10 Sports Photography Gear Tips

10 Sports Photography Gear Tips

Gear never matters more than when you’re out shooting sports. It is one of the most difficult things to capture well and takes years of practice. Whether you’re aiming high or just want better after-school action candids, here are 10 home run gear tips to kick off the sunny season. These are aimed for beginners but are great reminders for seasoned pros.

Back lit basketball teams playing on court

Use a Low Profile Tripod for a Heroic Look

If your sports shots look a little flat, get down for a new perspective. While shooting from below is a general no-no for people photography, in sports it makes players look heroic. If ergonomics are a worry, support yourself with a specialized low profile/small footprint tripod, like the Induro tabletop tripod, which can carry up to 220 lbs while weighing less than 5 lbs!

camera

Beat the Sun with LCD Loops and Electronic Viewfinders

Reviewing images in the bright sun can be an act of suffering. Screen covers or “loops” help you better see what you’re working with. Sometimes they are just a simple tube that can be placed over your screen, like the snap-on Hoodman or the mountable Z-Finder Pro 2.5x.

Mirrorless cameras, like the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II and the Sony Alpha a7II Mirrorless Digital Camera, sport robust anti light-leaking electronic viewfinders that show you a preview of your image right inside the viewfinder so that you never have to take your eye off the action.

Photographer

Use Cameras with Back Focus Buttons

Most people are used to half-pressing a shutter button for focus and then full-pressing the same button to take the shot but did you know that on many cameras you can separate those functions into two different buttons? The benefit of that, especially for sports, is that you can set your focus without accidentally resetting it when you meant to actually fire the shot. AF is very sensitive and can reset very quickly just before you fully press the shutter button. Having the focus on an entirely different button ensures that you’re not going to fat-finger that setting when firing. You’ll probably find that you’ll miss far fewer shots when you separate focusing from firing. The Canon 1D X, Canon 7D Mark II, Nikon D4s, Nikon D7200, Panasonic Lumix GH4, and many more cameras have this ability.

Here are instructions on how to set this up for yourself:

Canon Cameras
Nikon Cameras
Olympus Cameras
Sony a7 Series
Lumix GH3, GH4, and GX7

Three important things in photography...quality, white balance, and ISO

Use Cameras Above 6 FPS with Continuous Modes

When you’re renting a camera, pay attention to the specs and aim for bodies that shoot at least 6 frames per second. Shoot in AI-Servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon) modes so that your autofocus is constantly tracking your subject. Also, set your shooting drive to “continuous” so that you can get a lot of shots in 1 shutter press hold.

See all of our cameras that have FPS ratings of 10 or more all in one place.

Here are more detailed instructions on how to set your Canon’s AI-Servo autofocus and Continuous Shooting drive modes and also a step-by-step guide for Nikon’s AF-C system.

Taking Pictures

Don’t Sweat Over Image Stabilization

Flaunt it if you got it but for sports photography you do not have to spend the extra money on it. Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction for Nikon) is very handy for handheld slow shutter shooting but doesn’t further improve the fast shutter shots you’ll likely be taking out on the field. Additionally, the IS/VR process eats up battery life. A good rule of thumb is to shoot at a shutter speed that is not slower than the length of your lens. For example, for a 300mm lens, shoot at a shutter speed of at least 1/300th of a second. If that lens has image stabilization, though, you can fudge on that minimum shutter speed and still stand a chance at sharp handheld images and this is where IS/VR is really useful. Keep all this in mind when trying to decide between renting, say, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens (currently $83 for a week) and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 original (currently $57 for a week).

Caucasian boy dunking basketball in hoop

Set Up Remote Cameras for Better Angles

Mount your camera where you cannot be and still fire it exactly when you want to by connecting your camera to a motor cable and a Pocket Wizard trigger. Sounds complicated but it’s really not with some practice and the right tools:

• Get 2 Pocket Wizards and set them to the same channel.
• Attach a remote camera cable (we have them for Canon and Nikon) between your camera and 1 Pocket Wizard.
• Turn on your Pocket Wizards then the camera.
• Keep one Pocket Wizard in your hand and press the TEST button to fire the shutter!

How far away you can trigger your camera will depend on the Pocket Wizard and your environment but usually you can be many feet away. This is great for car photography (with the help of hood-mountable grip gear), behind the catcher, above the rim, or anywhere too dangerous or too distracting for a shooter to stand. Just make sure your camera is really securely fastened, like with a Magic Arm. For more remote triggering advice, visit Pocket Wizard’s Wiki.

Ready for shooting

Experiment with Rear Curtain Sync Flash for Motion Effects

There is a trick you can use to show motion while keeping your subject sharp. The easiest way to show motion is to slow your shutter speed down. Unless you are panning along with your subject (discussed later), your scene will be blurry. Mount a flash on your camera, however, and you can freeze the subject with the help of the added light.

By default, your flash will fire immediately. When you fire the flash immediately while using a slow shutter speed your subject is frozen at the same time his motion is being captured by the long exposure. The result is the appearance of motion blur on top of the subject, which sometimes does not make visual sense. When you put your flash into 2nd Curtain Mode (or 2nd Curtain Sync or Rear Curtain Sync), the flash fires at the end of your exposure, allowing motion to appear behind the subject. Light streaks behind cars, golf balls in the air, and motion blur behind runners gives the perception of forward motion and it can be easily achieved with the combination of a slow shutter speed and changing your flash setting to 2nd (or Rear) Curtain Sync.

