7 Tips for Sharp Sports Photos

How to shoot sharp action photos with a DSLR

As you migrate from basic photography skills to advanced skills, learning how to stop action on your DSLR camera will be one of your biggest challenges. Gaining a feel for this skill requires a certain degree of know-how and plenty of practice, but the sharp results are well worth the work.

Change the Autofocus Mode

Photographer shooting a basketball game
Lifewire / Marina Li

To shoot sharp action photos, 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 runner who is on first base to arrive. In cases like this, it is a good idea to use manual focus.

Switch the camera to manual focus (MF) and focus on a preset point, such as second base. You are focused and ready to press the shutter as soon as the action arrives.

Use AF Points

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

When using manual focus, you may find that choosing a single AF point gives you a more accurate image.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed

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

When experimenting, set the camera to TV/S mode (shutter priority). This setting allows you to choose the shutter speed and forces the camera to 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 framing evokes a greater feeling of the speed by the subject.

To nail this shot, use a shallow depth of field by adjusting the aperture to at least f/4. This adjustment also helps your camera reach faster shutter speeds. The shallow depth of field allows more light to enter the lens, which allows the camera to use 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. It can be used to help illuminate your subject and to give you a wider range of apertures to play with.

It can also be used to create a technique called flash and blur. This result follows from a slow shutter speed and the flash is fired manually at the beginning of the shot. The visual artifact is that the subject appears frozen while the background is filled with blurred streaks.

If you rely on a pop-up flash, keep its range in mind. The flash may work well on a basketball court, but it may not reach 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 better 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, increase the ISO, which makes the camera's image sensor more sensitive to light. Though, be aware that increasing the ISO creates more noise in the images.