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Sports & Action Photography

how to photograph sports
Taking sports photos can be both challenging and rewarding. For some, taking sports pictures is a pursuit that they dream of making into an occupation. For the rest of us, we just want to learn how to take sports photos of our children and friends out on the playing field. The experts at Berger Brothers Camera wants you to help you learn how to shoot sports photography - images that you and your loved ones will cherish for the rest of your life. And if in the process you get oohs and ahs from your friends and neighbors (as well as inspiring a little envy), so much the better.

Choosing the best equipment for taking sports pictures

Knowing how to take sports photos is sometimes a question of having the right equipment. Your point and shoot camera might take great portraits or landscape photos, but the best camera for sports photography has two basic needs which these cameras lack - speed and the ability to zoom in close.

Part of the skill in how to shoot sports photography is being able to anticipate the action. But you have a much better chance of getting the best shot if you can fire off three to six shots per second, as opposed to just taking one. At the very least you want a camera with no noticeable shutter lag (the length of time it take from the time you click the button till the camera takes the photo), and ideally, one with continuous shooting capabilities. Many DSLR cameras are capable of taking three or more shots per second now, even those at the lower end of the price range.

A second factor related to speed in taking sports photos is how long it takes the lens to focus, which brings us to the second basic need of sports photography. Even if you're lucky enough to be allowed on the sidelines, chances are you're going to need a pretty hefty zoom lens to capture the expressions and emotions of the sport. The zoom lens on most point and shoot cameras will likely be too slow to focus to let you capture a fast moving subject at a distance. To do that consistently, the best camera for sports photography will need a high speed lens, attached to a DSLR camera.

One of the critical aspects of taking sports pictures is being able to zoom in, which means you need to choose your lenses very carefully. A good rule of thumb is this: for every 10 yards of distance, to fill the frame with the average sized human requires 100mm in lens. So a 200mm lens will more or less fill a vertical photo with a human figure from 20 yards away. What this means is you're going to need to get out of the stands and onto the sidelines, or in the case of basketball, as low to the court as possible. Or you're going to have to make a substantial investment in lenses.

A wide angle lens is useful for capturing a large group of athletes, but the bread and butter to take sports photos is the telephoto. For basketball or baseball, providing you can get close to the action, an 85 to 135mm lens will produce great results (unless your child is stuck in the outfield), but you will likely need to move from one end of the court or field to the other. For soccer and football, you'll need something in the 200-300mm range, or even a 400mm in order to capture the action at the other end of the field.

Something else to consider when using a telephoto lens is the speed of the lens. The faster the lens, the lower the shutter speed. The shutter is what opens and closes on the camera to allow the light in, and obviously with a moving subject, the shorter the time the shutter has to be open, the better your chances of getting a clear image. It also helps if you're shooting in daylight or in a very well lit auditorium. The more light, the quicker the shutter speed you can effectively use. A high quality flash can help with this, though many sporting events bar the use of flashes, particularly when taking sports photos indoors. For shooting a baseball game played at night, a high powered flash is a necessity, and even then might not help if they are a pitcher, second baseman or in the outfield.

Finally, the longer the lens, the harder it is to keep everything from blurring, particularly in low light. This is something you'll read again and again when learning how to shoot sports photography. In most circumstances, a tripod would work fine, but not so when you have to move quickly. Instead, the mainstay of sports photographers is a monopod, basically a retractable leg which attached to the camera and helps keep it steady. You can adjust the height, and by leaning, the angle. And as they are less cumbersome than a tripod, it's much easier to get out of the way of the action when it spills off the court.

How to take sports photos: Focusing

Let's assume you've succeeded in tackling the problems of getting close to the action, and there's enough light to get the shot. How do you get your child's determined face in focus as he drives for the basket? Luckily most cameras which are good to take sports photos today come with auto focus, also known as AF, which can do a miraculous job of getting the subject in focus. Some come with multi-point AF, which is a series of markings which you can see through the viewfinder. Simply drop one of the markings on your kid's mug and the camera takes care of the rest. Others come with a simple spot AF, which means you only get one mark to focus with. Either way, make sure the mark falls on the subject, or you'll come out with a blurry child and a crisp, clear background. Some DSLR cameras also have sports or action modes, which once you focus on a subject (by depressing the shutter halfway), will continue to focus on that subject until you take the picture. Each manufacturer handles autofocusing in different ways, so it pays to consult the pros at Berger Brothers Camera to find a camera which fits your style of shooting.

