How to best capture action sports

Photographing fast-paced, action sport is an exciting and dynamic field in photography that allows one to create truly one off, dramatic images. Capturing action sports requires a unique blend of anticipation, creativity, dedication, technical knowledge and an understanding of the sport being shot. Timing is also essential along with sometimes a bit of luck. Practice and preparation is essential though to ensure that you get the shot you are after more often than not.

Understand The Camera

 In most cases, you are going to want to ‘freeze’ the action unfolding in front of you. This will require a fast shutter speed. Depending on the sport, this is going to vary but I would suggest 1/1000 is a good starting point.

Fast shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000 ensure that you can capture action to make fast moving action appear as if it were ‘frozen in time’.

Using such a fast shutter speed presents challenges, especially when shooting night games or at indoor stadiums where the light is often dim. As a professional sports shooter, I usually have access to rig lighting in hockey, basketball and other indoor arenas where the flash comes from above so it doesn’t blind the players and gives me some additional light to work with. However, you probably won’t be as fortunate and will need to use other techniques. Even if you open up your aperture as big as your lens allows (a favourite amongst sport photographers because it allows for greater depth of field and helps the subject pop), you may still not get enough light. Therefore, you will have to push up your ISO in order to achieve the correct exposure. With today’s really high-end cameras this is not a problem; they can go to insanely high levels (unthinkable even a few years ago) and create minimal, if any noise. However, I would suggest a sensible ISO with most camera models is around ISO1600. This should allow you to shoot at a fast enough shutter speed to capture the action and achieve a correctly exposed shot.

Shooting indoors requires the ISO to be pushed up in order to be able to maintain a fast enough shutter speed as with this photograph where I could freeze incredibly fast ice hockey action

Using slower shutter speeds can also produce interesting and often more creative results when shooting action. Again, there is no hard rule on what this shutter speed should be. However, for example slowing it down substantially to 1/50-1/100 and panning with your subject can introduce energy, dynamism and life into your action shots; if done correctly the subject will be in focus whilst the background which will instill the photo with a sense of movement.

Getting creative with shutter speeds can make your action shots stand out and provide a sense of energy and movement

Furthermore, when shooting sport you will want to be extremely familiar with your camera and other gear. This is because things happen incredibly fast and you will often only have a split-second to react and change a focus or exposure setting for example. The more prepared you are and the better you know your gear, the better photographs you’ll end up taking.

Know your sport

Whatever sport you are shooting it is vital to understand and know the sport. The more knowledge you have on the game, the more likely you are going to be able to anticipate where an athlete is going to move and pre-empt where to point your camera to get the ‘hero’ shot. It takes practice to become instinctive; the more that you photograph a particular sport, the more you will understand where to get the best shot from. For example, if you aspire to eventually be shooting pro NFL football for Sports Illustrated, I would encourage you to start by shooting high school games to help you get a feel for the movement of plays, build your confidence and help you understand better where you need to be positioned. This is true for any sport.

I am a big fan of football/soccer and started by photographing high school and college games. This essential practice helped eventually take me all the way to photographing World Cups.

You will want your camera in high drive mode to ensure you can shoot at a high frame rate. However, be wary and don’t just hold down the shutter the entire time. Not only will you burn through your memory card and not give it enough time to write but, you will also pay less attention to composition, framing and actually thinking about ‘making’ the shot. I tend to therefore shoot in shorter bursts meaning that I am constantly planning in my head how I can create each photograph make it aesthetically pleasing. Compositionally, I favour as clean a background as possible, especially when shooting a specific athlete and I also like to often leave room within my frame for a player to move into. I think this adds more movement and helps the photo flow. Further, I also like to shoot players from low as it makes them appear more powerful and imposing.

In this photograph, the athletes have a more imposing and towering presence as I have shot them whilst lying on the ground.

Keep your eye on the game

 As you will often be shooting at a continuous high frame rate and often engrossed in the action, it’s tempting to take your eye away from the viewfinder and check your LCD, especially if you think you’ve just got a killer shot or take a moment out to watch the sport. However, the action is still unfolding all around you and there’s plenty of time to check images when you’re back in front of the computer. Not only are you risking missing a key moment, which you can’t ask the athletes to repeat, but also you may get hurt. You’ve always got to be prepared to duck or move suddenly out the way especially if you’re on the sidelines as a footballer, basketball player etc. may come hurtling towards you at full speed.

Don’t always go tight

Many people think the only type of action photography is close ups of athletes, players, cars etc. These do often make the most powerful sporting photos especially if you capture the raw emotion on someone’s face.

Capturing a player’s raw emotion on their face during the action can help viewers connect with the photograph.

However, when photographing a sporting even there is so much more always going; it’s important to fully tell the story of the event and not forger the surroundings. Don’t be afraid to use a wider lens to capture the full stadium, fans, events happening before the actual game starts and always try experimenting with different angles, perspectives and techniques if you have the freedom to move around.  Personally, I’m a big fan of capturing unique perspectives in the form of panoramas of stadiums and arenas and have been fortunate to do so at many major sporting events including Olympics and World Cups.

Always look for different perspectives and angles. Here’s a panorama of the largest stadium in America, the University of Michigan’s Big House during a college football game.
Adam JacobsOther articles by author

Adam Jacobs is an exciting and innovative photographer whose eclectic portfolio has attracted considerable commercial attention. Adam has extensive experience working in both the editorial and commercial worlds and specializes in shooting dynamic panoramas, architecture, travel, interiors and sports. Adam has photographed collegiate and professional sporting events across the globe including the London 2012 Olympics and World Cup Finals. He is also adept at candid portraiturehaving captured well-known figures including Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Andy Murray and Mick Jagger on commissioned assignments.

Adam is represented worldwide by Getty Global Assignments and is also an ambassador for Manfrotto and Gitzo worldwide.

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