Best Sports Photography Tips for Beginners

Sports photography offers many chances to get a great shot—but it also offers many chances to miss what could have been an amazing moment. When the action moves quick, a sports photographer has to be ready to click at just the right moment to get the perfect shot. Follow these four tips in order to ensure that your photos are as dynamic and crisp as possible when you’re shooting sports.

Know the Sport

First things first: You need to be familiar with the sport—and the players—before you start shooting. In order to successfully shoot a sporting event, you need to know who to follow and the rules of the game if you’re going to capture the best and most dramatic moments.

So if you’re really familiar with basketball but don’t know much about hockey, consider shooting a basketball game and enjoying the hockey game just as a fan. However, if you’re really interested in shooting a sport you’re less familiar with, take some time beforehand to watch a few games on TV and learn what you can. It’s also a good idea to study the rules, which can you do by searching online. You’ll get a better sense of how the action moves, what’s going to happen next, and what it means when the ref blows his whistle. All of that knowledge will lead to better-informed photos.

Focus on Focus

Adjusting focus during a sporting event is a great way to miss your shot. Instead, rely on your camera’s built-in auto-focus. Go for a continuous focus option, which is usually shown as AF-C, set it and forget it.

Increase your shutter speed and ISO

In general, opt for a higher shutter speed when you’re shooting sports events. You can experiment, of course, for different effects like motion blur but as a rule, try to have a fast shutter speed, above 1/250s, when things are moving quickly.

The potential problem with a fast shutter speed is that it lets in less light, making actions shots at night particularly difficult. You can correct this by increasing your ISO. Depending on your camera, you may be able to set to Auto ISO or you may have to do some experimenting in manual mode in order to figure out the best shutter speed/ISO match. Start between ISO 1400 and ISO 1800 and see what works best with your equipment and the event you’re shooting.

Invest in the Right Equipment

If you’re serious about making a career as a sports photographer, it’s worth it to invest in a long lens, or zoom lens, and an SLR, like a Nikon or Canon. Generally, a zoom lens with at least 200mm of reach should suffice for sports photography.

While this isn’t a strict rule, it can be difficult to take great sports photos without these two tools. That’s because many sports take place up and down a field or pitch or court, which means you can’t always be right next to the action. A zoom lens allows you to capture images even when you’re far away, and a good camera allows you to adjust the camera settings to never miss a shot.

You may also want to consider investing in something portable to hold all of your gear. For example, a lot of sports photographers use belts to keep their lenses and flash cards accessible as they move around.

Check Before Using Flash

A lot of sports—especially professional and college level—have rules about using flash. That’s because, in some circumstances, the flash can distract or even blind players, putting them and the game at risk. It’s good practice to check with the coaches or athletic directors before shooting an event in order to see check their preferences and rules around using flash photography.

Many indoor sports will also have strobes or flashes installed in the rafters of the space. You can sync your camera to those flashes using a PocketWizard, making an on-camera flash irrelevant. And with outdoor events, it’s a good practice to never use your on-camera flash because it doesn’t reach very far and therefore likely won’t capture the action or will focus on something closer that’s irrelevant to your shot.

Shoot Everything

While the action on the court or pitch or rink is obviously important, don’t forget that there are a lot of other things happening during a sports game that can also result in a great photo. For example, sometimes the most dramatic action happens after a basket is scored or a race is run. What’s happening on the bench? What’s the coach doing? How about the fans?

You should also make sure to include the setting around you. Whether it’s as grand as a pro basketball court or as intimate as a high school football field, getting shots of the surroundings gives your action shots context. Great sports photographers know that opportunities for the perfect shot could just as likely be in the fans’ reactions as in the action itself. Burst mode is another great option for capturing as many shots as possible.

Don’t Chimp

“Chimping” is checking every single shot on the screen of an LCD camera. It’s a bad idea for two reasons. First, it takes you out of the action. When you’re shooting sports, you need to be fully engrossed in what you’re shooting. That means getting into the flow of taking shot after shot after shot. If you’re chimping, you’re looking away from your viewfinder, away from the camera, and away from the flow of action. Instead, focus on getting into the flow of what’s happening in front of you.

The second reason chimping is a bad idea is the fact that it’s dangerous. If you’re looking at the camera screen, you’re not looking at the action around you—and that action might overtake you without you realizing it. If you’re down on a court during a basketball game, for example, it can be a matter of less than a second for the action to change direction and head right toward you. How will you know that 10 massive athletes are charging right at you if you’re staring at your screen? You won’t.

Likewise, there’s often action in the stands at games. Fans jump up and down; they pump their fists; they may be intoxicated. If you’re not aware of your surroundings because you’re staring at a screen, you could get hurt in the stands as well.

Switch Things Up!

There are certain rules that you’ll learn about sports photography, just as there are rules in every type of photography. But sometimes the best photos break all the rules, creating a new kind of image that not only stands out in your body of work, but potentially changes the game for everyone. So while you’re out there snapping, take a minute to play around with your camera settings a bit, too. It could result in a major payoff.