FrontRearSync

The above left is an example of firing the default (1st Curtain) sync setting on your flash in combination with using a slow shutter speed. The above right is an example of using the 2nd (or Rear) Curtain sync setting on your flash in combination with using a slow shutter speed. Both are suitable methods but 2nd Curtain sync usually lends itself to conveying forward motion.

2nd Curtain Mode is sometimes set on the flash only, on the flash and the camera, or on the camera only:

Canon Guide for Changing Flash Sync Speed
Nikon Guide for Changing Flash Sync Speed (See Page 144, “Flash Mode”)
Olympus E Series (Four Thirds) Guide for Changing Flash Sync Speed
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II Guide (See Page 64 – Similar for other OM-D/Pen models)
Sony a7 Series Guide (See Page 25, “Flash Mode”)

When in doubt, look for “Flash Mode” in your camera’s manual.

Photographer with big telephoto

Push/Pull vs Two Touch Lenses: Discover What’s Right for You

Ergonomically, there are two types of zoom lenses: Push/Pull and Two Touch. Most lenses today are Two Touch models where 1 ring controls the zoom while another controls the focus. Push/Pull lenses zoom by physically being pulled forward or back, like a trombone. While some people love the intuitive motion of Push/Pull lenses (push forward to get “closer” and pull back to get “further away”), they are vulnerable to “creep” (pushing and pulling when you don’t want them to or when being carried around) and sometimes suck in dust. Curious to try one? The versatile Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens sports a Push/Pull design. Note that the newer version of this lens does not maintain the Push/Pull function.

Photo camera with tele lens in male hands, close-up

Lighten Your Load with Smaller Aperture Telephotos or Extenders

You may be familiar with the oft-coveted 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, such as the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, but if you aren’t shooting wide open or in dark environments you can save yourself a little back pain (and wallet pain) by going with the f/4 versions. You get the same reach and quality in a smaller package thanks to the smaller maximum aperture, which requires less glass in the build:

Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS (also in non-IS for a little less)
Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR

Consider, also, lens extenders (or teleconverters) which can up to double the reach of your lens. They are small and mount to your camera like a regular lens. Attach your lens onto the extender and you’re set! Keep in mind that extenders reduce your maximum aperture so they are more suitable for use in bright conditions.

• Canon extenders, in both 1.4x and 2x magnification, are compatible with these lenses.
• Nikon teleconverters, in 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2x magnification, are compatible with these lenses.
• Sony A mount teleconverters, in 1.4x and 2x magnification, are compatible with the following:

Sony 70-200mm f/2.8G (AF/MF)
Sony 70-200mm f/2.8G II (AF/MF)
Sony 300mm f/2.8G (AF/MF)
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6G (MF Only)
Sony 500mm f/4G (AF/MF)
Sony 135mm f/2.8 STF (MF Only)

You can also spring for a super telephoto with its own built in extender. The Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS becomes a 280-560mm with just the flip of a switch!

Sports photographer at work in rain

Stay Out All Day with Protected Gear

For almost no added weight you can protect your gear from rain, snow, and dust easily with a rain cover. They are designed specifically for cameras and lenses so they beat using just plastic bags. Having one of these around might be the difference between getting the shot or missing it all to find shelter.

Caucasian girl riding bicycle on street

Bonus Tip: Ways to Show Action with Blur

Fast shutter speeds are what you always hear about when shooting sports. You want to stop your action and to do that you need to shoot at around 1/200th of a second or faster. Sometimes you want to express motion, though, and the only way to show this is by doing the opposite: slowing your shutter speed down and targeting on your subject while panning.

BadGoodPan

This will take a lot of practice and at first your images will just look blurry. With time you will get the hang of tracking your lens alongside a moving subject, nailing focus on them and allowing the rest of the environment to go soft. Learn more about panning here.

healthy lifestyle asian woman running outdoor

Another way to use slow shutters in sports is to zoom your lens into your subject during a long exposure. This is tricky because you must zoom consistently and finish your zoom just before your exposure is finished. You can practice this effect on a stationary subject before advancing to sports. Here is a more detailed guide on the zoom blur technique.

Looking for more tips? You can also visit our shutter speed chart complete with tips and tricks for understanding the components of lighting and exposure to better your sports shots.

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Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. She is a Marketing Coordinator for BorrowLenses.com and also writes for SmugMug. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

4 Comments

  1. If my Al Servo or continuous focus setting using the 70-200 F2.8 lens doesn’t seem to be working as quick as it used to would that be from the Camera or because of something with the lens??? (Night sports shooting) Basic question I’m sure but was wondering… I’m pretty new to this…

    Reply
    • It is in the camera. Be sure you’re set to AI Servo and not AI Focus. AI Focus tracks focus continuously until the subject stops, then locks focus. AI Servo continuously tracks focus and never locks. You might be butting up against the limitations of your camera, depending on the model – especially at night when it is harder to find focus in general.

      Reply
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