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Challenges When Shooting Sports

by Daniel Smith

All images by Nick Hodgskin of Nickeh Films.

Sports can be a challenging photographic subject but with the right gear and an understanding of the principles, great results are close at hand. There are a range of challenges that need to be overcome when shooting sports and we will cover some here.

Moving subjects
Depending on the results that you are chasing you generally want to freeze the action. The speed of the runner, cyclist, skateboarder or pole vaulter will determine how fast of a shutter speed you need. When an object is moving across the frame the movement will be more apparent than if it is moving toward the camera. To freeze the action a shutter speed faster than 1/500th of a second should suffice. It is always good to experiment.

You may find that the blur of the motion in the frame can add to the dynamic nature of the shot. If using a slower shutter speed for this, use a tripod to steady the camera or brace yourself against a static object. When using slow shutter speeds to show this blur, a shot will usually look better if there is a part of the frame that is sharp as a reference point.

Distance between camera and the athlete
If you are shooting sport on a field or oval the players are often a bit of a distance away. You need a long lens to bring the action in close. Sports shots will suffer if you are either not close enough to the action or not able to bring it up close enough with a long lens. An effective sports image needs to make the viewer of the image feel like they are there. Surf photography is an example that requires a long lens due to the distance from the action. It is not unusual for top surf photographers to use a 600mm lens. Sports photographers will often shoot with anything from a 200mm lens right up to a 1200mm lens.

On the flipside, at times the physical distance from the sportsperson needs to and can be much closer. Action sports such as BMX, skating, scootering can benefit from a closer perspective. When shooting freestyle action sports often there is a relationship between the rider and the terrain, urban environment, ramp or jump and this is often best represented close up. The dynamic nature of the movement of the rider in conjunction with the relationship to the board, bike, or scooter looks good at a close perspective. A wide lens skews that perspective and can emphasise scale, adding to the impressive nature of the trick. A second purchase after the camera for an avid action sports shooter is often a fisheye or wide angle lens.

This can be a challenge in many facets of sports shooting with both low and high amounts of light causing problems. Games are often held at night in stadiums and sports fields and when you have to shoot at a high shutter speed to freeze the action it does not give you much leeway. To combat this you need a good (fast) aperture on your lens to let in the most light and good low light performance on your camera (high ISO) makes a big difference. Shooting in a stadium during the day also has its issues with the variance in light between sun and shade. Shooting in direct sunlight is always a challenge and if you’re not close enough to balance the light with some fill-flash if can be hard to contend with. A good availability of light does make for a faster shutter speed which is beneficial.

Focus can be hard to get right when shooting sports because of the fast moving overlapping subjects and changing light you will need a camera with advanced focusing options (7D mkII just announced). Some cameras utilise a high end focus tracking that can preempt the movement of the subject and is able to identify when someone else crosses into frame. Game sports have people moving around in front of the subject you are shooting and the cameras autofocus system needs to be advanced enough to understand where to hold focus on your main subject.

Experiment and try lots of different things. Try to create images that stand out from the standard images you see in the genres of sports photography, choose a different angle or perspective to display a unique viewpoint.

A look at outstanding images from a large event like the Olympic Games will yield an artistic set of images that represents the moment by highlighting the action, the event, the light, a reaction, interaction, all captured in a unique way.

Images © Nick Hodgskin 2014.


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