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Sports Photography

Posted on: July 1, 2015 by Chris | No Comments
Soccer - UK Corporate Games 2015

Soccer – UK Corporate Games 2015

I was commissioned last week by Stoke on Trent Council to cover the UK Corporate Games . During the course of four days I photographed at least twenty events covering Soccer, Squash, Netball, Rugby, Cricket, Karting and many many more. There is a world of difference between photographing for a client and simply rocking up to take pictures for yourself and I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the things the sports photographer needs to think about.


Firstly, know your camera well. I found an excuse to use just about every setting available, sometimes within the course of a few minutes.
These are the factors that will push your camera to the limit.

  • Light – Its’s all about light. Needs to be said again for reasons that will become obvious (I hope)
  • Motion – you need to consider the effect of motion blur on the finished photograph. The head of a squash racket is moving at approximately 140mph when it hits the ball – do you want it blurred? If so, how much? I can take a street photograph hand held at 1/100 second. The subject is close to the camera and with IS I don’t really think about too hard. If the subject is far away, then the effect of a tiny movement is way more noticeable. This is why landscape photographers use tripods. With sport, a tripod will help if the action is far away, but at a cost of mobility.
  • Separation of subject – A wide aperture will throw the background out of focus. The downside is sports move really fast and what may be perfectly in focus one second is out of focus within a couple of steps.
Rugby - UK Corporate Games 2015

Rugby – UK Corporate Games 2015

The art of catching the decisive moment in sport is really helped by the modern DSLR. Burst mode is invaluable here, the Canon 5D that I use has two settings, fast and slow – using this mode along with old fashioned anticipation, I was able to capture the moment before the cricket ball is struck with considerably more precision than if I had only relied on anticipation.
The other piece of technology that really helps is the autofocus mode. The Canon 5D that I use has three modes –

  • One-Shot AF – single shot auto focus.
  • AI Servo AF – automatic tracking of a subject approaching or receding at speeds up to 50 kph, from up to 8 metres away
  • AI Focus AF – switches automatically between One-Shot AF and AI Servo AF modes based on subject movement.

AI Servo does a great job of keeping the focus fixed on a moving object as long as that object is reasonably close. 8 metres, according to the manual. For more distant shots, you’ll need to rely on the Depth of field delivered by the aperture setting. Remember that the further away you are from the subject, the deeper this will be, relative to the setting. So even a wide aperture which may deliver DoF of millimetres in macro photography will give you a couple of feet at the far end of a sports field. On the subject of AF Points, opinion is divided. I prefer to use a single AF point in the centre when photographing sports as that allows me to focus on a plane within the depth of the photograph. I can refocus if I think play has moved out of that plane.

Basketball - UK Corporate Games 2015

Basketball – UK Corporate Games 2015

Different sports have very different requirements – Soccer and Rugby are not as fast as Tennis, Squash or Badminton. What controls the range of sharpness from razor sharp to indecipherably blurred is the shutter speed. Aesthetics play a part, Sometimes it’s a good thing to portray a sense of motion. The best policy is to shoot with a range of shutter speeds so that you get a variety of results, until you can confidently predict the range you need for any given effect. Aperture and ISO will affect this decision.

Squash - UK Corporate Games 2015

Squash – UK Corporate Games 2015

If I want to separate my subject from the background, I’ll open the aperture as wide as I can without making it impossible to keep anything in focus. This means I’m letting more light into the sensor and so I can use very fast shutter speeds (which let less light into the sensor). ISO will increase the sensitivity of the sensor to light, at the cost of introducing noise into the picture. You will learn how much noise by experimentation. Know your camera. On a day with poor light, or indoors using available light you will need to push the ISO to achieve a fast shutter speed. A badminton player will not thank you for using Flash!

Dragon Boat Race

Dragon Boat Race

Sports such as soccer and rugby lend themselves to freezing the motion using a fast shutter speed. The shapes are often graceful and a fast shutter speed brings out the qualities of balance and agility that the sports demand. There is another side of sport – the competition, the will to win. Sweat, Blood and Tears. This was the quality I was trying for in this shot, taken in the last few yards of a boat race. Fast shutter, freezing the motion, but not so fast as to diminish the impact of the water droplets. I wanted the water to be obvious in the shot as it helps emphasise the physical effort – as does the agonised expressions of the rowers. I used a 70-300mm lens with IS, handheld to get in really close to the rowers.


Cricket - UK Corporate Games 2015

Cricket – UK Corporate Games 2015

Finally, cricket! I shot this using a 70-400mm lens. The day was gloomy as it could be without actually raining, so ISO had to be pumped up to allow me to use a fast shutter speed. I was able to keep the aperture wide, but I needed the ball to be near the batsman as I was not in the centre of the wicket. Rather I was standing parallel with the wicketkeeper, looking slightly obliquely down the wicket. My plane of focus did not extend to the whole length of the pitch as it was at an angle to the pitch. Good for about six feet around the batsman.

So plenty to think about. Good luck with the sports and remember, key to success at first, is taking a lot of shots using different settings. Experience will gradually allow you to know what settings are best for any given situation, building you aesthetic requirements on top of the lighting conditions. It’s demanding but its a lot of fun!

What's your view?