Sports Photography: The Camera
Last time we focused on what is probably the most important piece of equipment in sports photography: the lens. Now we’re going to take a look at the second-most important thing: the camera body itself. While the best camera in the world can only record what the lens shows it, you still need a certain minimum level of performance from your camera to be able to reliably catch the action.
Let’s start with autofocus. Just about every camera made in the last 20 years (and certainly every digital camera) has some sort of autofocus system. Not all autofocus systems are created equal, however. Some are faster and more precise than others. In general, a camera that has multiple focusing points is what we want for sports photography. These focusing points are the areas in the viewfinder that the camera uses to try and create a sharp image of your subject. These are the little rectangles that show up in the viewfinder of your camera and that light up when the camera has focused on something. Having more focusing points is helpful because the camera can follow a moving subject more easily. Fortunately, many modern cameras come with more points than we could ever need.
There are two ways that a camera can use its focusing system. The names tend to change depending on the manufacturer, but they all do the same thing. The standard AF mode that every camera has is known as single-shot. In this mode, when you press the shutter button down half-way and hold it, the camera will focus on your subject and lock focus at that distance. As long as you’re still pressing the button halfway the focus will not change. This is ideal for a lot of different types of photography, such as portraits, but not very helpful when we’re trying to shoot something that’s moving.
The second mode is continuous autofocus. In the past, this mode was reserved to higher-level SLR cameras. Now, every DSLR and many point-and-shoot cameras have it. This mode is designed to track a moving subject. If the shutter button is pressed halfway, the camera will constantly adjust the focus to track a moving subject. This is perfect for what we’re trying to do! This is also where all those pretty focusing points in the viewfinder come in handy. The camera is able to switch from point to point as the subject moves around in the frame.
So now that we have our equipment, what do we do with it? When shooting sports photography, speed matters. We need to be able to freeze the action so that our subject is nice and sharp. Unfortunately that’s not always easy to do when we’re dealing with people running around at full speed, is it? To make sure that the subject doesn’t blur, we need to have a high shutter speed. This setting determines the actual length of the exposure, or how long the camera takes to take the photo. The less time it takes, the more it will freeze the action.
Exactly how fast the shutter speed needs to be will change depending on what you’re shooting. If you’re taking photos of your 5-year-old learning to skate, then you don’t need to worry too much about getting the fastest speed possible. If you’re shooting F1 cars, however, then you need whatever you can get because those cars are going REALLY fast! You’ll need to experiment a bit to see what your minimum requirements are, but as a guideline I can tell you that if I’m able to get 1/400 of a second as my shutter speed when shooting basketball then I’m happy.
Now, getting that fast shutter speed is easier said than done depending on the lighting conditions you’re working with. A faster shutter speed means the camera has less time to capture the amount of light it needs to get a proper exposure. In my last post, we learned that one way to make sure we have more light is to use a brighter lens. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will help us get a faster shutter speed than a lens that only opens to f/5.6 because it lets in a lot more light (four times more, to be precise). If there is more light coming in through the lens, the camera won’t need as much time to record the photo and we can use a faster shutter speed.
There is one more variable that we can adjust to try and get the highest shutter speed possible: the ISO. This setting adjusts the light sensitivity of the camera. When you have questionable lighting, you can raise your ISO setting to tell the camera to be more sensitive to light. This will help you get a faster shutter speed, but there are limits. If you start to raise the ISO too much, the photos will start to display digital noise. Noise in your photos will look very grainy.
This is where newer and higher-end cameras start to really set themselves apart from lower-level and older camera models. Two of the features on higher-level bodies are a more advanced sensor and better processor that allow the camera to shoot as higher ISO values but with less noise. Because every camera is different, the best thing to do to determine just how much you can push your camera is to take some test shots. Take a few photos of the same thing but at different ISO settings to see how high you can go while before the quality becomes too low for the shots to be acceptable.
Modern cameras all offer the option of having the camera take multiple photos while the shutter button is held down. This is something that we as sports photography enthusiasts should take advantage of as much as possible. Trust me, it’s incredibly hard to get the shot you want when you only press the button once. This is another area where some cameras stand out from others.
Most DSLR cameras can shoot at least 4 frames per second, and they will take the shot almost instantly. If you aren’t sure how to set it, you can always just turn the mode dial on your camera to the Sports Photography mode. Just look for the symbol of the person running (pretty obvious, right?). Point-and-shoot cameras all have a bit of a lag between when you press the button and when they take the shot. Even if they are capable of firing off several shots per second there’s a good chance they won’t start shooting when you want them to.
So what have we learned?
While the lens is the most important piece of the equipment equation, for sports photography the body isn’t far behind. Having a reliable continuous autofocus system will certainly help you get sharp images because it can track the action well. A high frame rate will also ensure than you get a good selection of images to work with. It’s also important to keep track of your ISO setting. You don’t want it to be too high. If it is then you may end up with images that are really sharp and full of grain!