There may be occasions however, when your camera's autofocus just doesn't do the trick, and you have to resort to manual focus. With moving subjects you have basically two choices. You can anticipate where the action can be, focus on that area and wait for the subjects to arrive there. In the second, you find your subject and focus on them, and continue to rotate the collar of the lens as they move, keeping the subject in focus till you click the shutter.

Keeping the subject in focus when taking sports pictures

It's a good idea to keep the background in mind when choosing a spot to shoot from. The action is on the field, not in the stands, and you want as few distractions as possible from the main subject.
Luckily, the act of capturing motion solves some of the problem, by blurring the background. You do this by using a wide aperture setting. It gets a bit confusing, as the lower the aperture number, the wider the aperture setting. So when choosing your aperture setting, you want to choose the lowest, or one step from the lowest number. This keeps the subject that you're focusing on in focus, and knocks the background out of focus. Also, the longer the lens, or the further the background is from the subject, the more out of focus the background will be. Keep in mind that the further you are from your subject, the harder it is to keep it isolated from the background.

How to take sports photos: Knowing when to shoot.

Even with the best equipment, it's important to know the sport. You can't wait till the bat hits the ball to click the shutter if you want the ball in the shot as well. You have to learn to anticipate the action, and if you have a camera that does it, fire off several shots in a couple of seconds. With digital cameras there is no cost of wasted film or developing. All you need is a few memory cards, some of which are capable of holding hundreds of shots. Carrying extras, as well as an extra, charged battery is a good idea.

Knowing the sport will also help you decide in advance if the action is going to require a horizontal or vertical angle. Focusing on the face of a batter can make for a great horizontal shot, whereas a soccer player kicking the ball down the field lends itself to a vertical treatment. When shooting basketball players, you'll notice that prior to shooting, particularly with layups or jump shots, the player will almost hang in mid-air. This allows you to get the shot with a higher shutter speed, something almost necessary due to the notoriously bad lighting conditions in gymnasiums.

Football puts more of a demand on lenses, but is one of the easiest sports to anticipate. Players typically start the action in the same positions, and it's often easy to anticipate what type of play is coming up. Try to position yourself downfield from the action, otherwise you're likely to end up shooting people's backs.

Choosing the direction of the action when taking sports pictures

Another rule of thumb is to keep negative or open space in the direction the action is going. If you're capturing the full figure of a batter, leave the frame open in the direction the ball will be going. The same for someone going up for a basket, or a running back running downfield. Always try to show the subject moving into the frame, rather than going out of it.

There are many little tricks to learning how to shoot sports photography, far too many to list here. For instance, with hockey it's good to err on the side of overexposure, as the rink is frequently dimly lit, and overexposure keeps the ice looking white. Multipoint AF with volleyball can be tricky, as one of the points are likely to focus on the ball rather than the player. Luckily many autofocus systems allow you to use or choose a single point focus to avoid this. Volleyball is also a good sport to shoot from a kneeling position, to capture players as they jump above their opponents, and also to avoid errant balls coming your way.

How to take sports photos: Knowing what to shoot

In general, people want to see faces. The intensity of sports lends itself to emotional shots, the strain or pain on a player's face for instance. This isn't true with all sports, particularly football where the features of a person's face can be hidden behind the facemask. Often the hands holding the ball, or even a tangle of players can convey the same intensity. Once again it's about knowing the sport, anticipating the action and ideally, knowing the tendencies of the players. Over time you learn what situations tend to bring out the intensity of a particular player, and can anticipate those moments. In the end it's not all about the equipment, it's more about the photographer.

Don't forget to duck!

One of the pratfalls of sports photography is that you might end up part of the action yourself. You might consider yourself lucky that you've managed to secure a spot shooting from the sidelines of a football game, till the fullback comes flying your direction. Whenever balls are being thrown, kicked or hit with a bat, there's always the chance that the ball could come your way. You might not mind a lump on the forehead, but you don't want your thousand dollar lens hit by the ball coming of someone's bat. Remember to pay attention to the action, and watch over the camera, rather than always through the viewfinder (or LCD screen).

How to take sports photos: Learn more with the experts at Berger Brothers

Talk to the expert staff at Berger Brothers Camera. They can help you with questions about the right cameras and equipment, as well as technique for taking sports pictures. Check out their selection of books and videos as well. If you're in the area, take a class with our qualified instructors, or look for seminars with sport photographers, or any branch of photography which might help you become a better photographer.

Click here to check our schedule, or call us at 1-800-542-8811 for more information. Or join our mailing list by clicking here to get updates on new digital photography classes on Long Island, seminars and photo expeditions in your inbox.

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