Freezing the Action - Sports Photography

October 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Taekwondo is a fast paced, dynamic sport. Even at lower ability levels kicks are very quick and liable to lots of blur if you don't have a plan to freeze the action.

 

I use two ways of freezing the action. The first and obvious one is a fast shutter speed. The second and less obvious to some is flash! It's not always possible to use flash, at a tournament for example, but for staged sports shots or during training it can be very effective.

 

So shutter speed first. Obviously it will need to be fast. A fast shutter speed gives the subject less time to move and thus sharper, less blurred pictures. For me I find on a full frame camera I use 1/800 to 1/1000 of a second. For some of the slower fighters and kids this can be dropped to 1/500, but never below. The really fast guys will be quicker than 1/1000 even. Outside in the daylight that might be easy, but a lot of sports are played in poor lighting as far as cameras are concerned. So you'll need to let in as much light as possible. I have lenses with fixed f2.8 aperture across the zoom range (standard 24-70 and 70-200, both Tamron, both excellent!) At f2.8 I find keeping both fighters in focus tricky. I tend to stop down to as close to f4 as I can get. How close is that, well that's down to the ISO and how nice your grain looks. On the Nikon D3s I use for sport it actually looks lovely. Not like noise, as I say more grainy. So on the D3s I will comfortably go up to 5000 ISO. This can be set manually, but with the fast changing light and different angles I require at short notice it's not the best way for me. For example at a tournament there are often numerous rings with fights all occurring simultaneously. I will be pointing my camera away from a window one moment and towards it the next. So I find the best way is to use Auto-ISO. Ahhhh auto mode! Honestly it makes sense to me. I set my shutter speed as required for stopping blur, aperture for the the most light possible whilst keeping the required subjects in focus and then let Auto-ISO take care of the exposure. I tend to have my camera set to underexpose by a third of a stop at least as this forces the camera to chose a lower ISO often, then detail can be brought out in the shadows if required in Lightroom. I will also set the max ISO limit to that which I'm comfortable with the quality. If you are not as lucky to be shooting with a great camera like the D3s then maybe that ISO maximum would be less for acceptable quality. At which point you may need to open the aperture a little or slow the shutter speed at the expense of focus and sharpness or accept a little more noise. It will just take some tinkering around those settings to find what works with your camera.

 

If you don't have a fancy sports full frame camera and you do have a situation where you can use flash then this is another way to freeze action.

 

Quick flash explanation - when a flash fires the duration the bulb is on and giving off light is extremely short. Approximately 1/10,000 of a second depending on the power. The lower power you can keep it the better as the flash duration increases with power. If you can keep the power low this is much faster than the fastest shutter speed on the camera. So the theory is if the only light hitting the sensor is that fired from the flash no ambient light, then you will be capturing a picture with the equivalent shutter speed of 1/10,000 with great lighting! The rest of the time the shutter is open the sensor will severely underexpose so effectively be in darkness.

 

The way to do this is to first make sure you are underexposing the ambient light to black. Turn on the camera, turn OFF the flash. Then take a picture at your fastest flash sync speed. Usually around 1/200 to 1/300 depending on the camera. Check your manuals. Set your ISO to the lowest native setting possible and take a picture and it should be hopefully very close to black or ideally totally black. This means without the flash firing you are going to get no picture, but also no blur! 😜 Now switch on the flash, I only have a manual flash, but TTL would probably work similarly. I work my way up the flash power from about half power until the subject is correctly exposed. Aperture settings are normally more like f5.6 to f8 for nice sharp shots or lower if going for a little more artsy. So in this case ISO, shutter speed and aperture are basically fixed as required and flash power adjusted to correctly expose. It takes some practice with directing the flash head depending on the shape of the room, but again starting around these settings will work. The benefit of this is the control of light and ISO so even cameras that struggle in low light can be used effectively.

 

So that's lighting and exposure sorted, now the tricky part - focusing! Fairly obviously continuous focus is preferable here. I use 9 point area mode giving me the opportunity to move the focus point, but have the aid of some area tracking. I also use back button focus. This can be set in most camera settings menus and allows me to trigger the shutter without changing focus. Meaning you can fire off some shots without having the lens hunt if you are happy with the focus, making you more likely to get the shot. This can be useful with fast moving subjects. It's all too easy to focus on the subject one minute then the background the next so I tend to focus in bursts making sure that I have my point over the subject for focusing, slight recompose then take a few pictures then as they move do it again.... aim, focus, aim, shoot....rinse and repeat. I've tried holding the back button focus down during the whole process and find it misses more shots that way than the burst method. Plus the composition may not be desirable if you are limited by the locations of your focus points. What works best will depend a lot on how close you are to the subject and how much they move. Also chose release priority for your continuous focusing mode. This means the shot doesn't have to be in focus to take a picture. Obviously you don't want that to be the case, but better to catch a slightly out of focus knockout or goal than no shot at all!

 

Now just some little tips I've found too.

 

Try and hold the camera level! It's very easy with fast moving action to prioritise getting the shot at the expense of basics like this, but when you are editing a few hundred photos trying to straighten them up manually as Lightroom got itself confused about which way is up, you'll be wishing you had made an effort here.

 

Cropping can be useful. Don't zoom too much and cut off part of the shot. In sports it is fairly common to crop in on a subject so make sure you get it all. Do bear in mind that the size of the photo will be reduced with this method, thus large prints may not be possible anymore. If it's mainly for Web then this is not a problem.

 

Look around. Not all sports action is on the floor/ring/field. When there's a lull in activity or whenever you are happy you have the action shot look at the crowd, the coaches, close-ups of trophies or gear. Switch back to a nice shallow depth of field for a portrait. I tend to use my 70-200 then in-between rounds zoom in and shoot f2.8 and 1/200 for some nice portraits of the fighters and coaches together. It's these additional shots that help complete the story.

 

Lastly, but most importantly, don't be afraid to give it a go at your local club or reach out if you don't have one. Most clubs want nice pictures and you should be able to sort a deal out.

 

Oh really last thing, be sure that you and/or the club have photography waivers signed by parents and participants. In most tournaments, this will be in the entry form, but for practices and other less formal events it may be necessary to sort something out if the club don't already have these.

 

I hope this helps.

Please check out my other tips, tricks and how to guides!


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A few articles that will hopefully come in handy relating to photography, tech and/or anything else I have found useful along the way.  I hope to be writing more articles, particularly with my journey learning Photoshop.  Check back soon for updated posts and please get in touch with feedback, suggestions or just to say hello!

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