Posted by: Bill Shaner | November 16, 2008

Shooting Sports – Part I – The Gear

Photo by Bill Shaner

Photo by Bill Shaner

Do you dream about 400mm f/2.8 lens with incredible glass? Maybe you cringe when your shutter speed drops below 500 for any length of time? Is the first thing you look at when a new camera comes out is it’s FPS followed quickly by the highest ISO settings?!?!

If you answered yes to any of the questions above you are probably a sports shooter. I love shooting sports. It’s probably my favorite thing!

The other day I’m talking with Dave about noise in images and how in my opinion it is preferable to overexpose and have a slower shutter speed then underexpose and shoot faster. In the context of shooting sports photos this is a big deal in my book. At this point he mentioned he had someone in the class he is helping teach that asked for some tips on shooting sports. We both agreed that with my crazy need to shoot sports maybe it was time to do a post on it.

The Basics or What Gear Do I Need?

Lets start with the basics. I assume you are shooting with an SLR. Digital or film these techniques are pretty much the same but lets hope if you’re starting out it is digital. You’re going to fire off a lot of shots and a lot of them are not going to be real good! That’s okay. The good shot to bad ratio is pretty small for even the most seasoned pro. With film you get stingy with your shooting since it costs something to buy the film and get it developed.

I’m not going to get into the Canon vs Nikon war. Both brands have their pro’s and con’s when it comes to sports shooters. From a beginner or casual shooters point of view however they are the same. Admittedly for this post however I’ll probably write more from the Canon side since that’s what I shoot. Nothing personal against Nikon.

The next question is what lens… When most people think of sports shooters they think of this HUGE HONKIN LENS!!! that are this beautiful color of white with little red bands the light cascading off of their fluorite elements… sorry… talk to a sports shooter and they will probably speak about their lens in the same  way they speak of their spouse or kids. It’s a sickness I tell ya!

Well if you are starting out you probably don’t have “fast glass”. Fast glass is basically any lens that shoots f/2.8 or below. These are usually big, white, and have those red bands I was dreaming about in the previous paragraph. They also cost a small fortune! From a beginners standpoint however you may have a reasonably priced zoom lens probably in the f/4 to f/5.6 area. While fast glass is wonderful, what you got will work fine it’s just that you will quickly figure out that if you shoot much sports you will want this fast glass.

Why this obsession with f/stop?
Why am I laboring over f/stop in a beginner sports shooting post?  Well in spots photography you really want to shoot as fast as possible. The wider open the lens is, the more light that comes into the camera, and the faster you can shoot.

If you are shooting on a bright sunny day at the soccer or baseball field you won’t be having too much trouble with shutter speed. On a cloudy day, inside a gym, or a game played late in the day or at night you are going to be frustrated when the fastest you can shoot is 1/60th of a second and your subject is blurry no matter what you do. So the lower the f/stop on your lens the happier you will be. Trust me! Sports photographers with fast lens will still pine over an even faster lens!

The second reason you want the low f/stop is to separate the subject from the background. The lower the f/stop the more depth of field you have so the crowd, other players, and distracting backgrounds fade into the background and the main point of focus is the action! At f/4 to f/5.6 you will get a little of this but not as much as a faster lens. Is good depth of field critical? Probably not at this point but if you shoot sports long enough it will become more important.

Enough of this f/stop stuff how long should the lens be?
Length of lens sort of depends on the sport and how close you can be to the action. I won’t lie and tell you that you don’t need a zoom lens. You can get away with it… sort of. But you will be far happier with more lens length.

Starting off you may have something like a 55-200 or maybe a 100-300. There is a wide range but if you are shooting from the edge of a field or in the stands, having some length sure doesn’t hurt. If you want to spend a little more getting an image stabilized lens is even better. But like all things in photography, the fancier the gear the more it is going to cost.

My suggestion, if you don’t have a zoom lens is to go no shorter then 200mm. Buy the fastest lens you can afford and if you can get image stabilization It really is worth it. The problem is that for zoom lens it seems you go from $250 to well over $1000 real fast.  My best suggestion is before you buy a lens… look in a bunch of forums from Flickr to Fred Miranda (and tons of others) to find out what people are saying about the different lens.

Why you want more lens…
When you don’t have a lot of lens length It is easy to say, “That’s okay… I’ll just crop it tight in my digital editing software” (insert photoshop, paintshop pro, etc… for digital editing software). But cropping a small area from a larger image introduces a lot of its own issues. More grain or noise, softer images, etc…  Here’s a good example. Both are the same shot:

Last Out from 2006 World Series

Last Out from 2006 World Series

An okay shot.. cropping with my editing software in to the players in the center should be perfectly fine right??


Closeup of Adam Wainwright

Closeup of Adam Wainwright

Uhhh no… Not so good. I didn’t do anything to either shot. Just cropped them. The problem becomes even more exaggerated when shooting slower speeds with action. The above shots were shot at 400 iso and a shutter speed of 1/200

“I can’t drop $1000+ on a long lens, what should I do?”
No matter what length of lens you have, the best tip I can give to any sports shooter is to step up! No I’m not talking about gear in this case, but mean step up as close as you can to the action. It really is a tip for just about any type of photography, but especially so for sports. if you’re shooting your kids sporting event step out of the stands and get to the edge of the field or fence. Shooting indoors? Do the same! I guarantee your shots will improve no matter what length lens you have.

The issue for some people with stepping up is usually two things… fear of inadvertently becoming part of the action, or getting yelled at by a coach or referee.

The fear of becoming part of the action is a real one but if you are shooting your kids games chances are pretty good you won’t.  Baseball in my book is the only sport with any real concern as a ball coming off a bat can be pretty fast and hit pretty hard for anything but kids playing tee-ball. Then again In all my years of shooting sports I’ve never been hit.

The bigger concern is getting in trouble with coaches or referees. You have two choices here… Ask and be prepared for the “no” or just do it and ask for forgiveness should someone get upset. For kids, Jr High, and High School I tend to be an ask for forgiveness kind of guy.  College, Pro, and some high school games however you won’t get a choice. To get on the field you need a pass. At that point fast glass helps.

One final note about lens length. If you are shooting in a gym at something like basketball, volleyball, or wrestling if you can get to the floor you don’t necessarily need some huge lens! That 18-55mm lens is probably going to give you some good shots. The best part is it is probably going to be faster then your zoom!

Part II
In part two I’ll write about what settings your camera should have. In Part III Framing the shot and some basic editing tips.


  1. Good stuff. Having a couple of girls in competitive tumbling, I’ve definitely had to deal with some pretty tough lighting situations, and girls flipping is some pretty intense movement. In cases when I have a chance to actually be out on the floor, I’ve actually reverted to pulling out the 50mm1.8 at times. That’s actually worked out pretty decentely. I’m thinking of renting an 85mm1.4 if I get the same situation again. Plus, maybe I’ll convince someone to lend me their D300 🙂

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