Choosing the Right Camera Gear and Settings for Sports Photography

A skateboarder wearing a red beanie and sweatshirt performing a trick in a skatepark bowl at dusk under artificial lights.
Commissioned Work: Skater Thiago Barella
Gear: Sony a9 III + FE 14mm F1.8 GM
1/80000, f/2, ISO 2500

When I made the decision that I wanted to learn photography back in 2001, I got a Nikon FM3a analog camera and went ahead and booked a course in a respected photography institution in my hometown. However, half a year passed and for different reasons the starting date of this course kept changing and getting delayed, so I ended up requesting a refund and used the money to shoot rolls of film of anything and everything I could find during my day. 

A few months later, when I was able to consistently capture well-exposed and in-focus images, I discovered that taking pictures of my skateboarding friends and colleagues suddenly catapulted my progress. I started to see beyond the correct exposure and focus and pay more attention to timing and compositions/shapes. Then eventually on conceptual ideas. Constant practice, experimentation, and dedication allowed me to evolve and I began to receive support and trust from friends, clients, and brands. 

A skateboarder performs a trick in the air above a ramp installed on a bridge, with ornate street lamps and cars driving on the roadway below, captured in black and white.
Conceptual Work: Skater Lajos Petranyi
Gear: Nikon D810 + 50mm F1.4 GM
1/640, f/5.6, ISO 100

Today I continue to evolve, practice, and learn. What’s different is the amount of collected experience, rewards, and acknowledgment that allow me to work with a number of top brands like Red Bull, Sony, Peli, Maxima LED, and many others outside the photography industry.

Competitors race up steep wooden planks at the Red Bull 400, with one athlete in the foreground wearing a headband and sunglasses leading the ascent.
Commissioned Work: Red Bull 400 at Bergisel in Innsbruck, Austria
Gear: Sony a1 + FE 35mm F1.4 GM
1/5000, f/1.8, ISO 100

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Cameras for Different Types of Shooting

Through my years of experience, I have learned that selecting a camera is an investment in your system. But choosing a camera isn’t always easy or straightforward. Having some foresight into the future – knowing what type of sports photography you want to shoot and the look and style you want to portray – will help since, usually, once you decide which camera to buy it will limit the type of lenses you can use.

For press and event photography, fast workflow essentials include great autofocus speed, low-light ISO sensitivity, fast continuous shooting, and connectivity options. Knowing this helped me choose the Nikon D3 some years ago, as at that time it was one of the fastest cameras with great ISO sensitivity and quick autofocus.

A black and white photo capturing a skateboarder mid-jump over a bench where a seated man wearing sunglasses is expressionlessly looking up at the skateboarder, with a small dog on a leash sitting between the man's legs.
Conceptual Work: Skater Armando Rodriguez in action and Juan Carlos Gerbasi with his dog Custo
Gear: Nikon D3 + 50mm F1.4 GM
1/400, f/2.8, ISO 1000

Nowadays, I go directly to a camera like the Sony a1 or the newly released Sony a9 III. In my opinion, at the moment, there’s nothing better than the a9 III in terms of speed and versatility for most sports photography scenarios.

Sony Alpha 9 III Mirrorless Camera with World's First Full-Frame 24.6MP Global Shutter System and 120fps Blackout-Free Continuous Shooting
Sony Alpha 9 III Mirrorless Camera with World’s First Full-Frame 24.6MP Global Shutter System and 120fps Blackout-Free Continuous Shooting (Image from Amazon)

For event and action photographers who need to be quick, it makes life so much easier as it offers up to 120 frames per second continuous shooting and the incredible new function of “Pre-Capture” which gives you the option to continuously record and delete frames on the go while you are half-pressing the shutter button, and only saving a full second of continuous frames prior to the instant you fully press the shutter. It’s like going back in time up to one second because the camera saves a full second of continuous images before you take your first shot. (The perfect moment is literally guaranteed!)

A snowboarder performing a high jump off a snowy ramp against a clear blue sky, with sunlight creating a silhouette effect from behind the ramp.
Commissioned Work: Snowboarder Seppe Smits
Gear: Sony a9 III + FE 14mm F1.8 GM
1/80000, f/4, ISO 1250 with synced off-camera flash

Commercial work demands top-notch image quality, often favoring high megapixels. Some years back, I went ahead and invested in the Nikon D850 which allowed me to deliver all the color information on big files. But today, my top pick is the Sony a1.

Sony Alpha 1 Full-frame Interchangeable Lens Mirrorless Camera
Sony Alpha 1 Full-frame Interchangeable Lens Mirrorless Camera (Image from Amazon)

This flagship camera can handle big and rich files with fast processing, great detail quality, and safety features like the ability to record to two memory cards simultaneously for backup right on camera.

