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Tips For Shooting Sports

March 23, 2017 by Marie Joabar

Capturing the fast action of sports is fun and exciting. With the spring season here we’ll find soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and other sports on the field so it’s the perfect time to grab your camera and head to a nearby practice or game.
Image from Marie Joabar. Exposure settings ISO 1600, 1/1600, f5.6

For the most compelling sports images we need to;
- Control brightness with our exposure settings.
- Control sharpness with our focusing settings
- Frame the action with exciting compositions.

Here are a few tips that we hope will help.


Shutter speeds rule when shooting sports. Ask yourself, “How fast is your subject moving and how fast does your shutter speed need to be to stop the action?” Typically we’ll use speeds of 1/500 and higher… the faster the motion, the faster the shutter speed needs to be to stop it.

These fast speeds usually require higher ISOs as they don’t let in much light.  In fact, one of the most common mistakes people make when shooting sports is not raising the ISO high enough. Another common mistake is not using a fast enough shutter speed to really freeze the subject.

Although we always want to use the lowest ISO for less grainy photos, remember, raising the ISO lets you use faster shutter speeds. They go hand-in-hand.

When we’re shooting outdoor sports, we’ll usually have good light to work with and we won’t struggle as much to get proper exposures. Indoor sports is a whole different story. Shooting gymnastics, basketball and volleyball are more challenging as we’re trying to stop action in relatively low light environments. Indoors, you’ll be working with high ISOs to give you the light you need.

A large depth of field is usually not important in sports so we’ll open our aperture to a wide setting to help us get the light we need and also to separate our player from their background. Typically we use wide apertures such as f2.8, 4 or 5.6.

Our lenses play a roll too, wide angle lenses give us more depth while longer telephoto lenses give us more reach and are better to bring the action closer (and blur our backgrounds).

Shooting in the Shutter Priority mode (or even in the Aperture Priority mode )may help you capture the right brightness and stop action quicker than shooting in the Manual mode where you have to control all of the settings.

In the Shutter Priority mode, you choose the ISO and the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture for you. In this mode, you indirectly adjust the aperture by changing the ISO.

In shutter priority mode, if your image is too dark it is most likely because your aperture is at its limit and cannot open any more. In this case raise your ISO to give you the light you need.

If shooting in the Aperture Priority mode, you choose the ISO and the aperture and the camera chooses the shutter speed for you. In this mode, you indirectly adjust the shutter speed by changing the ISO.

Shooting sports requires fast shutter speeds of 1/500 to 1/2000 to freeze any motion. This will most likely result in apertures of f2.8, f3.5, f4 or f5.6 which will help softly blur the backgrounds. 

EXPOSURE COMPENSATION: When using the Priority Modes, if the main subject in the image is too dark or too light, adjust by using the exposure compensation setting. This happens when subjects are backlit or when there is a large area of brightness in front of them.

For example if the bright background is properly exposed but the players are dark, this would be a good time to use exposure compensation to make the players the brightness you want. The background will also get brighter but in this case, the players are more important.

To use: Press and hold +/- button and adjust in 1/3 stop ncrements towards the plus (+) to add light, towards the minus (–) to take away light. Reset to zero when you change angles, the light changes or when done using.

Set the ISO for the brightness you’re in, set the shutter speed for the action you want to freeze and then dial in the aperture for the amount of depth you want. If depth is not important, use a wide aperture to give you the light you need.  If the scene is too bright or dark, adjust the ISO.


To avoid blurry images or having the wrong subject in focus we need to control our focus settings. The winning shots are those that are sharp and crisp. Fast shutter speeds will help but using the right focusing mode is just as important.

There are 2 main focus settings to look for on our cameras; focus mode (how the camera focuses) and focus area (where the camera focuses)

- Focus Mode - Use Continuous Focus for field sports - Once you focus on your subject the focus will follow it as it moves as long as the shutter button is held half way down. In most cameras this is called AF-C but in Canon it’s called - AI Servo. (Refer to your manual to use this mode.)

- Focus Area – Where the camera focuses
Locate and activate the focus point selector and consider which will work best for the sport you’re shooting.
  Single point allows you to put the focus point on the player you want.
  Wide area allows you to use all the focus points and allows the camera to automatically select the focus points.  Grouping the focus points in an area may also be an option on your camera.
  Dynamic-area (Nikon Cameras) or Subject Tracking (Canon) are used only with Continuous focus mode and can help improve your focus with sports. This uses a single point, but will focus based on surrounding points (9, 21, or 39). If the subject briefly leaves the selected point, it predicts where a subject will move. With soccer and lacrosse, try using 21 points.

Refer to your camera user manual as today’s cameras offer sophisticated focus settings and mastering yours is critical for sharp photos.


Continuous shooting mode (or burst mode) allows us to capture a series of images rapidly without having to refocus for each shot. This is extremely helpful as we try to capture the exact moment of the winning goal being made. 


Refers to the color of the light you’re shooting in. The WB setting takes the ‘color temperature’ into account and attempts to adjust for the relative warmth or coolness of white light.
For outdoor sports, try Auto, Sunny or Shade. Shade will add warmth to a scene.

Try Auto white balance when shooting indoors. Many times our camera can determine a better color setting than we can. However, if we have a color-cast that we don’t like, we can change from Auto WB to a different setting that gives us a better result. Indoor gyms might have Incandescent/Tungsten or Florescent so it’s good to test your Auto WB before the action starts so you can get this set. 


Raw or JPEG - Shooting in JPEG allows us to capture more images at a time than shooting Raw. The image quality will be a little less but we’ll be able to shoot more frames per second for a longer period.


- Avoid the bulls eye, consider the ‘Rule of Thirds.’
- Have subject entering the frame, not leaving it.
- Give the subject enough room in the frame.
- Notice distracting objects and consider changing your position to eliminate it.   
- Look for the magnifying button on your camera and zoom in on Playback to check details and focus.
- Include the ball in the frame (if applicable to the sport).
- Capture the action and the emotion.

Top image Marie Joabar - Exposure settings; ISO 1600, 1/1600, f5.6
Middle image courtesy of Art Pittman - Exposure settings; ISO 5000, 1/1250,  f2.8
Bottom image courtesy of Art Pittman - Exposure settings; ISO 320 1/2500, f4

Look for our sports shooting classes in Leesburg and at American University.

Leesburg classes are taught by Mike Sheras and focus on giving the tips and techniques with hands on shooting during Loudoun Soccer club practices on Wednesday evenings. We’ll find the fields full of practice sessions and will have a great opportunity to learn how to capture the action of the game.

The American University classes are taught by Mitchell Layton and will be held during AU games at the AU campus. Watch the website as we add more dates for AU games including Field Hockey, Lacrosse and more.