by Claire Binder
How do I take better action pictures? As a sports photographer I get this asked a lot. If you take blurry, low quality or more generally boring pictures, sometimes it’s because you trusted the auto mode of your camera. Here are a few hints to get better ones.
Gear Does Matter
Let’s get the obvious out of the Way and things you probably don’t want to hear!
If you are really serious about better sports, dance, wildlife or action pictures, be prepared to spend a fortune on a camera body, fast expensive lenses, a monopod and more. Make sure to set some money aside to get your back fixed after hauling all that heavy gear.
For this article I borrowed a few different cameras, from pro gear to consumer entry level. There are huge differences in quality, ease of use and obviously price. The cheapest one was a Sony DSC-HX200, the perfect entry level bridge with a 27-810mm zoom, I also used the Sony DSC-HX90, the even smaller “pocket” camera. On the expensive side. I tried the Canon EOS-1D X Mk II and the Nikon D5 and D3. To round this up, my own cameras are the Sony Alpha a99 and a99 II, the Sony DSC-RX100M2 for my travel and finally an analog 6×7 medium format Mamiya camera.
Practice, practice and practice some more. Be prepared, know what you are shooting, light conditions, restrictions, etc.
Settings: Shutter Speed and Focus
Let’s get to the actual things you can do with any camera or even phone.
Watch your shutter speed. Cameras now have great auto modes, but 1/10s will not create an amazing picture … most of the time. The same goes for high ISO, by the way.
Focusing can be tricky.
Before we talk focus we need to talk about available light. To stop any action or even still pictures in museums, the light is usually limited. You will need a fast lens, ideally with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 and a fast zoom. if this is not the case, don’t despair but things can be a little more difficult.
On the entry level cameras you can try to use the object tracking feature. I found that I get the best results with the central focus point. Yes, the subject will be dead center and also a lot more likely in focus. On pro cameras you can use the other focal points, but even the best lens and body will work better when using the central focus point. When I shoot sports, I like to pre focus at a certain distance and wait for the action to happen there. This is also what I use for my remote cameras and the Mamiya, where you can have a cup of tea while focusing.
Know Your Location And Subject
Are you shooting through glass or even worse, a net or tight fence? Get as close as you safely can and are allowed to. Be mindful of the other spectators, if there any. If you are there for somebody or something special, chances are you could ruin somebody else’s experience. If possible, find the best light and contrast to help your camera. Shooting players, dancers with the ground or neutral background is easier than with all the fans or a cluttered background. Keep it simple and zoom in into the action.
Use Manual Mode
Call me a control freak. I know these cameras are incredibly smart but I shoot in full manual mode 99% of the time. Whenever I try auto ISO, shutter or aperture priority, I am never happy with the results. My gut feeling, not supported by evidence is that I miss more shots.
Assuming that you have a typical zoom lens with an aperture from 3.5 to 5.6 or 6.5, ideally you want to get in tight. However, this will increase the number of bad pictures due to the lower light challenges for the AF system. Take wider shots and the rate of good pictures will increase. You can crop the images on the computer later. You may get away with the smaller apertures in broad daylight.
Know When To Put The Camera Down
Know when to put the camera down. If you are sitting in row 52 of the game, your cell phone or even a DSLR (if they let you keep it) won’t create any great photos. The same goes for your kids when you are in row 10 with other parents around. Drop the camera, enjoy the night and, if somebody did take photos, buy them or offer to take pictures for others. I have stopped counting the number of times fans ask me to take the pictures with their phone when I use my DSLR with high ISO, great lens and an external flash.
The last advice has nothing to do with camera settings or techniques. Take a lot of photos and be very selective about what you show people. Culling and editing is an important skill. You may be emotionally attached to a photo, but if it’s not sharp or does not tell a story on its own, it has to go. At least, don’t show it to everybody. Limit what you show to your best photos. I don’t need to see you 300 holiday snapshots. When we travel for 2-3 weeks the rule is that only 70-100 will make it into the pictures we show. Yes we keep more for our own memory but they are not shared. We usually start with 5,000+ pictures.
I have included some sample pictures to show you what is possible with the gear you have at hand. Recently at a wedding somebody with an entry level DSLR was drooling over my gear and said he needed better gear. I did take out my Sony RX-100 and shot a few pictures. When I showed the result, the answer was “Now I really hate you, because it means I have to practice and understand what I do”
For a 2 day Trip I would say 5-10 pictures is great turnout and this assumes I was in Paris, Rome Venice or other places where there is a photo opportunity around every corner.
About the Author
Claire Binder is an Official Team photographer for the Geneva Ice Hockey, Football and since 2013 also for the Rugby team since 2015. She also covered World Cup qualifying or preparation games. Highlights include: Brazil-Italy and Spain-Chile. Besides the game, her task list usually includes the fans and behind the scene pictures. Player portraits, events and other non game activities are part of what she covers. Her pictures get published on a weekly basis on the game programs, the web sites and are made available to the fans and journalists.
See more of her work at Claire Emotions.