A black Porsche with "Porsche Design" written on the side is speeding across a snowy landscape with motion blur in the background, highlighting the car's movement.
Commissioned Work
Gear: Nikon D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
1/60, f/11, ISO 160

In my personal work, I have more freedom to express myself artistically so I often go for compact setups like the Ricoh GR III or even analog film cameras like the Nikon FM3a, as well as medium-format cameras like Hasselblad or the Fujifilm GFX100 II with a 102MP sensor and relatively fast workflows for a medium-format camera.

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Lens Considerations: Versatility and Specialization

Lens selection in sports photography is a balancing act between versatility and specialization, catering to the diverse demands of different sporting events and shooting conditions. For beginners dipping their toes into sports photography, kit lenses offer an accessible starting point. However, as experience grows, investing in higher-quality lenses becomes advisable to elevate the quality of your shots from the outset.

Groups of people participating in a stand-up paddleboarding event on a misty body of water with forested hills in the background.
Commissioned Work
Gear: Nikon D810 + Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports
1/1250, f/5, ISO 640

Whether you’re aiming to freeze the thrill of the game or unveil the intricate details of athletic prowess, understanding these lens considerations will empower you to craft captivating visual narratives in the world of sports photography:

  • Kit Lenses: A budget option for beginners, allowing exploration of various focal lengths. With my first DSLR, the Nikon D200, I had the 18-70mm kit lens and it helped me get used to a digital workflow. I would, however, recommend investing in better quality lenses whenever possible.
  • Intermediate Zoom Lenses: Affordable, offering versatility with decent quality. I have tried a range of zoom lenses and I can see their use in compact setups for minimum weight scenarios.
A man performs a one-hand handstand on a concrete block with a tall glass building in the background, creating a dramatic urban scene with a clear sky.
Conceptual Work: Dancer Moritz
Gear: Nikon D810 + AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
1/8000, f/4, ISO 80 with synced flash
  • Professional Zoom Lenses: Top-notch quality with wide apertures, ideal for professional work on events and scenarios where you need to be compact about your setup, meaning maybe only one camera and one lens or ideally two camera bodies with a lens each, allowing you to cover a variety of scenarios without the need to go to your bag and change a lens, potentially missing important moments. My favorite type of lenses are the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8 – the perfect combination for event photography.

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I recommend the Nikon and the Sony versions since these are the ones I have more experience with and they offer top-quality optics and speedy performances.

Skier Patrick Ausweger performing a mid-air trick against a clear blue sky, above a large snow jump with groomed tracks on the slope below.
Commissioned Work: Skier Patrick Ausweger
Gear: Sony a9 III + FE 24mm F1.4 GM
1/51000, f/4, ISO 1000 with synced off-camera flash
  • Professional Prime Lenses: At the moment, these premium lenses are my go-to and they always offer unmatched sharpness, the fastest autofocus response, and overall top image quality, which always translates to less time in post-production. My favorite prime lenses are the Sony G-Master Series 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, and the 135mm f/1.4.
A skateboarder in mid-air performing a trick inside a modern building with large columns and expansive windows, cast in high-contrast black and white.
Personal Work: Skater Felix
Gear: Sony a1 + FE 135mm F1.4 GM
1/1600, f/5.6, ISO 640
  • Specialized Lenses: Super telephoto, tilt-shift, fisheye, and macro lenses each serve specific creative purposes. I use them mostly for commercial and artistic work since there are very few times I need them when shooting sports.
A skateboarder performs a trick at the edge of a skate park ramp, holding the tip of the board with one hand, while dressed in casual attire with a clear sky overhead.
Conceptual Work: Skater Thiago Barella
Gear: Sony a1 + AF-S Fisheye NIKKOR 8-15mm 3.5-4.5E ED
1/2000, f: no data, ISO 250 with synced off-camera flash

Lighting Equipment and Modifiers 

Mastering lighting is essential to capturing the essence of athleticism with precision and artistry. From harnessing available light with small strobes to orchestrating elaborate setups with a range of lights and modifiers, the possibilities are as diverse as the sporting events themselves.

Here are the lighting equipment and modifiers I use for my sports photography, and a few techniques to illuminate the action across editorial/documentary and commercial/artistic realms:


For these scenarios, I normally try to utilize available light, supplemented by small strobes or bounce reflectors for fast and effective workflows. I would definitely recommend the Profoto A10.

Black and white image of a female dancer performing a backbend with one leg raised high, casting a shadow on the wall behind her.
Commissioned Work: Dancer Lucie Horna
Gear: Sony a1 + FE 35mm F1.4 GM
1/200, f/4.5, ISO 400
Using one Maxima 3 continuous light with a Fresnel lens as the main light source

Commercial and Artistic

Here I have the luxury to opt for a range of lights and modifiers based on the specific needs of the project. In most cases, I like to achieve either a very natural look where the viewer does not necessarily realize the use of artificial light or, in contrast, I make it rather obvious so that the purpose of the light setup becomes a subject and brings a specific look to the scene. 

