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Starting sports photography with your Nikon

Steve Johnson (reuben)

Keywords: sports, photography, photographic, disciplines, guides, tips

Show pages (4 Pages)

First Tips

Successful sports photography can be achieved with basic point and shoot cameras, but the most reliable results will consistently come from single lens reflex (SLR) cameras.

Single lens reflex cameras generally cost more, but provide you with more control over the settings, allowing you to be more effective in shooting sports. That flexibility is crucial in helping you cope with the challenges of sports and action photography. You will see that as we progress in this tutorial. Many of the desired options discussed will be found predominantly in single lens reflex cameras. However, if you are going to "tackle" the subject with a point and shoot, you will also find a few handy pointers here.


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Know your subject

So – you want to take pictures of your kids playing sports. How old are they? How big are they? How fast are they? Is it a fast sport, or something slower like baseball? Are they on the field with a bunch of other kids in a relatively small area (American football), or more spread out and isolated (baseball)?

If your players are small, you may have to kneel to get down to their eye level. If you don't you may find that you've taken rather silly shots of the tops of their heads, especially when they're close. Wildlife photographers generally use the same mantra – get up or down to their eye level.


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There is a built in bonus in shooting the smaller players. To get to their eye level you can assume a seated position, which provides added steadiness to your grip on the camera and lens.


Taking good pictures

Advanced amateurs with SLR's will have plenty of features available, both in their cameras and their lenses. At the end of this article I will go into detail on some of those features, and I strongly suggest you dig up your manuals to follow along.




It may be painful at first, but I would suggest not using the program (also known as fully automatic) modes. If you have shutter or aperture priority modes, I would suggest learning how they work in general, and how to use them when shooting various types of subjects. Consider this to be much like learning to drive a standard shift car before taking advantage of an automatic transmission.

Shutter priority means that you pick the shutter speed and let the camera figure out what aperture it should use. Aperture priority is the converse – you pick the aperture and let the camera pick the shutter speed.

I tend to use Aperture priority, but lots of folks use shutter priority. Whatever works for you is OK.


Apertures like f/2.8 and f/4 will not only result in faster shutter speeds, but will isolate your subject from the rest of the objects in the picture due to their shallower depth of field. But you'll have to keep an eye on the shutter speed.

For small kids 1/125s or 1/250s may be fine. For larger, faster kids, and faster athletes in general, 1/250 is often the absolute minimum, and 1/500 is great if you can get it. If you can get 1/1000 you'll freeze them like stone.

Freezing them like a stone will only be achieved if you're smoothly panning (following their side to side movement) as you track them across the field, court, pool, etc.

Avoid sudden movements. Our article on handholding technique may be helpful.


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If your camera is capable, I'd suggest these settings:

• Continuous servo autofocus
• Lock the center focus sensor
• Center-weighted metering
• Aperture priority (usually wide open)
• Possibly some negative exposure value (EV) to avoid blowing out white jerseys. Hopefully not more than -1.0.


1. If you're outdoors try to position yourself so that you're between the sun (or brightest stadium lights) and your subject. This will illuminate them better. You can get some interesting rim light early and late in the day if the sun is behind them, especially around their hair (if they're not wearing some sort of helmet or mask), but their faces will be in shadow. We humans tend to identify people by their faces, and sports photography is no exception. When the sun is behind them beware of flare.


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2. Also for outdoor sports, if you're shooting near sunset note which parts of the field are sunlit the longest. You'll get higher shutter speeds, and generally better shots in these areas. Once the sun goes down and you're under stadium lights all bets are off.

3. Avoid overexposing light areas. This often happens when one of the teams has white jerseys, especially during the day. Even worse, some are made from fabrics which are not only white, but shiny as well. In order to avoid this you can dial in some negative exposure value (EV) compensation. Any more than about -1.0 can often result in dark areas that are too dark. Use what you need, but no more.

