Camera Settings – Sports Photography

NAU's Eddie Horn grabs a handful of facemask to prevent Eastern Washington's Quincy Forte from reaching the end zone

NAU’s Eddie Horn grabs a handful of facemask to prevent Eastern Washington’s Quincy Forte from reaching the end zone (Bill Ferris)

With this post, I’m launching a series in which I will share the settings I use for specific genres of photography. Each article will focus on one kind of photographry: landscape, wildlife, event, portraiture and, in this entry, sports.

Right off the top, I want to be clear about something. The settings I use are not necessarily best for everyone. In fact, I suspect the opposite may be closer to the truth. Many professional and experienced amateur photographers prefer to shoot in full manual mode. I don’t.

In any given situation, there are some settings I absolutely want to control and others I’m perfectly comfortable allowing the camera to control. It’s been my experience that modern digital cameras are reliably competent at choosing settings like shutter speed and ISO. Even if the setting the camera chooses is off by 1/3 to 1/2 a stop, shooting in RAW allows me to correct for that in post with just a few clicks of the mouse.

In short, the settings I use work for me and my workflow. My intent in sharing them in this series is that they may help you to make better photos and get more satisfaction from photography.

So, let’s get to it. Here, are the  settings I typically use with my Nikon D610 when shooting sports:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • ISO: ISO-auto with 1/1000-second as minimum shutter speed and 6400 as maximum ISO
  • Autofocus: Continuous with a 9-point cluster at the center
  • Back Button Focus: AE-L/AF-L button assigned to autofocus control
  • Burst Rate: Continuous High (6 fps)
  • Image Quality: RAW

Why? Let’s start at the beginning. Before I start shooting, I give some thought to what I want to accomplish with the photograph. Here are my goals for sports photography:

  • Capture the decisive moment
  • Communicate the emotion of that moment
  • Put the audience in the middle of the action

The above settings allow me to accomplish all three.

A goalkeeper prepares to send the ball out of her zone.

A goalkeeper prepares to send the ball out of her zone. (Bill Ferris)

The first decision I make when setting up the camera is selecting a mode to use. I never shoot in full Auto. In that mode, the camera makes all the decisions and I’ve yet to find a camera having an aesthetic identical to mine. I rarely shoot in Manual. In that mode, I make all the decisions and, frankly, that’s just a lot of work.

Aperture Priority allows me to lock in a focal ratio. Normally, I’ll set the lens to f/2.8. Since I’ll be using a fast shutter speed to freeze action, I need to deliver big heaping gobs of light to the sensor to produce a properly exposed image. Shooting at f/2.8 maximizes the light collected by the lens and delivered to the sensor, at any given moment.

A large aperture also produces an image with a shallow depth of field. That is a huge plus when shooting sports. Often, the shot is focused on one player, coach or person. But how to draw attention to someone who is surrounded by a melee of athletes, officials and fans? A shallow depth of field serves to isolate the subject by putting everything and everyone else out of focus.

With a wide aperture selected and locked in, the next choice is which shutter speed to use. For basketball, soccer and football, I have found a shutter speed of 1/1000-second does a great job of freezing the action. Now, I could do this by putting the camera in manual mode, selecting the aperture (f/2.8), shutter speed (1/1000-second) and ISO. But I’m lazy. I don’t want to be responsible for all three variables. I want the camera to do some of the work. I’ll choose the aperture and shutter speed, and let the camera choose the ISO.

This is why I use Nikon’s Auto-ISO setting. In this setting, you choose a minimum shutter speed and a maximum ISO. For sports, I select 1/1000-second and a maximum ISO of 6400. Shooting with the D610, I’ve been very pleased with the quality of images taken at ISO 6400

At this point, I’m almost ready to start shooting.

This photograph was taken with a Tamron 70-200mm at 135mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/640-second

This photograph was taken with a Tamron 70-200mm at 135mm, f/2.8, ISO 3600, 1/640-second (Bill Ferris)

Next, i check the image quality setting to confirm it’s still in RAW. Shooting in RAW serves several purposes. First, it is the format that captures and preserves the most information about each image. The more information there is at my disposal, the greater the flexibility I have in post. RAW allows for adjustments to be easily made in Lightroom, not just in exposure, but also in white balance, contrast and a host of other key settings. As such, shooting in RAW gives me the greatest latitude when processing an exposure. And since I’m trusting my camera to choose the ISO, RAW acts as my insurance policy against a setting that is off by as much as a full stop. Typically, however, the Nikon D610 is within 1/3-stop in the ISO it chooses.

To ensure that my photographs are properly focused, I use Nikon’s AF-C or continuous autofocus mode. In this mode, the camera continuously adjusts focus to keep the subject sharp, For most events, I’ll use a cluster of nine autofocus points – sometimes, a single point – to allow the camera to focus on the subject while ignoring distracting objects within the frame. The autofocus points at the center of the frame are most accurate. Hence my preference for a central grouping.

Now, to give myself more control over when and where focus is set, I also engage back button focus. This is a technique where you assign focus control to a button on the back of the camera body. I assign focus control to the AE-L/AF-L button on my Nikon D610. With back button focus engaged, I am able to push the AE-L/AF-L button when I want to set focus. If I’m shooting a stationary subject, I can set focus then remove my finger from the button and recompose. If the subject is moving, I’ll continue pressing the button and allow the camera to follow focus while I’m keeping the subject framed.

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU's Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU’s Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown. (Bill Ferris)

Almost by definition, athletes are quick and fast-moving subjects. As such, I use my camera’s highest burst rate to rip 6-10 exposures in a 1-2 second burst. This gives me the best chance of capturing the decisive moment. The only thing that’s missing from the above photo, is the official’s arms in the air signaling a touchdown. But that didn’t happen until long after the receiver made the catch.

While we’re on the subject of moments, let’s address a setting that, all too often, is ignored. Moments are fleeting. As soon as you recognize one as being of significance, it is already gone. One of the keys to successful sports photography is anticipating a decisive moment, recognizing that it is about to happen. This has more to do with you, as a student of the game, than with your camera settings. Know the sport. Decide ahead of time the kind of moment you want (a score, a collision, the joy of victory, dignity in defeat), watch for that moment, recognize when it is about to happen and press the shutter release.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | January 2015

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