Action Sports Photography: Lighting, Film And Exposure

A combination of equipment and knowledge will help you shoot better sports pictures.

Sports photography is probably the hardest subject in photography. Lighting conditions are usually subpar, the action is fast, and without the right equipment and film, your shots will turn out less than desirable. However, when done right, you can also get some of your best, most emotional shots when shooting sports photography.

If, as the saying goes, close-ups make good pictures, then you are already at a disadvantage. Usually, you can only get as close as the sidelines when shooting sports action. That means the equipment you use is crucial. The most important part of your equipment is the lense. We've all seen those enormous zoom lenses that sports photographers use. It's a lot more than show. You basically need that size of lense to get a good shot. As a rule, each 100mm of focal lense will get you about 10 yards in distance. That means if you are shooting a football game, and the action is at midfield, you may need a 500mm focal lense (50 yards) to get a good close up. That's a big lense.

One of the major problems in sports photography is lighting. We'll talk more about lighting in a moment, but here's a quick preview. Any photograph knows the higher the f-stop (the smaller the opening), the more light you will need. If you walk into your local camera store, you'll see that most of the retail lenses are F5.6. That's fine if you are shooting outdoors with a lot of light, but if you are inside an arena, you'll need to keep your shutter open longer to get any kind of exposure. That won't work when you're trying to photograph a 100mph slap shot. It'll most likely turn out as a giant black, blur. Many professional lenses are F2.8. That will help you get the right exposure. However, a 400mm, F2.8 lense costs more than $8000. That's not exactly the kind of money most amateurs have. So what can you do? One alternative is changing the film you use.

There are simply no perfect lighting conditions for sports photography. During the day, under bright sun, there are harsh shadows. Overcast skies drops the light level too low for using long lenses. And if you are shooting indoors, the lighting is usually enough for the athlete to see what is going on, but not good enough to get decent pictures. Also, no two arenas are ever lit the same. A flash won't work if your getting a shot more than 5 or 6 feet away. You'll also have some upset athletes if you use a flash right in front of their face during the game. Worse, some arenas have lightbulbs with different color balances, making some shots unprintable. That makes it critical that you use the right film. Remember, as light goes down, the shutter slows down, and the aperture opens. By using a faster film, you can offset some of these problems. As the ISO number goes up, so does the speed of the film. ISO 100 is a slow film. You get wonderfully clear pictures, as long as you have a lot of light. Most indoor sports are shot at ISO 1600 with fast (F2.8 or faster) lenses. Under these conditions, with a 200mm or less lens, you can get a shutter speed of around 1/400th of a second. You should be able to freeze the action, while limiting movement. However, you need to remember the higher the film speed, the grainer the picture will be and the less detail you will receive.

One other note, the more you zoom in, the harder it will be to keep your lense steady. Even at shutter speeds of 1/200th of a second, it is difficult to get a steady picture when you zoom in to 500mm. That's why a monopod is a good way for action photographers to gain steadiness. We know what a tripod is. A monopod is the same, except it has just one leg. It'll help you keep your camera steady and it is flexible enough to move without much hassle. A monopod can usually buy you one to two shutter speeds over a hand-held.

Now that you understand the equipment you need, there are some tips that will give you better sports pictures. First, know your sports and know the athletes playing. Let me give you a football example. The home team is losing by four points, with 10 seconds left in the game. The home team has the ball on the visitor's 40-yard line. What play do you think the coach will call? Even a football novice knows the next play will probably be a pass. With that knowledge, you can prepare for more action downfield. Remember, sports photography is all about capturing that "moment". That makes timing critical. So if you can anticipate what will happen next, you will be in a better position to capture that "moment". There's an old saying, "If you see the action, you missed it."

Emotion makes good pictures. If you are shooting pictures that don't show emotion, you are not telling part of the story. Most tight action shots of players will be emotional. Regardless of level, these players, when they are exerting themselves, show emotion. Need proof? The next time you go to a little league game, take one wide shot where you can see the batter's entire body. Next time, zoom in and take another shot of just the face as the batter hits the ball. Now decided which shot looks better. As you gain experience, you will be able to get these "moments". However, it requires lots of shooting. Batters don't always it the ball, you know. Also, don't forget to look for emotion from coaches and fans as well.

Don't be afraid to take chances either. Sometimes, taking a chance will produce some of the best pictures. Play around. It may not produce a good shot 99% of the time, but that 1% is usually well worth the effort. It's a fact that you are going to take several pictures, so don't worry about wasting one or two. A National Geographic photographer will take over five thousand images in a three-month period to publish just 30 photos. Do the math, and that's about 125 pictures for each published shot. With sports, an acceptable average is 20 pictures for every shot published.

Ever hear of the phrase, "location, location, location"? It's well-known in real estate, but it also is valuable in sports photography as well. Which is usually a better shot: 1) a photograph of a wide receiver catching a pass from BEHIND the play or 2) a photograph of a wide receiver catching a pass IN FRONT of the play. Think about this. If you are behind the play, you may need to shoot through 21 players before you are able to see the receiver. If you are in front of the play, you can easily isolate the receiver, the action and all the drama. This again goes back to knowing your sport. Knowing where to stand is just as important.

Many sports photographers will try to get a freeze-frame of action. While this is sometimes ideal, it's not always a must. When a pitcher throws the ball, your eye doesn't freeze on a single frame, does it? So why should your picture. Sometimes, a good picture will show some movement. A blurred bat or arm will show action, just as long as most of your subject remains still.

Capturing good sports photographs takes practice. You don't have time to prepare proper lighting, you don't have time to set up your subject and if you wait for something to happen, you will miss it. However, with these tips, a LOT of practice and a little luck, you too can create some high quality, professional photographs.

© High Speed Ventures 2011