4. Dialing in negative EV is also a way to keep your shutter speed sufficiently high when shooting at night or in insufficiently lit arenas. But this has a downside – the dark area may be severely underexposed, and you'll get more grain/noise. You can try to add back some light by various means regardless of whether you're shooting film or digital, but you can never really regain lost light. There are lots of tricks to overcome this, but that's an article in itself.


5. If it's a sport you're unfamiliar with, practice before the big day. Where are the good places to stand? How does the game ebb and flow? Where does a lot of the action take place? What unique shots can you try to get? How can you anticipate when something interesting or spectacular is about to happen? If there's a long break in the action like halftime think about what you saw in the first half so you can try to do better in the second half. What did you see that you didn't anticipate? What key events kept recurring? Where did they occur?  

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6. If it's a venue you're unfamiliar with, again, try to practice there beforehand. If it's outdoors what is the light like at that time of day? Where are the shadows? Does the field slope up or downhill? If it's indoors what is the lighting like? Can you use a flash (ask the athletic director, event coordinator, coaches, league officials, etc.). Strobes may be allowed, but again, check in advance with the appropriate people. If you use flash or strobes and they're not allowed, they may not allow you back. Is there a glare from the floor or the water?

7. If you can, get down on the field (or court, or poolside, or whatever), on the sideline. At many events you may not be allowed to do this, but if you can it will help you get better shots. On the other hand I've been to events where special passes were supposedly mandatory, but all sorts of people were wandering the sidelines. Again, plan ahead. If not a week before or a day before, at least check with the appropriate personnel when you arrive. Most coaches administrators and officials are relatively easy to get along with if you talk to them before the event starts, but there are exceptions.

8. If you have to stay in the stands try to get a seat down low. Aerial shots aren't usually very attractive, but like all rules in photography, there are exceptions.



9. If the athletes are small, get down low. Down on your knees. Kneepads can help. The ones with the hard plastic are better than the ones that are entirely soft. You can often find them in hardware stores. Vinyl, tile, and carpet installers often wear them, as well as masons. Or just sit on the ground.

10. Consider a monopod. It will be better than handholding and will allow a lot more mobility than a tripod. I hated it when I first tried it, but now I can't do without it. If you have a lightweight tripod, don't forget you can turn it into a monopod by merely shortening two of its legs. As with everything, practice is the key.

11. You will soon find the best action shots often come when the subjects are moving towards you, instead of from side to side, but, beware of large bodies moving toward you in a rapid fashion. Looking through a camera and lens you don't always realize how close or far someone really is from you, or how fast they're moving. Don't get hurt.

12. Don't disrupt the game. Be courteous and polite to the players, coaches, referees, athletic directors, and security personnel. Stay out of their way. Some are control freaks determined to prove how much power they have over four year old kids and photographers, while others are happy-go-lucky and a joy to work with. Either way, they set the parameters, and you're privileged if they allow you on the sideline. It only takes a second to get a bad reputation, and they'll remember you for a long time. If you act like a courteous professional you may be treated like one. In the course of a long season, you will make major points with these officials if you show up at subsequent games bearing a few free shots of them in action.


13. Don't be afraid to take a tight shot. Sometimes it's nice to have a rather wide view to put everything in context, but tight shots can really concentrate on the action, not to mention show their facial expression more clearly. I've taken some shots that contain nothing but the head. Of course you can't tell exactly what they're doing, but you can see the intensity, concentration, and effort.  

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14. Pay attention to the background. Especially at outdoor events you may have a large wooded area on one side of the field and the stands on the other. The trees will generally provide a much more pleasant and uniform background. Stands, especially metal ones, can be very bright and distractive during the day. Don't forget about positioning yourself between the players and the sun, however.

15. Don't just "spray and pray", taking hundreds of pictures, hoping for a few good ones. Anticipate the action. Be ready. Have your finger on the shutter. Concentrate on the game, the action. Don't let yourself be distracted. Practice.

16. Experiment. Don't be afraid to try something, even if everyone tells you it's wrong. They're your pictures of your kids, so you get to make the final decision.


