5 Must-Know Sports Photography Tips

Editor’s Key Takeaways: Mastering Sports Photography: Key Tips & Tricks

American football players
  • The blog post offers key tips, tricks, and techniques on sports photography for anyone struggling to take professional sports photos.
  • Here are the major points:
    • Use Aperture Priority Mode to Produce Good Exposures: This mode lets you choose an aperture and ISO, while the camera sets the shutter speed for a good exposure. Go for the lowest ISO that’s still suitable for the lighting condition and use a wide-open aperture for a beautiful background blur effect.
    • Understand the Game you’re Photographing: Predicting the action is key to great sports photography. The more you know about the game and the players, the better your chances of capturing intense, emotional moments.
    • Get Down Low for an Unusual Perspective: By lowering your shooting angle, you create a unique compression effect that can set your photos apart. Be careful not to overdo it though, as a variety of angles keeps your portfolio diverse.
    • Use a Telephoto Lens to Get Close to the Players: Lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 are the best for poor lighting conditions frequently associated with sports photography. It’s recommended to have a wide-range lens, a mid-range telephoto lens, and a super telephoto lens in your kit.
    • Use AI-Servo to Keep Players in Focus: The AF-C (also known as AI-Servo) autofocus mode is excellent for tracking subjects down as they move, ensuring sharp shots. It’s often preferred over the AF-S autofocus mode, as it enables continuous focusing.
  • The goal is to practice these techniques with the recommended settings and equipment to capture professional-grade sports photos.

Do you want some sports photography tips that will revolutionize your photos? Do you struggle to take sports photos that rival professional portfolios?

Don’t worry.

Because in this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about sports photography.

By the time you’re done, you’ll know tons of tips, tricks, and techniques for excelling as a sports photographer.

And you’ll be able to capture gorgeous sports photography, with consistency.

Let’s get started.

1. Use Aperture Priority Mode to Produce Good Exposures

If you want to capture amazing sports photography, then you need to know the required settings.

This starts with aperture priority mode.


Because Aperture Priority is the easiest way to capture photos in the thick of the action, without having to fiddle with camera dials and buttons.

You see, Aperture Priority mode allows you to select an aperture and (if you so choose) an ISO. Then your camera will select the shutter speed that will produce a nice exposure.

While your camera isn’t always great at estimating exposures, it generally does a good job. And you don’t want to be fiddling with Manual mode settings when shooting a game; instead, you want to be focused, rarely focusing on basic settings and thinking about the game itself: how it’ll change, what’s going to happen.

Now, as I explained above, Aperture Priority allows you to input the aperture and ISO, while your camera will select the shutter speed.

But what aperture and ISO make sense for sports photography?

I’d start by selecting the lowest ISO you can get away with, given the lighting conditions. If the game is very well-lit, then an ISO between 100 and 400 might be enough, especially if you’re using a fast prime lens (that is, a lens that widens all the way to f/2.8).

But if the game has very few lights to speak of, then you may need to push your ISO up to compensate.

Once you’ve chosen a base ISO – which you can always change later if things aren’t looking good – you’ll want to select an aperture.

Personally, I recommend shooting sports with a wide-open or nearly wide-open aperture. This will give a lovely background blur effect, plus it’ll also keep the exposures good, even in the darkest of areas.

So dial in your wide aperture, select your minimum ISO, and get started shooting.

Note that your camera will occasionally get the shutter speed wrong. And when this happens, you’ll need to use something called exposure compensation. This allows you to adjust your shutter speed in response to inaccurate settings. For instance, if you look at your camera LCD and see that your photo is too dark, you might decide to boost up the brightness with a bit of exposure compensation (your camera will lengthen the shutter speed to let in more light).

Cool, right?

2. Understand the Game You’re Photographing

If you don’t understand the game you’re dealing with…

…then you’ll be a poor sports photographer, guaranteed.

Because here’s the thing:

If you don’t understand the game, then how can you predict what’s about to happen before it does? And this is something that the best sports photographers excel at; they’re very skilled at keeping the game in mind, following the players, and, just before the action happens, they’ll start shooting.

Obviously, some games are more difficult to understand than others. But the more you know about a game, the better.

In fact, sometimes it makes sense to even memorize player habits. There are some players, for instance, who consistently celebrate the same way, game after game.

If you know about this celebration in advance, you can prepare for it in your sports photography.

And you can capture an emotional moment the next time the player scores!

3. Get Down Low for an Unusual Perspective

Are you looking for a sports photography tip that will really revolutionize your sports photos?

If so, then you’ve come to the right place.

You see, most sports photography is done from standing height, or chest height at the very least.

And this can look good; after all, you can capture photos that stare directly into the eyes of a player.

But if you want to create something unique…

…why not get down low?

If you use a telephoto lens and get down low to the ground, you’ll produce a stunning compression effect, one that screams professional quality!

Of course, you’ll have to make sure that no players’ feet get in the way and that there are no obstructions that prevent you from getting down low.

Now, while shooting from down low is super cool, there are times when you’ll want to lay off this option and shoot more traditional sports photos.

And that’s okay.

The best portfolios use a mix of image genres, including astrophotography, urban landscape photography, bird photography, and much more.

So don’t overdo it with the low angle. But if you see an opportunity, then I’d suggest you take it because the low angle really can work well!

