1. Use a fast shutter speed
It is important that you are using a fast shutter speed for the majority of your sports photography. The reason that sports photographers use a fast shutter speed is to freeze the motion of athletes. Athletes are often trying to move literally as fast as possible, so it is important that you are shooting at a shutter speed that can freeze them in a single frame. Typical shutter speeds for action photographers can be 1/2000th of a second, if not even faster.
2. Get a telephoto lens
You can’t shoot much action with a kit or wide angle lens. For sports photography you will need access to some longer focal length glass. There are several reasons you will want a telephoto lens, such as the subject separation it provides, the distance it can cover, and how it lets you capture many different compositions. You can’t get on the field with the athletes, but a telephoto lens puts you right in the action.
3. Pay attention to where the action is
A lot of the time, the action will not be where you expect it to be. Some of the biggest stories from sports events might be the fans, coaches, or the referees. Lookout for commotion off the field, and keep an ear out in case there might be an important guest at the venue. Talking to other photographers can also result in learning about some images you should be taking at a sporting event.
4. Almost never use flash
There are barely any sports events in which you can use flash. And for games, you basically will never have that option. It might be worth it to ask an event organizer or staff if you can use flash, but most of the time you won’t be able to.
5. Use continuous and back button autofocus
Athletes move in all directions. Make sure that your focus is moving with them! You don’t want the first, and often most boring shot, in a sequence to be the only one in focus. Using back button autofocus will also allow you to more quickly capture focus and shoot, and you can hold both your shutter and focus buttons down while action unfolds.
There is not anything like practice. Make sure that you are putting in the hours to improve. There are a lot of areas that you can improve on outside of the action itself! Practice how you could edit better, how you could compose better, and different ways you can make sure you are getting the shots when you are on the field. If you can, go to collegiate and intramural sporting events to hone your craft.
7. Shoot subjects from the front
Photos from the front are almost always technically better than photos that show a backside. You want to get the main athlete in the image as if they are posing for the camera. This makes images look more dynamic and allows viewers of the images to feel more immersed. Some moments are very important and standalone, and those are times where any image is better than no image.
8. Use manual or shutter priority modes
If you are getting started and are uncomfortable with your camera, you should be in shutter priority mode. This means that you are shooting at a fixed shutter speed, and the camera will adjust your other settings accordingly. This typically means the camera will elect the widest aperture and then a suitable ISO for the image to be correctly exposed. I find that spot metering works best with shutter priority.
9. Make your subject move into the open part of your frame
Images where an athlete is running in to or moving in to the open part of the frame give the athlete somewhere to go, thus adding a feeling of motion to the image. When composing an athlete, try to keep your focusing point on the side of the frame opposite the one they are running towards. This will make it easy for you to automatically compose with athletes going in to the frame.
10. Know the sport
When shooting any sport, try your best to understand at least the foundational rules. Understand what should be happening, what is out of place, and what parts of the game are important. Know what players on what teams you will need photos of, and what players there aren’t photos of.
11. When starting, take photos of everything
At your first sporting events, it can be overwhelming. The action feels even faster when you’re responsible for capturing it. It is important to keep your head down and just work at it. Take photos of everything happening. You’d much rather cull down the 5,000 photos you took than have missed a key moment.
12. Put your camera in burst mode
You will not have a good time shooting sporting events in single shot. You need to be able to hold down that shutter and take multiple frames.
13. Eyes are important
The eye of an athlete is often the most powerful part of the image. You should always try to focus on the eye, and you should always try and make sure that the eye of an athlete is visible in an image. Obviously this can’t always happen, but for basic sports images eyes are basically a must.
14. Leave space, then crop
It might seem like a good idea to shoot cropped in to the maximum focal length possible and try to get frames perfect. I highly recommend leaving space and then cropping. Most digital places aren’t going to be making full use of a 20+ megapixel image, and allowing some room for creative recomposition or to capture some more of the action will often leave you with a better image than the couple extra megapixels would.
15. Emotion is king
Emotion is king in most types of photography, but it is especially so in sports photography. Because you do not always have the option of radically experimenting with photography, it is the moments of true human emotion that can really make noteworthy images. This is even more so because most sports photographers don’t get to photograph famous athletes. Thus, their images must stand on their own, and emotion is something almost all people can see and feel from a visual standpoint.