You don't need the ultra fast million shots a second ultramegapixel digital camera and a long, gigantic, fast lens to take good pictures. You need:


1. Light
2. Knowledge of your equipment
3. Knowledge of your subject
4. Good technique


And, well, a little more light wouldn't hurt, either

What if ...

1. "…my shots are too dark?" You'll need to bump up the ISO, use longer shutter speeds, or apply some positive EV compensation. Perhaps a combination of the three. If you're already using a fast lens then you're just at the mercy of the lighting conditions. Strobes can be a big help, and they generally won't disrupt the event. Flash can help if it's strong enough, you're close enough, and it's allowed. Don't forget to ask before using flash. Various techniques can be applied in post processing, both with film and digital.


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2. "…my shots are too light?" Dial in some EV compensation. As previously mentioned, this can be caused by white jerseys. Big blobs of pure white aren't very pretty. Bright, cluttered backgrounds don't help either, but you can't always do anything about it.

3. "...my shots are all blurry?" There are three causes of blur:


• Camera movement

• Improper focus

• Insufficient shutter speed


Is your shutter speed too slow? Are you smoothly and accurately panning with the action? Are your hands shaking? Did you drink too much coffee? Are you shaking from the cold? Are you practicing good handheld technique? Have you tried a monopod?




4. "…none of my shots look as good as the ones in the sports forum?" Ask questions. No one started out taking great pictures. If you're a silver member or above you can post images (in accordance with the Terms of Use) and get advice. We all have tricks we use in certain situations, but they often apply to specific situations, and there's often more than one way to accomplish your goal.


OK. Go out there and take some shots. Let us know how it goes.


Technical Background

Now, as promised, here's some background that may be of help to our SLR users who want to take advantage of their wide assortment of available features:

As with all photography, there are three things that can greatly help the quality of your photos:

1. Light

2. Knowledge of your subject

3. Knowledge of your camera and lens(es)





More light means three things, all of which are good when shooting fast moving objects:

1. Your camera/lens combination can focus faster
2. You can use faster shutter speeds to freeze the action
3. You can use shallower depth of field to isolate your subject


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Less light means three things, all of which are bad:

1. Your camera/lens combination will take longer to focus

2. You may have to use slower shutter speeds

3. You just plain might not have enough light to get good pictures


In order to continue, I'm going to have to digress at this point into a discussion of aperture.



The lens apertures (referred to as f-stops) are the result of dividing the focal length over the actual diameter of the lens aperture, therefore a useful reference to the amount of light hitting your film or image sensor. Newcomers to photography will find some confusion when they realize that "better" lenses have "lower" f numbers. As long as we're talking sports, let's just compare this to the game of golf. The winner is the golfer who posts the lowest score.

You will often hear lenses referred to as "fast" or "slow." So-called "fast lenses" have apertures like f/2 and f/2.8. "Slow lenses" will have apertures of f/4 or f/5.6. If you want to shoot sports or action, especially in low light, fast lenses are your friends. They are, however, more expensive than their slower brethren. Ferraris cost more than Volkswagens, and there's a reason for it.

Further explanation of apertures and f-numbers are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the larger number (e.g. f/5.6) lets in less light than the smaller number (e.g. f/2.8) in a given amount of time. For sports and action, smaller numbers are generally your friend.

But, beware —what appears to be plenty of light to the human eye can be woefully inadequate to your camera/lens combo. This is true both indoors and outdoors.

This inevitably brings me to an associated point, namely autofocus.





Cameras are either manual or autofocus. Some cameras have autofocus but can be used in a manual focus manner. For some types of photography this is desirable but for sports and action autofocus is generally your friend. There are, however, a somewhat befuddling array of autofocus types, modules, and implementations.

If a camera has an autofocus module it will help, but you'll still need to understand how to use it, and what its limitations are.

For instance, Nikon's Multi-CAM 900 autofocus module (found in the F/N80, D100, and D70, among others) is good. The D2H, D2Hs, and D2X each have the Multi-CAM 2000 autofocus module, which is much better. Nevertheless, the Multi-CAM 900 module can help you take great pictures. I know — I've done it. (Well, at least I think they're good pictures).

