Photographing sports can be challenging for the beginning photographer. A couple of different approaches can be used to help get great images. In An 18% Grey World I wrote a bit about how the camera makes the decisions it makes, if you have not read that post yet it would be good to look over it now. When approaching sports photography there are three different approaches you can use.
Your first option is full automatic letting the camera make all the decisions on exposure. If your camera does not have a sports setting in its full auto array this tends to be the worst of the three options. Even in bright sun the camera will operate with lower shutter speeds so that it can keep the ISO low and the Aperture high giving the camera the biggest depth of field. In general full auto will always have motion blur, a lot of motion blur as it will keep your shutter between 1/60th and 1/250th of a second. The sports setting, if your camera has it, will help do a better job as it will tell the camera to try and keep the shutter at 1/250th or higher, greatly reducing the amount of motion blur. This will be your best option if you are using a point and shoot camera.
The next option is to use shutter priority or Time Value. Many photographers recommend this approach as the camera tries to maintain your preferred shutter while still judging exposure. It is important to remember that while you set the shutter this is still an automatic setting for the camera, many cameras will only give preference to the shutter speed you have selected. This means that while you may have told the camera you want a 1/500th shutter it may drop you to 1/60th if the meter tells the camera it is 3 stops under exposed, this can be very problematic especially if the camera is spot metering the scene, but even in evaluative metering the camera can still drag your shutter speed down to far for shooting sports. Some cameras allow you to turn off the Safety Shift or switch it to shifting the ISO to prevent the camera dragging the shutter.
My preferred option is shooting in full manual mode, this insures that I can keep the shutter speed high enough to capture the motion the way I want to show it. There is a bit more work associated with shooting this way if you are shooting in a changing light environment. However unless your subject is moving in and out of bright sun and extremely harsh shadows the change in exposure will only be a couple of stops. The other time you can see a big shift in light is when photographing a game that starts before sunset and continues into the night. In this latter case the exposure shift is much more gradual and is easy to compensate for as long as you pay attention to your shooting conditions.
A brief run down of how I approach this shooting situation. If I am shooting sports in daylight I set the camera to f8 ISO 800. In bright sun this allows me a shutter speed of 1/1600th (Sunny 16) certainly fast enough for hand holding the camera at any focal length and freezing most action. Even if clouds are moving in and out from in front of the sun I can shift two stops in the shutter and still maintain a shutter speed of 1/400th Again this will allow me to hand hold a telephoto lens and still freeze most of the action. When shooting at night I set the camera (EOS 7D) to ISO 6400 and the shutter to 1/500th with the aperture set to the maximum aperture for the lens at its longest focal length. Many lenses have a variable aperture which will be something like f3.5-5.6. For this kind of lens I would set the Aperture to 5.6.
A few other things to keep in mind.
- Blur becomes much more apparent the longer the lens you use. If you are shooting with an 800mm lens then the motion blur of your subject will become more apparent and you will need a faster shutter to get tack sharp images.
- The same holds true for camera shake. As a general rule to eliminate camera shake the shutter speeds needs to be equal to or faster then your lens length. A 60mm lens can be hand held at 1/60th of a second, an 800mm lens can be hand held at 1/800th. An image stabilized lens will generally get you one stop of shutter speed, meaning an 800mm IS lens could be hand held at 1/400th.
- Post production of RAW images can recover 3 or more stops in your image provided you don’t have blown highlights. What this means for shooting sports at night is you can recover a lot from what the camera considers under exposed. As long as you do not have an extreme amount of clipping in your shadows shoot the faster shutter speeds to eliminate blur and bring the images back in post.
- If you can not shoot in RAW set the camera’s auto-light optimization to high and it will do the same thing for you by recovering shadows as it saves the image to Jpeg, allowing you to favor shutter over “correct” exposure.
* This post is written using the terms Canon uses, most manufactures have these options though sometimes under a different name.