Related Post: How to Become a Sports Photographer and Make Money

4. Use a Telephoto Lens to Get Close to the Players

If you’re a sports photographer, then you’ll be shooting from the sidelines in pretty much every game.

Because, with the exception of some pre-game and post-game events, photographers won’t be allowed to come trudging onto the field with their big cameras and lenses. Instead, photographers must keep their cameras and lenses off to the side, where they often use monopods or tripods to keep things stable.

So what are the best lenses for sports photography?

First and foremost, I recommend you have a mid-range telephoto zoom. Something like a 70-200mm f/4 zoom is a good place to begin, though you’ll probably want to upgrade it to an f/2.8 lens eventually.

Once you’ve got a handle on your 70-200mm lens, I’d recommend looking for longer options, such as a lens that tops out at 300mm on a crop-sensor camera. The truth is that sports players tend to be far away, especially from the areas you’re confined to on the sidelines.

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So a 300mm, or even 400mm, lens would do the job nicely, getting you up close and personal with some of the most respected players available, as well as some of their priceless moments.

You might even consider purchasing a wider lens, such as a 24-70mm f/4, because you’ll occasionally have opportunities to capture cool wide-angle images of teams celebrating.

Now, a word about maximum aperture:

The maximum aperture refers to the widest f-number a lens can handle.

So a 24-70mm f/4 lens has a maximum aperture of f/4; it can’t go wider (though it can go in the other direction, to f/5.6, f/11, f/16, etc).

Unfortunately, sports photography is often done under dark or heavily shaded conditions. That’s why you’ll need a wide maximum aperture.

An f/2.8 option should do the trick.

Sure, it costs an arm and a leg.

But if you’re serious about sports photography, then it’s probably the way to go – especially if you often find yourself in situations where you’ve got very little light to actually work with. A baseball diamond at night, a soccer stadium in the evening; neither of these options generally include powerful lighting of their own, which is why the light-gathering abilities of an f/2.8 lens are necessary.

So, to sum up:

It makes sense to have a trio of sports photography lenses:

A wide-angle lens, for unusual scenes and celebrations.

A mid-range telephoto lens, to capture full-body shots of players.

And a high-level (super) telephoto lens, which will allow for beautiful detail shots.

5. Use AI-Servo to Keep Players in Focus

Generally speaking, all modern cameras have two key autofocus modes.

First, there is AF-S autofocus, also known as One-Shot AF. When using One-Shot AF, you hold down the shutter button halfway to focus on an object. Then the focused is locked – as long you don’t let go of the shutter button, you’ll be all set to capture some amazing photos of the scene in front of you. There is no refocusing and no modifications.

And then there is Continuous autofocus, also known as AF-C. With Continuous AF, your camera will continue to search for an area of focus to acquire. Move your camera to a player on your left, and (as long as the shutter button is pressed down halfway) your camera will focus on this new subject. Move your camera to a player on your right, and the same thing will happen.

Note that while both of these autofocus types have their place, one is far better for sports photography:

AF-C autofocus.

You see, with AF-C autofocus activated, it’s possible to track a subject as they move down the field. You can get dozens of sharp shots, all capturing the same subject – as they change position, the autofocus points you have activated will follow the subject.

This is in contrast to AF-S autofocus, which is much more useful for scenarios (such as portraiture) where you might want to focus on your subject, hold down the shutter button halfway, then recompose.

So, unless you have a good reason to switch over to AF-S autofocus, stick with AF-C. It’ll allow you to capture photos that are consistently far sharper.

Sports Photography Tips: The Next Steps

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know everything you need to become a sports photography master.

You know all about the right equipment.

You know about the different settings you’ll need to use to keep your shots looking nicely exposed and sharp.

And you know how to get down low for beautifully unique sports photos.

All that’s left to do…

…is find a sports game, get out, and start shooting!

How do I take amazing sports photos?

To take amazing sports photos, you should keep a few things in mind. First, it pays to understand the game you’re photographing; if you don’t know what’s about to happen next or why players do what they do, you’ll struggle to anticipate great shots. Second, you should make sure you use the right lens. A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is a great option, because it’ll get you close to the action and will give you strong low-light shooting capabilities. Third, you’re going to need to choose the right camera settings, which includes a wide aperture, as well as continuous focusing (so you can keep moving players tack-sharp).

What is the best autofocus setting for great sports images?

I recommend using AF-C, also known as AI-Servo. This will continuously focus at your autofocus point as long as you half-press the shutter button. Note that you can combine AF-C with tracking AF area modes to follow players as they move.

What shutter speed do I need for sports photography?

If you want to capture great sports photos, you’re going to want to use the fastest shutter speed you can afford. This should at least be 1/1000s, and often much higher (1/2000s, for example) if things are really action-packed.

What lens is best for sports photography?

While it’s possible to get great sports shots with any lens, one of your primary issues is going to be accessibility–if you want stunning wide-angle shots, you’re going to need to get close to the players, and in sports, you’re often confined to the sidelines. That’s why a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens tends to be your best option; it’s good at capturing closer players (with 70mm), but can also perform well for distant scenes (at 200mm). Plus, the f/2.8 maximum aperture is perfect for sports that are played indoors or at night.

About the Author
jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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