Sports and wildlife photography are extremely demanding of you, as a photographer, and your equipment. You are often shooting in low light, farther from your subject than you’d like–when it comes to wildlife, sometimes too close for comfort–and trying to capture a moving target. These are situations where your photographic technique and your equipment’s ability to make good images are pushed to the limit. In this blog entry, I’m going to focus on sports photography, offering some tips on how to capture compelling, dynamic images under challenging circumstances.
Basketball is a sport which allows photographers to be relatively close access to the action. This doesn’t make the sport easy to shoot but it does make basketball easier to photograph than other sports. I used a Nikon D600 to capture all the images in this article. Sports photography is one area where a full-frame sensor, such as that in the D600, can give you an advantage over a digital camera with a smaller crop-sensor. The pixels on a full-frame sensor are larger than those on a crop-sensor DSLR body offering similar resolution. Larger pixels are more efficient. In other words, they do a better job of capturing light than smaller pixels. As a general rule, A full-frame DSLR will deliver at least a full stop of improved high ISO performance in comparison with a similar resolution crop-sensor body.
Why is this important for sports photography? If your objective is to capture a moment, your objective is often to freeze motion. (Please, note that freezing motion is not required for good sports photography. It is, however, a common practice.) To freeze motion, you need to take really short exposures, typically using shutter speeds between 1/500 and 1/1000 second. To make a good quality image at such fast shutter speeds, you’ll need two things: a fast lens and a camera with good high ISO performance. (Since flash photography is prohibited on the field or court, you’ll need to rely on your lenses and sensor to make the most of the available light.) Most sports photographers shoot with lenses offering fixed apertures of f/2.8 or faster. ISO settings are typically in the 1600 to 6400 range…sometimes faster.
In the above image, I was shooting at 70mm, f/2.8 using an ISO of 2500 and a 1/800-second exposure. If you zoom in to 100% on the full-size version of the image, you’ll see a slight touch of blur on NAU player’s right eye. Also, the reflected lights on his cornea are slightly elongated. Even shooting at 1/800-second, the image does not completely freeze the motion.
Another advantage of a full-frame sensor is its comparatively shallow depth of field. This advantage is due to the fact that crop-frame sensors effectively extend the focal length of a lens. Nikon’s DX format sensors have a 1.5X crop factor. In other words, any lens used on a DX format body will have an effective focal length 50% longer than it will on a full-frame or FX format Nikon body. The lens I used to take the above image was set to 70mm on my full-frame Nikon D600. On my crop-sensor D90, that same lens would have an effective focal length of 105mm and a correspondingly greater depth of field. The pleasing bokeh in the above image would not be as dramatic in images made with the D90. Objects in the distance would be more in focus, reducing the separation between the subject and the background.
Here’s an image that does a nice job of freezing the action. If you zoom in to view the image at 100%, you’ll see the NAU player’s eyes are in focus. This is the number one rule of good photography: focus on your subject. When shooting basketball or another sport where the athlete’s face is in view, you should focus on the eyes. How do you know if you’ve succeeded? Look at a 100% view of the the eyes in the original image. If light reflected off the cornea is sharp and well-defined, the image is in focus. If the eye is soft or fuzzy, the image belongs in the recycle bin.
A technique I use to achieve good focus is called, Back Button Focus. Back Button Focus (BBF) moves the auto focus function of your DSLR from the shutter release button to the Auto Exposure Lock/Auto Focus Lock (AE-L/AF-L) button, typically found on the back of a DSLR body. Why do this? Most DSLR shutter release buttons allow you to activate auto focus with a half-depression of the shutter release button. To take a picture, depress this button fully to actuate the shutter. When shooting sports, there is an advantage to separating auto focus from shutter release.
In the above photo of NAU men’s basketball head coach, Jack Murphy, he was squatting while speaking to his team. The distance from him to my camera wasn’t changing. In that situation, I used the AE-L/AF-L button to set focus on his eyes, then waited for him to turn and face me before taking the exposure. If the Shutter release button also triggered the camera’s auto focus function, taking the picture may have reset focus on another person in the frame, ruining the picture.
Another advantage of moving auto focus to the AE-L/AF-L button is the potential to extend the battery life of your camera. If you shoot with vibration reduction (VR or VC) lenses, that half-depression of the shutter release button will activate the vibration reduction motors. The VR motors draw additional power from your camera’s battery. Using the AE-L/AF-L button for auto focus allows you to wait longer before engaging VR, which will extend your battery life.
So, how do I set up my camera for a sports photo shoot? First, I put the camera in full Manual mode. Why? Well, I know there are two factors over which I want total control. The first, is aperture. I want to use my lens’s widest aperture. This maximizes the amount of light falling on the sensor, which allows me to make a good image using short, fast exposures. A wide open aperture also delivers images with beautiful bokeh, creating clear separation between the subject and surrounding environment. The second factor I want to control, is shutter speed. If I’m trying to freeze the action, I’ll choose an exposure of 1/500-second or faster. You’ll notice many of the images in this article were taken with exposures of 1/800-second.
