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Sports photography tips

Tutorial: Sports Photography

Capture all the action

Newspapers, magazines and television are going to be filled with images of sport over the next few months. Will your photo albums for 2012 reflect the summer of sport?

Whilst you are unlikely to have trackside passes to major events, you can shoot some great sporting images at local parks, tracks and pitches. This tutorial covers the following topics to show how to use your Canon camera better:

  • Planning
  • Covering events
  • Lenses
  • Focus on your subject
  • Focus manually
  • The decisive moment
  • Freeze or pan
  • Composition
  • Final advice


© Jan van de Meerakker


The first step is to know your sport. There are some photographers who can handle any sport, but most specialize. Learn the rules of the game so that you can anticipate the next move or action. If you follow a team you will start to know the players and what they will do in any situation. Try to show how the team works together and then focus in on one or two individuals.

Covering events

Start with local or club events such as football and rugby matches. These are often played on fields with free public access and you will be able to move around the touchlines to take your photographs. Introduce yourself to the managers or coaches of both teams to gain their permission. Offer some free photographs from the event including a simple team photo.

Track and field events are fairly predictable. A good location for track events is on a curve, where you can photograph the athletes coming head on to the camera before they turn. At the finish line, you will probably have to shoot from the side. If you are in line with the finish, capture the last burst of speed as the runners cross the line. Field events such as the pole vault and long jump keep the athlete in a small area which lets you improve your skills as they make multiple attempts.

The main difficulty with motor sports is finding a good viewpoint. Every track is different, so arrive as early as possible and walk around the circuit. Read the interview with Frits van Eldik, a Canon Ambassador, to learn the tips from a top professional.


Professional sports photographers equip themselves with super-telephoto lenses. Lenses with focal lengths of 400mm, 600mm or even 800mm fill the frame with subjects that the naked eye can struggle to see.

The lenses you currently own may have a more modest focal length. However the standard zoom, such as the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II, often supplied with an EOS camera is still capable of bringing subjects closer – you just need to choose a sport or event where the subject is not so far away. On these occasions, very long focal length lenses are often too powerful and your standard zoom is perfect.


My ball, © Kevin Evans-Jones 2011, Canon EOS 40D

If you are shooting sports where the action happens further away a telephoto zoom lens with a longer focal length would be useful such as the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM.

Lenses with large maximum apertures (e.g. f/2.8 or faster) have a number of advantages. Letting more light through to the sensor of your EOS means that you can use a wider range of shutter speeds. In addition, shooting at wide apertures has the advantage of isolating the subject from the background. You can get a narrow depth-of-field, which means your subject will stand out from its background.

Have a look at the sports lens tutorial in the EOS Knowledge section of EOS Adventure for some more information.

Focus on your subject

Whilst your EOS has fast, accurate focusing, to gear it towards sports photography you can change the AF Mode to AI Servo AF. Then hold down the shutter button halfway and the camera will adjust focus continuously as you follow your subject.


Jamie vaulting, © Simon Moore 2011, Canon EOS 1000D

Focus manually

With some sports it is best to set a manual pre-focus. If you are photographing the high jump, for example, you know exactly where the athlete will pass over the bar. You can set the lens to manual focus and focus on the bar. Press the shutter button as the athlete passes through this point.

The decisive moment

In sport, more than most other subjects, capturing the ‘decisive moment’ is important.

It might be the moment a runner dips for the line, or the instant a tennis player brings the racquet to the ball. Some photographers take advantage of the continuous shooting mode of their cameras to try and capture the moment.


Goal, © Torben Andresen 2011, Canon EOS-1D Mark IV

Even so, there is great satisfaction in capturing the decisive moment with a single shot. The secret is to anticipate the moment and the best way to do that is to practice. Get a friend to bounce a tennis ball on a racquet and see how many times you can capture the ball in contact with the racquet. Then move on to more difficult situations, such as someone kicking a football. Can you capture the moment the boot comes into contact with the ball?

Freeze or pan?

When photographing action subjects, it seems obvious that fast (short) shutter speeds are needed to ‘freeze’ the movement. An image shot with a shutter speed of 1/1000 second will appear much sharper than one shot with a shutter speed of 1/100 second.


Panning, © Enrico Bogetto 2011, Canon EOS 30D

However, do you want a ‘frozen’ image? It can look lifeless and lacking in emotion. Introducing a blur can give the impression of movement in a still photograph. The shutter speed needed will depend on the:

  • Planning
  • Covering events
  • Lenses
  • Focus on your subject
  • Focus manually
  • The decisive moment
  • Freeze or pan
  • Composition
  • Final advice

Set the Mode Dial on your EOS to Tv (Shutter-priority AE) and experiment with different shutter speeds. Look at each image as you shoot to see the effect.

Another way to ‘freeze’ the image is to use a relatively slow shutter speed (1/30 second, for example) and swing the camera to follow to movement of the subject. This is called ‘panning’. The aim is to keep the subject in the same place in the viewfinder so that it appears sharp. Panning of the camera blurs the background, giving a strong sense of movement.

If your lens has Image Stabilization, depending on the lens there may be a switch on the side of the barrel which can improve your panning shots. Normally the switch is in Mode 1 which offers stabilization in both vertical and horizontal directions. Switch to Mode 2 and stabilization is then given only in a vertical direction only; perfect for panning action shots.


Although there are a number of points that are particularly relevant to sports photography, don’t forget one of the basics; composition.


Sea and wind that passion, © Zsuzsanna Acs 2011, Canon EOS 50D

Find a good viewpoint and position your subject carefully in the frame to get photographs with the impact you are seeking. Consider shooting from a distance to put the event in context as well as moving closer (or zooming in with your lens) to isolate a small part of the action. Photograph the venue and details within the venue. Take pictures of corner flags or starting blocks, basketball hoops or a pile of tennis balls. Try to isolate important elements of the sport.

Final advice

Respect the game. Respect the players. Do not press the shutter button if the noise of the camera is likely to create a distraction. Be very quiet when a tennis player is about to serve or a golfer is about to swing. But keep practicing and you will take great photographs.

Enter the Gallery

There is a whole host of sports events around every weekend. The tutorial has given you advice on how to take better action photos, so now go and capture some great images and then enter the best ones in the Gallery. Next month your photo could be on display.

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Coming Next: Seeing the world without a viewfinder

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