So what happens after the camera finally gets enough light to decide what it needs to tell the lens to do in order to correctly focus?


Ah, good question, and just at the right time.


There are two ways in which a lens can be autofocused: screw-driven and Silent Wave Motor (SWM). In the screw-driven scenario there's a tiny little screwdriver that protrudes from the camera's lens mount into the flange of the lens. The camera turns this screw in order to focus the lens. A powerful motor to turn the screw can accomplish the job faster, which is important when your kid is running all over the field. Less powerful motors will take longer.


Then there's SWM. In this case the camera sends an electrical signal via the contacts between the camera and lens in order to focus the lens. Since electricity travels faster than anything can turn a screw, this is faster than screw-driven autofocus.


A related acronym is AF-S. AF simply means autofocus, and S stands for SWM, which stands for Silent Wave Motor (tired of acronyms yet? Confused? Try this).


A fast lens like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED IF AF-S VR Nikkor looks like an alphabet soup of descriptors but it sports (no pun intended) the features that make it a joy for use in action photography and many other subjects as well.

An alternative is something like the 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF. It's considered slow for two reasons – small variable apertures and it's screw-driven.

Nevertheless, the 70-300mm Nikkor can produce fine pictures of sports and action subjects in good light (I used it with a Nikon N80). It's also a fine choice for other types of photography and much smaller, much lighter, and much less expensive.


70-200mm AF-S VR Nikkor

70-300mm D AF Nikkor


Hey, what was that about "small variable apertures?" I notice that the 70-200mm has a single f number, but the 70-300mm has a range. Is that the same thing? What does that mean?


Well, it means that the 70-200mm has a maximum f number (aperture) of 2.8 over all of its focal lengths (70-200mm). The 70-300mm has a maximum of f/4 at 70mm, but by the time you get to 300mm the maximum aperture is only f/5.6. The 70-200mm is "fast" everywhere (can collect more light in a given period of time), whereas the 70-300mm is somewhat slower, and gets even slower as you zoom in.


Cost being a major factor, many people opt for something like the 70-300mm rather than the 70-200mm for field sports. Children are expensive in and of themselves. Buying special photographic equipment to take pictures of them can break your budget. Be reasonable with both your budget and your photographic expectations.


And, don't forget that when you are shooting children in a sport environment, parents are just as thrilled to see strong close-ups of their child with very little "motion" such as sitting on the bench, as they are with the action shots. Those "slower" lenses will be more than up to that task.


Photography, alas, is not an inexpensive hobby.


Single servo and continuous servo autofocus

Single servo autofocus will only allow you to take a shot when it's in focus. This may sound like a good thing, but many wildlife and sports photographers use continuous servo autofocus priority for the following reason – the camera will constantly update the focus after it's been acquired if you hold the shutter button halfway down. Thus, as your subject moves closer and further away, focus will be maintained. This is usually set by a small switch on the front of the camera near the lens mount. Look for a switch with "C", "S" and "M" options.





If you're shooting film this may help


The voice of a great veteran


Listen to the Nikonians Behind the Lens podcast -live interview- Jason Odell (of Image Doctors) did with Rich Clarkson, the internationally recognized sports photographer.

Rich Clarkson's 50 year career as a sports photographer has resulted in some of the most memorable and recognizable images to appear as covers on Sports Illustrated and he has the enviable credentials of having held the title of photography director and senior assistant editor for the National Geographic Society.

The interview includes Clarkson's version of having been in the right place —at the right time — for a sports story that eventually became the topic of a critically acclaimed motion picture "Glory Road."

The podcast link is this, and while you download it (10.6MB) you may want to see a gallery of Rich Clarkson's work here.

(4 Votes )
Show pages (4 Pages)

Originally written on July 6, 2006

Last updated on December 19, 2017

Steve Johnson Steve Johnson (reuben)

Landscape and Sports in depth expertise Awarded for his article contributions to the Resources Donor Ribbon awarded for his extraordinary generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Mayo, USA
Basic, 10649 posts