Having selected the aperture and shutter speed, I will then engage a setting I rarely use: Auto ISO. When doing landscape and portrait photography, I generally select a low native ISO setting of 100 or 200 to reduce noise in the resulting photograph and maximize image quality. Sports photography is one of those scenarios where you need to use–and trust–the camera’s high ISO capability. Selecting Auto ISO allows you to concentrate on framing, focus and when to push the shutter release button. You can choose to manually control ISO and, to be honest, many photographers are able to make ISO changes on the fly without missing a shot. Personally, I prefer to keep things simple and Auto ISO reduces the number of critical variables I have to monitor. Of course, this technique is only as good as your DSLR’s ability to meter and select a proper ISO.
With the manual settings in place, I’ll then double-check my camera’s auto focus setting. For landscapes and portraits, I use Nikon’s Auto Focus Single-Servo (AF-S) mode and choose a single auto focus point. In a nutshell, the AF-S mode tells the camera to set focus just once and lock that in place until the shutter is actuated. Landscapes don’t move and, in many portraiture settings, your subject is not moving. So, AF-S is a mode that allows you to precisely set and hold focus. Choosing one auto focus cross-point gives you further control over these critical factors.
Sports photography is a different animal, altogether. Since your subjects are moving, it’s generally better to select Auto Focus Continuous-Servo (AF-C) and a cluster of cross points where your subject is most likely to be within the frame. With AF-C selected, my D600 offers options of 9, 21 or 39 cross point clusters to predictively track and follow focus. This illustrates another advantage of assigning auto focus to the AE-L/AF-L button. With my right fore finger resting atop the shutter release button, my right thumb is able to depress and hold the AE-L/AF-L button to engage continuous auto focus. When I’m ready to take an exposure, I press the shutter release button.
Burst rate is another setting I’ll adjust prior to the game. Again contrasting sports photography with landscapes and portraiture, shooting constantly moving subjects is a scenario where your camera’s high speed burst rate is a real asset. Over the course of one or two seconds, a basketball player can go from the top of the key to leaping and finishing with a layup kissed off the glass or a monster dunk. My D600 has a maximum continuous burst rate of 5.5 frames per second. That’s one frame about every 0.2-second. If you have any doubt about how much can happen in two-tenths of a second, review a short burst sequence. In that collection of 5 to 10 images, there may be one where the player’s face is visible, the ball is visible, focus is pin sharp and framing is perfect. The other images may be soft in focus, poorly framed or have some object obscuring the subject’s face. I don’t recommend holding down the shutter release for seconds on end. But a well-timed, one-to-two second burst at your DSLR’s fastest rate can go a long way towards ensuring you get the shot.
Let’s talk about subject matter for a moment. Certainly, the primary objective of your photography will be to capture the critical moments and plays in the game. But sports are about more than just the action on the field or court. It’s also about what’s happening on the benches, in the stands and on the sidelines. The above image has nothing to do with the final score. But it captures a genuinely personal moment among the players on the Northern Arizona bench. If you didn’t attend the game, you probably don’t know what the final score was. However, seeing this image, may give you a clue. NAU dominated. They led by twenty or more points throughout the second half and won by that same margin. Hence, the players on that bench felt comfortable sharing a light moment–a bit of humor–before the final buzzer sounded.
Finally, I’ll share a few thoughts on lens selection. I brought three lenses to this shoot: Nikon 16-35mm, f/4; Tamron 24-70mm, f/2.8 and Tamron 70-200mm, f/2.8. All are zoom lenses with vibration reduction. The two Tamron lenses are fast, with fixed f/2.8 apertures throughout their zoom ranges. The Nikon 16-35mm is one stop slower at f/4, which would normally be a significant limitation in this setting. However, the excellent high ISO performance of the Nikon D600 body allowed me to freeze the action with this ultra-wide angle zoom.
Of the three, if I had to choose just one to bring to a basketball game, it would be the 24-70mm, f/2.8. It’s wide enough to frame players, head-to-toe, beneath the basket and long enough at the 70mm end to isolate a player from the waist up. The 70-200mm, f/2.8 would be next in my bag. The reach of this lens allows me to get up close and personal, filling the frame with the face of a coach or player. It also allows me to follow action on the far end of the court. In fact, if I were limited to just one lens for all sports shooting, it would be the 70-200, Sports like football, baseball and soccer are played on larger fields that demand a longer zoom range to bring the action closer to you, the photographer.
In summary, the key to successful sports photography is freezing the action. The tools that allow you to do this are a camera body with very good high ISO performance (advantage: full-frame sensor), fast lenses (f/2.8 or faster), and an auto focus system that accurately tracks and predicts focus on moving subjects. Shooting in manual allows you to control at least two critical settings: aperture and shutter speed. Using the camera’s Auto ISO feature can simplify things for you. Using your camera’s continuous auto focus setting and moving control over auto focus to the AE-L/AF-L button are an asset to achieving accurate focus. Focus on the eyes of your subject. If the eyes aren’t in focus, the image belongs in the recycle bin. When you’re ready to shoot, a well-timed short burst will help to ensure you get the shot. And finally, capture images that tell the full story of the event, including action around the court.
Now, get out and shoot!
Bill Ferris | November 2013