Capturing the Motion of Sports Photography

For sports enthusiasts, there’s nothing more exciting than athletes playing their favorite game. The sight of the field, rink, or golf course initiates the thrill and anticipation. This can provide some amazing photographic opportunities. However it’s not a matter of point the camera at the person diving for the ball or racing for the puck and snapping away. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

basketball photography

photo by Keith Allison

In digital photography, sports can be quite challenging. The athletes don’t make photographing them an easy task, since there’s so much movement. However, you can indeed achieve great sports photos with good planning and execution.

Here are some tips for taking fantastic sports shots:

Know Your Camera

I recommend taking note of and practicing all the settings that sports photographers use. You may find yourself going for the faster shutter speed, increased ISO, and burst mode. Let’s take a look at all these things settings and see how they can be applied to give you sensational sports photos.

High shutter speeds. As with all moving objects, in order to capture the “frozen in time” look in digital photography, a fast shutter speed is required. The faster the movement the faster the shutter speed will need to be. In digital photography the general consensus is that the shutter speed needs to be faster than that of the subject. For example, if you have a sliding puck across ice and someone is about to take a dive for it, then it’s necessary to quickly mentally assess how fast that person might be traveling. If they’re traveling at 50 kilometers (32 miles) per hour then you may find a very fast shutter speed is needed.

rain lacrosse photography

photo by Mike Morris

A very fast shutter speed in digital photography may be anything from 1/500 of a second or higher. For high speed movement you may want to consider an even faster shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or something in that range.

Keep in mind that a fast shutter speed works to reduce some of the light entering the camera, which is why a higher ISO is often necessary. (I’ll talk about that in a minute.) If a baseball going at around 145 kilometers an hour (90.09 miles per hour) a shutter speed of around 1/4000 will get you that suspended ball in mid-air type of photo. For physical movement, such as someone leaping to catch a football, a shutter speed of 1/500 or over is a good place to start.

Now this is all very well if your scene if well lit. But what if you’re taking your shots indoors at night and the light is not quite enough? In most instances, an indoor stadium at night time will be well lit, but that doesn’t always ensure good photos. In sports photography we need to understand that we can only control the artistic value and input of our photo and the control of the camera. We can’t control the lighting in the scene being such a public event. In sports photography we must realize that it’s going to be a challenge to begin with. So here are some ways to increase the amount of light.

If you have a histogram you can get a good idea of what the light levels are like on your sensor and change your settings accordingly.

Increase your ISO. A high ISO in digital photography simply refers to the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. In a nutshell, the higher the ISO, the less light the sensor needs. In sports photography an ISO of 400 or higher can work really well. The downside to this is that it does increase noise. To combat this you can use noise reduction software in the post editing process. Don’t be afraid to try a few shots at 400, 800, and even 1600 (or higher, depending on your camera’s capabilities).

hockey photography

ISO 3200, photo by r. nial bradshaw

Burst mode. Burst mode is also known as “continuous shooting mode.” This mode allows you to get a sequence of shots in succession. You can increase your chances of getting that ideal “split second perfect shot” that you might not be able to get by predicting action or in normal shooting. This also works beautifully if your camera has a painfully long lag time. I’ve used this so many times to get around the high lag time on my point and shoot. Some cameras have three frames per second and some go up to 12 frames or more per second. You simply select this mode and hold your finger on the shutter button and it will fire off as many shots in one second as it can.

wheelchair athlete

photo by Daniel Wetzel

Sports Photography Gear

Okay, so I’ve been talking about your digital camera and the settings used for ideal sports photography, so what about other gear? If you’ve been thinking about this, you’re spot on. You can take as much time with your settings but there’s not much point if you can’t get close to the action. There’s no point having a picture with perfect lighting and perfect action if the players are like dots on a sheet of paper. You need a good telephoto lens if you can’t get close up. A telephoto lens brings you closer because of its long distance capability. It will get you closer to the action but will require a faster shutter speed.

football photography shallow depth of field

photo by The U.S. Army

Many fantastic sports photos are taken with an emphasis on a very fast shutter speed, an f stop of around the f/2.8 mark to blur the background, and focus in on the subject. You may find that if your athletic subject is visually separated from the background and you take the photograph with a telephoto lens you’ll have a more shallow depth of field, which can give your photo a more powerful feeling. You can get away with a good optical zoom lens, but you’ll get far better digital sports shots with a proper telephoto.

So what about the artistic side of sports photography?

Prediction and emotion is the key to good art. When taking sports photos, you probably won’t find a more public display of human emotion. The emotions of an athlete range from intense anticipation to extreme disappointment or extreme exhilaration. Predicting when these emotions take place is they key to getting artistic and impressive sports photos. This comes with practicing your photography.

football photography

photo by brklynn

So much pressure is placed on our athletes, expecting them to perform so we can enjoy the show and the investors can enjoy their returns. This is another reason why I say to get a telephoto lens so you can capture the emotions on their faces and their body language. It makes for superb photography.

Find as many professional sports photos as you can by going through sports magazines and websites. Don’t just look at these photos; you must study them. Take on the attitude that studying sports photography will improve your photos ten fold. You will have a style to emulate at first, then eventually when you become confident, you’ll start to adopt your own style.

Happy shooting!

About the Author:
Amy Renfrey writes for She is a photographer and also teaches digital photography. Her educational ebooks take the most complex photography terms and turn them into easy to understand language so that anyone, at any level of photography, can easily move to a semi-professional level of skill in a short time. She’s photographed many things, from famous musicians to weddings and portraits of babies.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Comment

Personalize your comment with an avatar from!

Prove Your Humanity * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever