Sports and action photography tips

Whether you’ll be spectating at high-profile sporting fixtures or just catching up with a local team, its great fun to capture some sporting action shots. Here are some of my tips for sports photography or action photography or other events where you need to freeze fast-moving subjects.

Use S-mode (shutter-mode) for sports photography

The most important factor when taking fast action shots is to have control over the shutter speed as this will allow you to ‘freeze’ the athletes without any motion blur. This is exactly what Shutter mode (or S-mode) does: allows you to take complete control of the shutter speed whilst your camera takes care as the rest.

Set your shutter speed fast enough to be able to freeze the action

Start with 1/500 of a second. If you still notice some motion blur then increase your shutter speed to 1/1000 or even higher. As the shutter speed gets faster your camera will automatically increase your aperture to make sure enough light still reaches the sensor (this will give you a shallower depth of field but this is usually desirable with sports/action photography).

The faster the movement is across your viewfinder, the faster the shutter will need to be in order to freeze it. Therefore, if you are using a telephoto lens you will probably need to make your shutter speed faster than if you are using a wider lens.

Increase your ISO if necessary

If you are taking photographs inside or at night then there might not be enough ambient light to capture action shots without increasing your ISO. If your ISO is set to auto then your camera will take care of this for you. Be aware that as ISO increases you will end up with more noise/grain in your pictures. You might not be able to see the noise on your camera’s small screen, but it might be visible when your come to print the picture later.

Use burst mode during sports photography

Cameras set to burst mode will keep taking shots whilst your finger is held down on the shutter release button. Some cameras will allow you to take 10 or more photos in one second. This is great for action shots as it will let you to take lots of shots very quickly, increasing the likelihood of getting one just at the perfect time. Once you get the images back to your computer you can select just the best picture and delete the rest.

Use the fastest memory card you can get hold of

Whenever you take photos your camera will store the images in its memory buffer. It will then begin to transfer the image files from the memory buffer and on to your memory card, but this takes a few seconds for each file. If the memory buffer gets full (which happens often when you use burst mode) then the camera will stop taking photographs, which can cause you to miss shots.

One of the ways you can combat this problem is by using the fastest memory cards you can afford, but always make sure it is compatible with your camera before purchasing.

Try turning off RAW files

I’m normally advising people to make sure they are taking photos in RAW format in order to get the best image quality, but taking action shots is the one time when I might considering turning it off: RAW files are much larger than JPG files so will fill your memory buffer faster. Turning them off should allow you to use burst mode for longer. Similarly, setting your camera to take smaller or lower quality images will reduce the file size, allowing you to take more photos before your memory buffer is full. Remember that reducing your file size will also reduce the quality of your final image, so use with caution.

Check your auto-focus settings

You could try setting your camera to use single point auto-focus. This will usually be faster than multi-point auto focus and will allow you to get more predictable results. Choose a focus point and ensuring this is pointed at your subject whilst you are holding down the shutter-release button.

You can also try putting your camera in continuous focus mode as it will try to keep the object under your focus point continually in focus as it moves closer or further away. However, you will need to keep the focus point trained on your subject, and this might take some practice. Some advanced cameras can track a subject even if it moves out of the focus area so it’s worth checking your manual and having a practice before any special events.

Use manual focus when appropriate

If you can predict which route your subject will take then you can benefit from using manual focus. For example, if you are taking photos of horse show jumping then you can use auto-focus to focus on a particular fence and then simply switch your camera into manual focus. When the horse comes along you can press the shutter release and your camera will star taking pictures without having to find focus.

Use a telephoto lens

Unless you’re able to get really close to the action, you’re going to need a telephoto lens at most sporting events to get the best shots. If you are using a large telephoto lens then you might find a tripod or monopod helps alleviate some of the weight.


Here’s a few quick tips you might consider when editing sports and action photographs:

  • Consider your use of colour. Does it add anything to the story? If not, try your images in black and white.
  • Rotating your image to around 45 degrees can introduce diagonal lines which can help to convey an element of speed.
  • Don’t be too worried if your images are grainy. Increased noise is a by-product of using a faster shutter speed. Viewers also tend to be more forgiving of noise in sports/action photos compared with other types of photography.

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