Shooting action sports is a lot of fun and can be very rewarding when you get the shot. The idea of this kind of photography is to freeze the point in time where the subject is in the midst of doing something very exciting. This could be a football player catching a pass, a basketball player dunking the ball, a motocross rider taking a jump, a hurdler clearing the bar, etc.. As you can see the list is endless, but the objective is the same. I assume that most of you are not professional photographers and probably shoot family members or friends that belong to local teams. You are probably the ones that will get the most out of this discussion. Those of you that are professionals can probably contribute to the discussion as well as renew some important aspects that you may have forgotten. So what are the considerations you must think about when preparing to catch this moment. That's what will be the focus of this discussion.
Probably the most important consideration to getting the shot you're looking for is that you must understand the sport you are trying to photograph. Most of the great shots taken by sports photographers are accomplished by being able to anticipate what is going to happen. Without understanding the sport you will have a very difficult time knowing what is about to happen and as a result you will not be prepared to take the shot when it occurs. It doesn't matter if you have the best equipment because you will not be able to utilize it without getting the action in the viewfinder.
Equipment is also important, but first we need to talk about light. Every photographer knows that light is the key to any good image. Different lighting will require different approaches. What exactly do I mean? Shooting outdoors at night will require a different approach than shooting outdoors at noon. Shooting indoors will require a different approach than shooting outdoors.
Outdoor soccer on a clear sunny day
Select soccer in Dallas, TXSelect soccer in Dallas, TX
Let's talk about shooting outdoors first. One of the most important aspects of shooting anywhere is if there is the possibility of constantly changing light. For example, if you're shooting at noon in the sun and with no clouds in the sky there's probably not going to be any significant changes in light. You can set your exposure and go with it until something changes. However, if the sky has moving clouds causing the light from the sun to be constantly changing you will have to account for it. In this case, you may want to use one or more of the automatic modes to help. I will typically use Auto White balance (one of the few times I do) and Shutter Priority which allows the Aperture to be set by the camera. This way you don't have to be constantly adjusting the exposure. I used to shoot manual in these situations and found myself either constantly having to update the settings, or getting varied exposures due to the constant changes in the lighting. So what if you're shooting at night? Again, the differences in light have to be considered. As mentioned above the objective is to freeze the action as the subject is doing something very exciting. If you don't use a fast enough shutter speed that's not possible. My objective is to shoot at 1/1000, but many times that's not possible when shooting in low light. When shooting this fast under these conditions you will have to adjust either Aperture or ISO, or both to compensate. You may find that your camera or lens will constrain you from adjusting these enough to get a good exposure. If that's the case you may try shooting slower and/or editing the exposure later. Just be aware that adding light later is never a good option, especially if your original exposure is close to the limits anyway.
Another consideration when shooting at night is the type of lights you are shooting under. My type of night action sports is shooting high school football. I primarily shoot a small private school in Texas that cannot afford a stadium with very nice lighting. It's great for the team, but not so much for the photographers. What I have found is that these lights emit beams of light with the different primary colors. You can't see it with the naked eye, but the camera will pick it up. Therefore, when I shoot a burst I may get a great first frame, then a green color cast on the second frame, then a red color cast on the third frame, then a good frame again. When I slow the shutter down to 1/250 or slower this doesn't occur. However, shooting that slow will not give me the sharpness I need. At first I thought there was a problem with my camera and I sent it to Nikon for repair. Of course, there was nothing wrong and I still have to deal with this. My solution has been to shoot at 1/640 (as slow as I can accept) at f-2.8, and 6400 ISO. I'm shooting with a Nikon D800 so the ISO set that high is pretty acceptable. I still get the color casts and I just deal with them in Lightroom by adjusting the white balance using the graduated density filter. The problem with this method is that it takes time to make the edits. The other solution I use is just to throw out the frames with the color cast. Since I'm shooting a burst there will be those that are exposed properly. The issue is picking the best shot which may be a frame with the color cast. These issues for shooting outdoors still must be considered when shooting indoors, but with a different twist.
Shooting indoors is usually a little easier than shooting outdoors with regard to the lighting conditions. Most of the time the lighting is constant and even. Again, this is not always the case when shooting in primary school gyms. The gym I shoot in does not have a bank of lights on one side of the court. Therefore, I have to consider this when shooting action shots. My approach to compensate for this is to shoot in Shutter Priority mode (like with outdoor shooting on a partly cloudy day) and let the camera determine the Aperture. It usually does pretty good to compensate for the low light conditions on one side of the court. However, unlike the outdoor shooting I don't shoot with Auto White Balance. Instead, I have found that a constant White Balance is the key to consistent color. The lights in this gym seem to be balanced at 3440K and setting the White Balance to this temperature provides me with the best results. Even on the low light side of the court. I also shoot at 6400 ISO to help with the exposure. As you can see, you have to adapt to the situation.
Shooting indoor basketball can be a challenge
Finally, let's talk about equipment. As you may have gleaned from the discussion so far, the equipment entirely depends on the situation. In a nutshell, my recommendation is that you shoot with as long a lens as you can unless you are very close to the action. Football, soccer, NASCAR, Track and Field are just some of the sports where you cannot be close to the action. However, with basketball or volleyball you may be within just a few feet from the subjects and a long lens isn't necessary. There are two primary reasons for suggesting the longer lens. First, is that it puts you right in the middle of the action. By using a long lens you can be safely on the sideline but give the appearance of being in the middle of the action. Second, while you can always crop the image to zoom in on the action, this greatly reduces the quality of the image. A 12 mega pixel image can quickly become a 6 or 7 mega pixel image, thus reducing the sharpness and adding noise. And remember to use a mono pod for the longer lenses. I typically use one for the 300mm and above, but not for the 70-200mm.
Along with the focal length of the lens you should also consider the speed. This is the ability to open the Aperture wide enough to allow more light to enter the camera. This is especially important when shooting in low light. My suggestion is to have a lens that opens no smaller than f-5.6 and f-2.8 would be preferred. Remember the smaller the number the bigger the opening. Anything bigger than f2.8 would probably cause problems with depth of field (the blurriness in front of and behind the subject). Again, this is not as important if you always shoot in good light.
It's amazing what cameras can do now days. The camera is very important as well, but most DSLR's will accomplish what you need as long as the light is good. If the light isn't good but you have a good lens to compensate it can still do a good job. The only other essential aspect you need to consider when there isn't good light is the ISO. Remember the components of a good exposure are Shutter Speed, Aperture (f-stop), and ISO. Probably all DSLR's will be able to handle the required Shutter Speed and as long as you have a good lens, the only other consideration is the ISO. The ability of the camera to produce quality images at a high ISO is always a good thing. This allows you to shoot in most lighting conditions and still be able to use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. This may be one of the limitations you face if you don't have a higher end camera. However, chances are that in the next few years this capability will be added to many of the mid level models as technology continues to grow.
Finally, one of the mantras of good photography is to tell a story with pictures. To make this happen most effectively be sure to shoot what I call peripherals around the action. For example, shoot the crowd, the cheerleaders, the half time, the bench, the coaches, close ups of the coaches talking to the players, the celebration of a great play or a victory, or the agony of defeat. All of this plays a part in telling the story.
So to summarize. The approach for shooting action sports is much like anything else. It depends on the situation. However, my guideline is to shoot with as long of lens as you can (unless you are already close), shoot at about 1/1000 or as fast as you can to freeze action, don't be afraid to shoot at high ISO's, shoot in Shutter Priority, and shoot the peripherals to tell the story. Keep these guidelines in mind and then adjust for the situation.
Hope this was helpful. Happy shooting.