO to 100 as a starting point. As the sun goes down, or as clouds come in, you'll need to boost your ISO if you want to keep your aperture and shutter speed settings consistent. 

Lighting conditions rarely change inside. Think of being inside an arena where (outside of special lighting displays and pyrotechnics at the beginning of games) your lighting should be constant. Get there early and determine the best settings.

Incorrect ISO sample
In bright lighting use a lower ISO setting

Use Aperture to Change Depth of Field

Aperture is a setting on the lens that dictates how much light is allowed into the lens when you take a picture. While sort of counter-intuitive, the smaller the aperture setting (say f/4) the wider the aperture, and thus the more light that will be allowed in for your shot.

One effect on this is that your depth of field will be impacted. If you've ever seen a picture where the subject is super clear and the background is super blurry (this is called bokeh) you've seen the aperture setting in its full glory. 

This is a great way to bring focus to your subject. If you are taking a close up, or a portrait for, say, a profile picture, using a low aperture setting will create that blurry background. If you want more of the photo in focus (increasing your depth of field) you'll want to use an aperture setting of f/8 or higher.

Adjusting aperture example
Low aperture setting creates a blurry background

Use Shutter Speed to Stop the Action

When shooting sports, and the fast pace of play, you often need to rely on a fast shutter speed. When shooting hockey for example, I like to use a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second. This fast shutter allows me to stop the action and minimize the blur caused by the fast-paced motion of the game. You won't want to go much slower than 1/300 for any level, but depending on the speed of the game (mostly based on age level) you can have some flexibility. 

Fast shutter speed sample
Fast shutter speed freezes the fast action

ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed Relationships

The tricky part is getting all three settings correct to properly expose your photo. Depending on your objective, you'll want to optimize one of your settings and adjust the other two to get a correctly exposed photo. Since each of these has inverse relationships to each other, the frustrating part is getting the exact settings you need for the best shot. Here are some tips:

Three Tips

  1. Shooting live sports: The main focus should be on shutter speed. Depending on the level and game, I'll set that first and then move to select ISO and aperture for proper exposure. Example: Shooting college hockey, I'll use a shutter speed of 1/500 or higher, ISO of 400, and an aperture of f/4.

  2. Shooting live sports outdoors: With direct sun, I'll have an ISO of 100 or 200. With clouds, it may go up to ISO of 400. Since I'm shooting live sports, I'll put shutter speed faster than 1/500 meaning I'll be playing with aperture. If I'm still overexposed with my target aperture and ISO, I'll increase the shutter speed until the exposure is correct.

  3. Shooting live sports indoors: With hockey, you have the benefit of the white ice reflecting a lot of light. That can cause issues in some instances, but for the most part, it's a big help. Sports such as volleyball and basketball are generally played in "darker" facilities. Since I'm shooting live-action, I'll want the proper shutter speed, and then I'll find the aperture setting that I want. Generally a f/5.6 or higher. Then I'll set ISO. If you can stay below ISO of 1000 your noise will be at a minimum. If you find you're underexposed, lower the aperture a bit (if you can) or increase ISO.