Sports photography tips

Published on 05 June 2020

6 tips on Sports photography to help you nail your action shots flawlessly

Sports photography tips

Team Russia competed in Team Free event of Artistic swimming during Fina World Championship (Gwangju) 2019. I used AF-C 9 points focus directly onto the artistic swimmer.

Common issues in focusing techniques

I hope to share some useful tips to help people understand their camera auto focus system more in order to nail action shots perfectly. It’s been a common issue that people failed to understand their camera gears and it’s capability. Thinking that buying expensive camera gears will produce wonderful photos just isn’t going to make the cut. Do you encounter this frustration that your photos just isn’t as sharp as you wish they are?

Sports photography tips

Ooi Tze Liang from Malaysia competed for Men’s 3m springboard diving during Sea Games 2019 in Philippines. I used Group focus to track the movement of the diver while he jump off the springboard and start doing his routine.

Such focusing problem didn’t magnify until you start to shoot action shots, pushing your camera at its full potential. Athletes zooming past your eyes in that spilt second and you just fire off your camera all the way. When you review all the shots you captured, they are not just 100% in focus with slight blur. Now you wonder how do those sports photographers nail their action shots so flawlessly.

Sports photography tips

Team Great Britain competed in Men’s 10m Synchro Platform final swimming during Fina World Championship (Gwangju) 2019. I used Group focus to assist me on the tracking on the subject of the front diver.

Camera auto focus system

Most of the DSLR or mirrorless camera should have these 2 auto focus options called Continuous Servo AF (AF-C) and single area AF (AF-S). For Sports photography, we would just stick to AF-C selection. AF-C focus is designed for your camera to track actions with your subject while you press your half focus button or the back focus button.

I’ll be doing an explanation of the auto focus system using Nikon camera as example. Other brands will have similar functions but might be named differently.

  • Single point AF – Camera only focus on the single selected point and will only reacquire focus again if your subject move. This is useful when you need to track very precise area of your subject.

  • Dynamic-area AF (9points, 25points, etc) – The camera focus on the point where you acquire the focus on your subject and the extra surrounding point of the autofocus help to maintain its focus if your subject move out of the center point. The option for area of the dynamic-area range will depends on what your camera offer. This will be useful for Sports action that have a lot of movement up and down the field. Extra dynamic range area helps to track your subject better.

Sports photography tips

Milak Kristof from Hungary racing side by side with Chad Le Clos from South Africa at Men’s 100m Butterfly during Fina World Championship (Gwangju) 2019. I used dynamic-area of 9 points to help me accurately nail focus at the back instead of swimmer in the front. 

  • 3D tracking – Camera will acquire the focus to your subject and continue to track the movement of your subject in all the available focus points in the system. This is useful for non-contact sport subject to track their movement. It could also be very challenging for sports like rugby where too many players are cluster together. This option will need to be evaluate according to the sport you are shooting.

  • Group-Area focus – Camera uses the assigned group points to acquire the focus of your subject and focus to the nearest area from the camera. For example in basketball, if the player is holding on to the basketball blocking his face, camera will focus on the ball instead of his face. This is useful for non contact sports and could be challenging for contact sports tracking. If any player enter the frame of your focusing point during the action, your camera might focus away if the other player is closer to you than your intended subject.

  • Auto-area AF – Camera auto detect your subject and select the focus point for you to track. Priority of this focus mode will be any subject face detected. This mode can be very challenging for contact sports where players cluster together. The camera might not be able to focus on your intended subject.

Quah Ting Wen from Singapore competed in Women’s 100m Freestyle Heats during Sea Games 2019 in Philippines. This was an underwater setup mounted during the competition. With both AF-C single points and AF-on only setting, I set my camera to lock on to an area to I already pre-focus on when I trigger my camera remotely, it does not re-focus again when I press the trigger.

Benefits of AF-on button

Doesn’t matter whether it is shooting for sports or other photography genres, AF-on setting improve the way you lock focus to your subject to be a better photographer. 

