7 Tips for Sharp Sports Photos

Learn How to Shoot Sharp Action Photos with Your DSLR

tips for shooting sharp sports photos
A fast shutter speed and the right autofocus mode are keys to shooting sharp action photos. Harry Trump / Getty Images

As you migrate from basic photography skills to more advanced skills, learning how to stop the action will be one of your biggest challenges. Shooting sharp sports photos and action photos is an important part of advancing your skill as a photographer, as everyone wants to capture pin-sharp images that are also well composed. Gaining a feel for this skill requires a certain degree of know-how and plenty of practice, but the sharp results will be well worth the work!

Here are some tips that will help make your sports and action shots look truly professional.

Change the Autofocus Mode

To shoot sharp action photos, you will need to switch your autofocus mode to continuous (AI Servo on Canon and AF-C on Nikon). The camera constantly adjusts focus as it tracks a moving subject when using continuous focus mode.

Continuous mode is also a predictive mode. It sets the focus to where it believes the subject will be after the split-second delay between the mirror rising and the shutter opening in the camera.

Know When to Use Manual Focus

In some sports, you can pretty much determine where a player is going to be before you press the shutter. In baseball you know where the base stealer will end up, so you can focus on second base and wait for the play when a fast runner is on first base). In cases like this, it is a good idea to use manual focus.

To do this, switch the camera to manual focus (MF) and focus on a preset point (such as second base).

You will be focused and ready to press the shutter as soon as the action arrives.

Use AF Points

If you are shooting on continuous autofocus mode, then you are better off leaving the camera with multiple AF points activated so that it can choose its own focusing point.

When using manual focus, you may find that choosing a single AF point will give you more accurate images.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed

A fast shutter speed is required to freeze action so that it is pin-sharp. Begin with a shutter speed above 1/500th of a second. Some sports will require a minimum of 1/1000th of a second. Motor sports may require even faster speeds.

When experimenting, set the camera to TV / S mode (shutter priority). This allows you to choose the shutter speed and lets the camera sort out the other settings.

Use a Shallow Depth of Field

Action shots often look stronger if only the subject is sharp and the background is blurred. This gives a greater feeling of the speed to the subject.

To achieve this, use a small depth of field by adjusting your aperture to at least f/4. This adjustment will also help you get those faster shutter speeds, because the small depth of field allows more light to enter the lens, allowing the camera to reach faster shutter speeds.

Use Fill-In Flash

Your camera's pop-up flash can be put to good use in action photography as a fill-in flash. First, it can be used to help illuminate your subject and to give you a wider range of apertures to play with.

Secondly, it can be used to create a technique called "flash and blur." This happens when using a slow shutter speed and the flash is fired manually at the beginning of the shot.

The result is that the subject is frozen while the background is filled with blurred streaks.

If relying on a pop-up flash, keep its range in mind. The flash may work well on a basketball court, but it may not reach to the other side of a baseball field. Also watch to make sure that you do not get shadows while using a telephoto lens with the pop-up flash. It is more ideal to get a separate flash unit and attach it to your DSLR's hot shoe.

Change the ISO

If you have tried everything else and you still do not have enough light entering the camera to stop action sharply, you can always increase your ISO, which makes the camera's image sensor more sensitive to light.

Be aware, however, that this will create more noise within your image.