For commercial and artistic projects, I start my setups with Profoto’s B10 and add from there as needed, using strobe and/or continuous lighting setups:

  • Strobe Lights: Essential for crisp, high-quality images with fast sync capabilities. My go-to is the Profoto B10, as mentioned, which is compact and powerful, especially now with cameras like the Sony a9 III which allows me to use the power of the light at its maximum efficiency thanks to the global shutter and the manual settings of flash sync. (Hyper-sync is a thing of the past with this camera!)
Will Claye in black shorts, a red cap, and running shoes jumping exuberantly with one arm stretched upward inside an indoor gym with weight training equipment in the background.
Commissioned Work: Athlete Will Claye
Gear: Nikon D850 + Sigma 105mm f/1.4
1/80, f/4, ISO 400 with synced flash
  • Continuous Lights: Provide a more understandable workflow for everyone involved since the lighting effect of the setup is visible at all times. It can also help contribute to a seamless blend between photo and video. At the moment, I am using Maxima LED lights, as their innovative heating control design makes them superior in color quality and power efficiency. Also, the options to use my Profoto modifiers just make my workflow more logical.
Two people in a modern glass-roofed building, with one person balancing upside down on their head and another person squatting with arms crossed, both smiling at the camera.
Commissioned Work: Dancers B-Boy Sunni & B-Girl Nicka
Gear: Sony A1 + FE 14mm F1.8 GM
1/1000, f/5, ISO 1600
Using one Maxima 3 continuous light with a Fresnel lens as the main light source
  • Modifiers: From basic bouncers to professional softboxes, you can shape and control light for the desired mood. My favorites for sports photography are the Profoto Magnum reflectors which enhance the power of the light and help give a bit of direction.

Camera Settings for Different Styles 

  • Editorial/Documentary: Most of the time I shoot in Manual mode, but from time to time I take advantage of automatic modes like Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority if I find myself in a rush and with variable light conditions. For example, I can set Aperture Priority, locking the aperture at let’s say f/2.8 and ISO 1250 so I can ensure the speed won’t be automatically reduced too much in shadowed areas and keep subjects sharp enough. (These settings are only an example and it will entirely depend on the specific conditions on set.)
  • Commercial: In most cases in commercial photography, I want to show the subject/product with sharper details so I would close my aperture, not wider than f/5.6, and use artificial light to keep a low ISO for the best quality.
  • Artistic: Depending on your creative vision, you have the freedom to choose from closed apertures to slow shutter speeds. Here is one of my favorite artistic sports images, where continuous light with colored gels, a strobe light in rear mode, and a slow shutter speed helped create this final look:  
A skateboarder performs a trick on a concrete ledge at night with a blue light trail flowing from his arm, creating a dynamic sense of motion, in an urban skatepark setting.
Conceptual Work: Skater “Wade”
Gear: Nikon D810 + AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
Bulb, f/2.8, ISO 80

Purpose-Driven Sports and Action Photography 

I personally feel that one of the most important things in photography and in life is to have purpose. This is what, in my opinion, professional sports photographers should prioritize in order to improve as artists and/or service providers. The goal of an image should be to communicate a message and/or feeling in alignment with the client, leaving the artistic vision in second position when needed.

If you are a sports event photographer, the goal is to document happenings in the most natural and authentic way possible, telling the viewers a story of what happened during the event.

As an example, if you are covering events and your client is one of the sponsors, there will usually be additional aspects to be respected and included in order to tell the story from a perspective that better combines the action and the values of the brand, meaning your client. There might be a rule or request to include vertical framed images, or it is welcomed to include artistic ideas, then your goals go beyond the raw documentation.

A person appears frozen in an unusual pose while fixing a bicycle against a concrete wall, with another person running past in a blur, showcasing movement.
Conceptual Work: Biker Viki Gomez and Dancer Moritz
Gear: Nikon D810 + AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
1/5, f/9, ISO 64

Once the purpose of the photographer in relation to a shoot is clear, it’s time to decide on gear and settings to be implemented. Remember that cameras are tools and settings are part of techniques to achieve end results.

“Free time” is the best friend of the curious photographer. It allows you to experiment and learn new techniques and recreate or adapt concepts from other photographers or simply from any other field of creativity. 

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About the Author
Leo Rosas in a cap and sunglasses with illuminated white lenses, partially lit by blue and red neon lights on each side of his face against a dark background.

Leo Rosas is a professional sports and event photographer who enjoys observing, learning, and creating. Influenced by urban sports and specialized in editorial and commercial photography, he loves to be inspired by all artistic fields, imagine scenarios, and compose images for both personal and commissioned works. You can follow him on Instagram
@leorosasphoto or visit his website for more info.

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