The Perfect Camera Settings for Action and Sports Photography

Photographing sports and action is all about speed. Discover how to set up your camera to capture sharp, detailed photos full of excitement and drama.

Action and sports photography is challenging but very exciting. The key to getting good pictures is to set your camera up properly before the event begins, so that when things kick off you can forget about your settings and focus on the action.

The following camera settings are an excellent place to start. They work well in all situations and will help you get sharp, detailed photos with plenty of atmosphere and interest.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the single most important thing to get right in action photography. If yours isn't set fast enough then you'll be left with blurry, disappointing shots that no amount of Photoshop post-processing will be able to salvage.

Speed skaters

A fast shutter speed is essential to freeze motion. Image by johnthescone.

Start by putting your camera into Shutter Priority mode and choosing a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second. This is a good starting point and should be fast enough for most sports and action.

If possible, take a few test shots before the main event starts so that you can check how sharp they are. If that's not possible, periodically check your photos as you go. If you spot any blurring, switch to an even faster shutter speed. You may need to go as high as 1/1000 of a second for really fast sports like motor racing.

Open Your Aperture

To help you reach the high shutter speeds required, you'll need to open your aperture up nice and wide. If you have a very fast lens (such as the f/2.8 and f/4 lenses that professional sports photographers invest in), then you may be able to get away with coming down from the maximum aperture by a stop or so.

American footballer scoring a touchdown

Use a wide aperture to capture enough light and blur the background. Image by Huskies Football.

However, if you're using a cheaper lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or smaller, you'll need to open your lens up as wide as it will go to let in as much light as possible. This is particularly true when shooting indoors, as the lighting can be poor.

If you're using a zoom lens it's tempting to crop in as close as possible on your subject, but your lens's aperture is narrowest at this end of the zoom range. It's better to set your lens around the middle of its range as a good compromise between filling the frame and letting in enough light.

An added benefit of using a wide aperture is the shallow depth of field it produces. This blurs any background distractions and focuses your attention firmly on the players, producing an image with more impact and drama.

Increase Your ISO

Because you're using such a fast shutter speed, your camera might struggle to properly expose the scene even with the aperture fully open. If this is the case then the only thing you can do is increase your ISO speed.

You should use the lowest ISO setting you can get away with, but there will be situations where you'll have to push it higher than you'd like. This is frustrating but remember - it's better to have a noisy photo than a blurry one.

Use Burst Mode

By definition, action and sports move quickly, and it can be difficult to keep up. Use your camera's continuous shooting mode (often called burst mode) to take 4 or 6 shots at a time, giving you a much better chance of capturing a good image.

Sprinters starting a race

Use burst mode to capture the definitive moment. Image by Angel.

Bear in mind that shooting in burst mode will fill your memory card much faster than taking individual shots, so make sure yours has plenty of capacity, or take a spare along. If you're running out of space, use half time or time-outs to delete some of your bad shots.

Shoot in JPEG

You might be surprised to read this piece of advice - after all, for most types of photography it's generally accepted than shooting in RAW will give you better quality images, and allow you to do more tweaking in your editing software.

However, when photographing sports and action events, speed is more important than anything else. Using JPEG mode lets you to capture more pictures at a time in burst mode, and fit more images onto your memory card.

Admittedly the image quality won't be quite as good as if you'd shot using RAW, but this is more than compensated for by the increased chances of getting that killer shot.

Perfect Your White Balance

When shooting outdoors, your camera's automatic white balance will usually do a pretty good job of adjusting to the light. However, many action sports take place indoors under artificial lighting, and this can confuse your camera, producing shots with a noticeable greenish-yellow tint.

Indoor volleyball match

When shooting indoors, adjust your white balance to avoid colour casts. Image by AJ Guel.

Rather than leaving things up to your camera, set your white balance to Fluorescent or Tungsten/Incandescent - take a few test shots before the event begins to check which one looks best. If you've got time, you could even set up a custom white balance to make sure your colours come out spot on.

Turn Your Flash Off

For most sports, you won't be able to get very close to the action - that's why the professional photographers need such long lenses. Being so far from your subject means that your flash will be practically useless, and will do nothing but drain your battery. Turn it off before you start shooting.

There are some rare circumstances where you can get close enough to the action for your flash to be of some use. However, the bright bursts can distract players so it's often better to leave your flash off to be on the safe side.

Tweak Your Focusing

Focusing on fast-moving subjects can be very tricky, so it's important to set your camera up to be as responsive and accurate as possible.

Ford Escort rally car

Adjust your focusing to maintain perfect clarity even on fast-moving subjects. Image by Timo Kuusela.

Start by switching from multi-point to single-point focusing, and use the focus point at the centre of the frame. Now, when you compose a shot, your camera will focus on whatever's in the centre rather than trying to keep everything acceptably sharp. This is faster and also lets you tell your camera exactly what you want to focus on, rather than letting it guess.

By default, your camera will probably use "one shot" focusing, where you half-press the shutter button to lock the focus. The problem with this is that your subject can move before you have chance to take the photo. Instead, use Continuous Focusing mode (called "AI Servo" on Canon cameras) - this continually refocuses to keep the subject sharply focused at all times.

Action photography can be a tricky subject, but these camera settings will increase your chances of snapping some fantastic shots. The principles behind them are easy to apply to any sport, allowing you to quickly adapt and get back to concentrating on taking great photos.

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