When the AF-on button is hit, your camera will lock focus on to your subject until shutter button is press. This also enable extra time for you to lock on to your subject without firing off your camera or accidentically fire off unnesscary frames.

AF-on button also act as a pre-focus button to initiate the focus and locked it like manual focus when the button is not hit again. This is extremely useful if you know your subject is at that spot and not going to move, you can fire shutter right away without your camera refocus again when you press the shutter button.

Sports photography tips

Water polo player from Hungary competed against Italy during Fina World Championship (Gwangju) 2019. I used 3D tracking to track the player face. The camera was able to continue to track the action with the player even when water covered the face at times.

Fast shutter speed isn’t everything

Shutter speed determine how long the shutter of your camera remains open to capture your subject. Theoretically if my subject is moving fast as long as the shutter speed is set to fast such as 1/1600, 1/2500 or even 1/3200 shutter speed, you should be able to freeze the action right? Answer is partially right, you might freeze the action but your subject is not 100% in focus.

Having fast shutter such as 1/1250 does help to an extend of freezing the subject to prevent motion blur. More importantly to be able to use the right auto focus mode to acquire the focus correctly so that you can freeze your subject in sharp images. 

Sports photography tips

Caeleb Dressel from USA breaking out of water on his Men’s 100m Butterfly event during Fina World Championship (Gwangju) 2019. I used AF-C 9points to track the swimmer as they are breaking out the water.

High frame rate

Have you heard of spray and pray? This is a term to describe people who fire off many shots on their camera and hoping to have some good keeper shots out of the many frames shot.

Can you imagine if your camera didn’t lock focus properly to your subject, you will end up with tons of out of focus images when you are done. Worse still, your memory card get fill up half way through the games. Thinking of the amount of photos to go through to select those few keepers after you got home will be a nightmare. 

Generally I only fire 2-3shots for each frame of action. Owning a camera with 12fps or even 20fps doesn’t matter you have to fire it like a machine gun. It will only cause your camera buffer to fill up fast and slow down your camera and taking up unnecessary space in your memory card and hard disk space. 

This was a track cyclist from China who competed in her sprint event during Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta. I used Auto-focus area (AFA) to track the cyclist dashing towards my direction because the background was clean and AFA is able to track her without any problem.

Subject moving direction

When tracking subject towards your direction in frontal view, it is challenging for even the flagship camera of any brand. The closer the subject is to you and the faster they move, it slightly harder for the camera to maintain its focus. This doesn’t mean your camera can’t track any frontal view direction at all, keeper rate just might be lower than tracking subject moving in side direction.

Subject moving from side to side direction eg.(left to right), this is generally easier for camera to continue track movement and lock focus as the focus distance plane is about the same. The keeper rate of your photos should be much higher.

Sports photography tips

This was an aerobatic team from China Bayi performed during Singapore Airshow 2020. I used AF-C 72 points to effective track the movement of the jet. As I handheld my setup most of the time upwards into the sky, having slightly more focus points help to lock focus onto the jet even I might have slight shake of movement of the camera due to muscle fatigue. 

Learning from mistake

Reading up article and learning new tricks and tips are always great, I enjoyed doing that. All these are just in theory, what’s more important is you reviewing your own images and learn from there. When you review your images, you try to study whether does those camera setting you used help you to achieve your goals. If not you can try another setting again for the next shoot. So there will be a lot of trial and errors what works for you and the sports you are shooting and what’s not.

Overall if in doubt, just start with AF-C 9 points this mode has never failed me in most of the shooting conditions that I’m in. Happy shooting! 

Sports photography tips

This was Pablo Toribio, international MX championship who competed in Motorcross beach race 2018 at Singapore Sentosa. This shot was captured with AF-C 9-point. As you can see, my primary focus option always remains as 9-point and is supplemented by other type of focusing options to assist me even further.

Author: Andy Chua

Andy is a professional photographer based in Singapore. His portfolio is 70% sports, and he has covered both local and overseas international meets. His sports work also won several awards in IPA over the years and has been published in different platforms. In addition to sports, he also shoots underwater photography, automotive, products, interior, etc.